I came across this beautiful article on a website called Nature Play. It completely changed how I saw the role of play in a child’s life.

Schemas in Children’s Play

Written by Clare Caro

Schemas in Children’s Play are such an important concept when it comes to the development of our children that it’s worth taking the time to understand them so you can facilitate them when you see them.

What are these schemas?

Well, it’s really a fancy word for the urges that children have to do things like climb, throw things and hide in small places.

They appear through play; perhaps it is the way they choose to do things, or what they desperately need to do out of the blue!

Here are ten of these natural play-urges mapped out in a list, they can come one at a time, in bunches, some are super strong and last for ages… each child is different.

10 Schemas in Children’s Play

They are the building blocks for the brain, repeated behavior that in turn forge connections in the brain, patterns of unfolding, learning, and growth.

Schemas are such an important part in every child’s development that they are covered in training for anyone in the business of care and education of young children – yet not too many parents seem to know about these natural, uncontrollable and totally necessary play-urges that all children have.

Knowing about these play-urges can help us to understand why our children are so determined to do certain things that we might not understand. If we have no idea about the way in which a child exhibits signs of brain development, then we might actually think that the child is being ‘difficult’ or even try to stop the developmental urges themselves.

By knowing about these schemas we can recognize and support their urges and development.


Photo credit: Nature Play

Photo credit: Nature Play

The urge to hang upside down, get the view from under the table or on top of the dresser and other actions that are part of the Orientation schema.
In order to ‘know’ what it is like to hang upside down or see things from a different point of view, you must take yourself into those positions. Although you and I might not hang upside down very often these days, we still ‘know’ what it feels like to hang upside down – because we have the experience – we learned what it was to hang upside down when we too had our Orientation urge kick in.


Photo credit: Nature Play

Photo credit: Nature Play

Do you find yourself Positioning things neatly into alignment on your desk, ordering the books on the self, getting creative when you plate the dinner or even just tidying-up. Perhaps you see your child lining up their cars, making sure the whale is next to the cow or turning all the cups upside down?
The Positioning is a schema that is kept alive in us all.


Photo credit: Nature Play

Photo credit: Nature Play

Joining train tracks, clicking together pieces of lego, running a string from one thing to another… the urge of Connection.
This can mean connecting and disconnecting too, building followed by destruction, and that can mean other peoples buildings and sandcastles get destructed when the urge gets hold.


Photo credit: Pixaby

Photo credit: Pixaby

The urge to throw, drop and other actions that are all part of the Trajectory schema. Some other Trajectory actions are things like climbing up and jumping off (Trajectory of one’s own body), putting your hand under running water (interacting with things that are already moving) and the classic, throwing and dropping (making it happen). It can be diagonal, vertical or horizontal. This is a multi-dimensional urge after all learning is based on movement in the first years of life.


Photo credit: Nature Play

Photo credit: Nature Play

The urge to fill up cups with water, climb into cardboard boxes or kitchen draws, build fences for the animals or to put all the animals inside the circular train track, it is the Enclosure/Container schema.


Photo credit: Pixaby

Photo credit: Pixaby

Transporting can be the urge to carry many things on your hands at one time, in jars, in buckets and baskets, or even better containers with wheels.


Photo credit: Nature Play

Photo credit: Nature Play

A sheet over your head, wrapping things in fabrics or with tape and paper. All these actions are seen in the Enveloping schema. An extension of this is peek-a-boo, now you see it now you don’t, a concept that just keeps on amusing.


Photo credit: Nature Play

Photo credit: Nature Play

Anything that goes around anything that is circular. Wheels, turning lids, watching the washing machine on spin cycle, drawing circles, spinning around on the spot, being swung around. These are all experiences of the Rotation schema.


Picture credit: Pixaby

Picture credit: Pixaby

The urge to Transform can come in many forms. E.g., holding all your food in your mouth for a long time to see what it turns into, mixing your juice with your fish pie, water with dirt, or helping Granny with mixing the bread dough.

It’s only natural that once you have explored and learned about a raw material you should want to do further testing… there is a scientist and a chef in everyone.

Bringing It All Together

Looking at each schema individually will help us understand each ‘urge.’ We may already be able to recognize some of the different ways they can appear in your child.

Rotation, Trajectory, Enveloping, Orientation, Positioning, Connection, Enclosure/Container, Transporting and Transformation are urges that show in all children. They start showing as early as their first birthday, sometimes before.

How Can Knowing About These Urges Help Us?

As a parent, one of the best things about having an understanding of these urges. We can then recognize and support them in our children as soon as we see them.

Sometimes they will come through as what we might once have seen as ‘inappropriate behavior.’ This includes behavior like throwing objects in enclosed spaces or climbing on the table.

When we observe the behavior and recognize the urge we are able to redirect it, your child will be happy to throw something outside where it is okay, or climb a tree instead! Its not about the action, its about the urge.

If the action is dangerous, harmful or inappropriate then find a more suitable outlet for the urge. That way the energy seeking expression (the urge) can fulfill its role in your child’s development, and in an acceptable way.

This article was originally published in Nature Play and is reproduced here with permission. You can read the original article here. 

Cover photo image credit: Flickr

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