Schema at work, children at play - An introduction to schema

Learning about schema in children’s play was a game changer for me working in the early years profession. When you have more of an insight into why children do what they do whilst at play, it means you can better meet their individual needs. Children who have their needs met are more content and settled, happier and thrive in all areas of development relevant to their abilities and capabilities.

What is a schema?

Chris Athey (1924-2011) a leading pioneer in the understanding of schemas described them as “patterns of repeatable actions that lead to early categories and then to logical classifications”. Whereas, Professor Cathy Nutbrown’s definition of a schema as a “pattern of behaviour which has a consistent thread running through it”.

My own personal understanding and interpretation of schema is that it is an action which is repeated and expressed through several different types of play by an individual child. A child expressing a schema is instinctively in the most natural form of play available to them. It is as if they must do it in order to move through this specific pattern, which sometimes leads on to another schema, several at the same time or no more. Not all children show schema in their play, whereas some may have many – either way, there is no need to be alarmed. It is just their brain exploring ways to achieve the same patterns in play and making connections between what they already know and what they are learning now. This is known as the zone of proximal development (Lev Vygotsky 1896-1934). More about this delight on another occasion.

There are many names to identify types of schema and as the research into schematic play of children has developed, so have the number of schema being classified. However, once you reach around 25, you are potentially then describing a schema already known, but in a different way.

The most commonly known names for different types of schema are;





Core and radials















Chris Athey (Athey, 2007 :63) also identified several different elements in mark making and 'space' categories, for example:

Proximity between marks

Vertical order of elements

Horizontal order of elements

Grid order within an enclosure

Grid order inside or outside a figure

Proximity but no order

Vertical order between figures

Horizontal order between figures

Grid order between figures

'In front' or 'behind'

Figures in different positions

In this blog, I will explore one type of schema to give you an insight into what it may look like in action and will explore further schema in future series.

Seriation schema

A child with a seriation schema will sort objects by one characteristic such as type, colour, size, shape etc. Seriation is about order and categorising objects. Some children will sort by one characteristic only whilst others will change between them or even try and sort by two different characteristics at the same time. Seriation schema is relatively common and something we naturally encourage to some degree in the activities we provide as this is closely linked with the skills required in early mathematical understanding and development. However, if you notice that a child appears to be ‘bringing order’ to several different types of activity they could likely have a seriation schema.

The following are just a few examples of seriation schema in action (but also bear in mind that there is always a possible overlap with another schema):

· Enjoys stacking or lining up activities in size order.

· Sorts objects such as pencil crayons by colour.

· Lines up cars in order of colour, type or size.

· Collects items from various activities of the same feature – e.g. all the green items.

· Sorts building blocks into size or colour order

To support a child with a seriation schema you should provide as many opportunities to ‘sort and order’ as possible. This should include lots of the same things such as spoons or cups of various size, colour and medium with several of each category.

To expand a seriation schema further you could add different shades of a colour to give more depth and understanding of the category.

These activities from Myriad natural toys and crafts are good examples of activities which will support a seriation schema. However, it is not essential to purchase expensive products – lots of everyday things can be sorted e.g. pegs, socks, cutlery, crayons, empty boxes.

In addition, the Montessori method will also offer opportunities for seriation schema.


If my child has a schema, does it mean they are on the autistic spectrum?

Whilst there can be some similarities between schema in play and the obsessive behaviours expressed by children on the autistic spectrum, they are not the same. Schemas in play are beneficial to the learning and development of the child, as they build upon their knowledge they will move through and past the schema in their own time but usually by the age of around 5 (approximately). Children who express obsessive behaviours as a result of autism will usually do this for the long-term. If you have any concerns, you should always speak with your health visitor or GP. Making recordings of your child at play and sharing this with them will help.

Are schema linked to OCD in adulthood?

During my own study days, I recall discussing in class how schema in childhood play can appear similar to OCD behaviours in some neurotypical adults. To date, I am not aware of any research into this but the feeling in my group at the time was that if a child does not have opportunity to work through a schema when they are young, this could result in an OCD behaviour as an adult. An interesting perspective which could also be why I have a form of seriation schema with the organisation of my kitchen cupboards!

Is Schema Therapy the same as schema in play?

In a nutshell – no. Schema therapy or schema focused cognitive behaviour therapy is an approach to treatment for clients with long term negative patterns in their thought processes.

How can I support my child to work through a schema?

In years gone by, it was thought that children should be distracted from what was seen as obsessive behaviours in play. New thinking and research suggest that we should in fact, feed the schema with more of the same. This will allow the child more opportunity to explore, experiment and expand their knowledge further and to make sense of the experiences. In order to do this, you should provide open ended resources relevant to their schema. After observing them at play for a while, add more resources to expand their experiences further and scaffold their learning. I have always been a lover of open-ended (and natural) resources – this means, resources which can be used in any way, for anything. The child can use their imagination and use the resource to meet their current learning needs. So many of todays ‘toys’ are based on a right or wrong way or end-result focused. Process not product is key – this is where the child learns, this is where they form connections in the brain, and this is where they learn to link thoughts together. How many times have you heard someone say they brought a child a present but they preferred the box?

Supporting children during schema play means you can also assist them to develop language and communication skills. This does not mean, intruding in their play or questioning constantly but by taking a different approach called descriptive commentaryyou will give them opportunity to hear and understand new words and ways of thinking and they will earn that their actions are having a reaction in what you are saying. Descriptive commentary is sitting alongside a child and talking about what they are doing, out loud. You are not talking to them as such, but just talking loud enough for them to hear. For example “Sammy is closing the lid with his hands, now he is picking the box up and he has put it in the car”.

The following are examples of how you can provide open ended resources in sessional play.

· Treasure baskets for children aged 0-18m approx

· Heuristic play for children from 18m – 3 approx

· Loose parts – 3 years plus approx

Not sure what these are? Keep a look out for my future blog!

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