The Power of Schematic Play

Schematic play is fascinating to watch and can be a very informative way of analysing children’s thinking.

I have written previously about the mixed feelings some practitioners have about schemas – find the blog post here – but schematic play is now identified in the EYFS and can be a powerful learning process for young children. For this reason, I’m going to focus on one very typical type of schematic play – Transporting.

Let’s start a the beginning though. Athey (2007) defines schema as ‘patterns of behaviour and thinking in children that exist underneath the surface feature of various contents, contexts and specific experience’ (page 5).

So when you are looking out for a particular schema, you must observe children’s behaviour and see if that behaviour is repeated in many different areas of play, such as drawings, physical activities, 3D modelling, role play and sand play.

Using the Transporting schema as an example, do you see the children:

  • Moving things from one place to another, in bags, buggies, trucks or just carrying toys with them
  • Use different containers in their play – shopping bags, buckets, tins, baskets, purses, scoops, trays.
  • Enjoy playing bikes to transport toys and friends, diggers in the sand or soil
  • Have high levels of involvement with activities such as packing up a picnic to go somewhere, playing at being a postman, milkman or truck driver

As children develop their skills and their thinking progresses, you are likely to see the following stages:

  • Sensory motor – this is physically playing with the toys, transporting around the setting
  • Symbolic – using something standing for something else, for example wooden blocks being parcels for the postman to deliver
  • Functional dependency – what if I do this…? Experimentation with different toys and combinations, such as piling a higher and higher tower of blocks in the pram to see how many they can carry
  • Abstract thought – the children can explain and expand to someone else verbally their actions and thoughts about the schematic play

Children with different schematic play will be learning different things through their play.

Those children who are investigating transporting will be learning about things such as capacity (how many things can we fit in this container?), weight, size and interlocking shapes. They may well be learning about cooperation as their friends share the load or accept lifts on the back of the tricycles. This is all through their self-motivated schematic play, so is deep level learning with high levels of involvement.

Transporting is only one of many schemas that Chris Athey identified, and further research by others, such as Dr Cath Arnold, have extended this again. You may never see some of these schemas, but you are very likely to see transporting, enveloping, enclosing and trajectory schemas.

You can use this intrinsically motivated, deep level learning in planning for the children by including suitable activities. This also personalises the planning, because you are planning for the needs of the unique child.

You can be certain that you are providing the correct resources to meet the children’s learning needs and interests.

All in all, being able to identify and understand schematic play can be a very powerful way of helping your children to make progress in their learning and development.

My new online Schema Short Course explores in detail the nine most common schema, how to recognise them, the types of activities that support them and the learning opportunities these give children. This will help you to personalise your provision for children’s interests, make your planning quicker and easier as well as help you understand children’s thinking processes. Find out more here. 


Athey, C. (2007) Extending Thought in Young Children (2nd Ed) London: PCP

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1 Comment
  • Cleo grouios May 30,2017 at 10:21 pm

    Would like more information on schematic play and schemes

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