Schemas: Making Sense Of Play

What Are Schemas?

"Schemas are a way of talking and thinking about patterns in children's thinking and play that help us understand our children's passions better." Susan Harper, Playcentre Journal, Issue 121, Spring 2004.

Often, as adults, we are bewildered or even irritated by seemingly obsessive behaviour in children's play. For example, a boy's insistence on burying marbles in the garden over and over and over again. It doesn't make sense to us.

But when we look a little bit closer, when we pay attention, we begin to see he is testing an idea, exploring and engaging with his environment. This isn't a thoughtless, obsessive act; it is a deliberate one, an act of learning through play.

Schemas teach us that this kind of intensely focused, repetitive play is meaningful. They also give us a framework for engaging with children, to help them maximise their learning.

How Do I Spot Them?

Some schemas are easier to spot than others. Here are three ways to identify a schema:

  • Look for repeated patterns in play, language and mark making
  • Collect evidence over a number of days, or even weeks.
  • In particular, look for things like intense concentration, complete absorption, deep enjoyment and persistence during the activity.

This isn't a comprehensive checklist, but if you spot these things, you may have identified a schema.


How Can I Use Schemas To Enhance Learning?

The simple answer is, support the child's passion.

Look for ways to talk to them about it. Ask them questions. Give them language to describe their interests. Provide new challenges for them in their area of passion. In doing so, you'll encourage their cognitive development

What To Do With Difficult Schema-Related Behaviour

Sometimes schema-related behaviour can become intolerable for adults, or even dangerous. For example, a child with a trajectory schema might take great delight in squirting people with a hose or throwing toys at other children. Also, one child's schema behaviour may conflict with another's. When this happens, try to find a creative way around it:

  • Distract and divert. If the behaviour is intolerable or dangerous, find an acceptable alternative that matches the child's schema interest. For example, for the child throwing the toys set up a net for him or her to throw a ball into.
  • Encourage collaboration. If children's schema interests are clashing, find a way for the children to collaborate. For example, children with transporting and trajectory schemas can combine their interests in a good water play set-up.

Because children's schema interests are so strong, you will find it difficult, if not impossible, to stop them. So it is better to try and divert them to another activity, still within their area of interest.

Te Whāriki & Schemas

Te Whāriki is the Ministry of Education early childhood curriculum policy statement. It provides early childhood educators with a framework for creating consistently high quality programmes ones that are community and family/whānau centred, bicultural and holistic.

One way Te Whāriki can be implemented is through schemas.

For example, one of the principles of Te Whāriki is Empowerment, or Whakamana. By supporting children in their interests and passions, and letting them lead in their play, we empower them to learn and grow.

For another example, one of the 'strands' of Te Whāriki is Wellbeing, or Mana Atua. When we encourage deep involvement in activities children are passionate about, they experience psychological and emotional wellbeing.

To learn more about Te Whāriki, visit the Ministry of Education website

Useful Links

If you'd like to learn more about schemas, read: Getting Started With Schemas or Te Whāriki.

You can also download this handy chart Schemas in Areas of Play.


Our thanks to the Auckland Playcentre Shop for permission to use this article. Great play starts here.