Schemas: play and your toddler

by Heather Welford. Developmental psychologists call certain sets of play behaviours 'schemas'.

parents and toddler


Young children need plenty of opportunity to play each day - it's how they learn about the world and the way it works.

Children learn through exploratory play - which they can direct themselves without adults or older children telling them how to play and what to do.

You may notice, once you really start looking, that your toddler seems driven to repeat some types of play over and over again in different ways - and then they move on to something else.

Developmental psychologists call these sets of play behaviours 'schemas' (pronounced 'skaymas'). Your child won't realise it, of course, but they are 'fixing' their learning when they persist in some types of play.

They may have one or more schemas going on in their life for a while - then you may notice that they no longer do the same things and have made something else their new focus.

How CBeebies can help

Browse the 'Play Games' section on the Cbeebies website. See if you can see connections between selected games and something that's of interest to your toddler at the moment - something that 'speaks' to his current schema.

For example, if your child is into jigsaws and play involving sequencing, take a look at some of the puzzle games where you have to slot pieces together or create sequences.The Koala Brothers Patchwork Game might appeal, or you could show them the Little Robots Dominoes game or the Numberjacks Shape Japer Dominoes activity.

Extra information

There are several different schemas. Some are quite easy to identify once you start thinking about it. You don't just see them when your toddler is obviously playing - they'll emerge at any time in their behaviour.

Here are some of the main ones:

Trajectory - throwing play or throwing generally; kicking balls; pouring water in the bath; climbing up and down furniture.

Connection - jigsaws, fit-together train sets; building blocks; play involving sequencing.

Rotation - anything with wheels; roundabouts in playgrounds; playing roly-poly on the sand or grass.

Enveloping - hiding under a towel or hiding you under the towel; wrapping up parcels; layering dolls or other objects with fabric.

Enclosure - filling and emptying containers; climbing into large boxes; filling up cups and other containers with water.

Transporting - putting items into wheeled toys and pushing; carrying sand or pebbles in a truck from one place to another; toy cars and trains.

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Top tips

  • Don't direct your child's play but wait and watch and reflect.If you join in, take their lead rather than making suggestions all the time.Provide different materials and items for your toddler. For example, give a child who's focused on enclosure a set of differently-sized plastic cups or cardboard boxes to play with.Some items are used in different schemas - e.g. bags and boxes are used for transporting and for enclosing; connecting toys like trains and trucks may also appeal to a child exploring a rotation schema.

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