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Schemas are repeated actions children take during play that tell us about their current state of knowledge with something. Identified and coined by Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget in the early 20th century these repeated actions enable children to develop cognitive structures (schemas) in the brain. Piaget said schemas are the basic building blocks of intelligent behaviour.

When researching schemas in young children you can find anywhere from four to nine main categories that are most identifiable. Below are nine types of schemas for you to learn about. Each schema comes with a poster (click paper clip) we created to help identify some of their key traits as well as activities adults can provide children to support their interests or curiosities.



The trajectory schema is an interest in how things move.



The positioning schema is an interest in arranging objects in a variety of ways.



The transforming schema is an interest in how things change/transform.



The rotation schema is an interest in objects & machines that turn or rotate.



The orientation schema is an interest in seeing things from a new point of view/position.



The enveloping schema is an interest in wrapping themselves & objects.



The enclosing schema is an interest in creating enclosures around themselves & objects.



The transporintg schema is an interest in moving objects from one place to another




The connection schema is an interest in putting things togehter/connecting things.



An interested in how things move. The most familiar trajectory in babies is repeatedly dropping things from the highchair. Throwing things, running around, paper airplanes, or playing with running water to see how it moves and changes when a force is applied.

These early attempts at understanding and manipulating trajectory can develop into more familiar skills of throwing, catching and kicking, and often manifest through an interest in rockets and space.



This schema sees children position things in a variety of ways such as putting objects in lines and creating patterns.

Positioning is the starting point for many key skills and activities, from setting the table for meals and organizing a living space, to creating/identifying patterns in maths and maintaining tidiness in life.


The transforming schema focuses on how things change through cause and effect. This can be found through a fascination with exploring how colours change, the water cycle and even living things going through their life cycle.

This is one of the foundations of science and develops the ability to find out how things transform and why.


Exploring objects that rotate or are circular, e.g. with wheels like toy cars. Spinning on chairs, watching a washing machine turn, even children physically spinning around in circles.

The Rotation schema leads to an understanding of mathematical concepts as well as the sciences such as motion.


The orientation schema are attempts to see the world from a different perspective. Children spend a lot of time upside-down, looking at toys and other objects from different angles.

This schema builds confidence through physical activities as children like to use their body in finding new orientations. Orientation can help children see things from different perspectives that leads to children seeing problems in a variety of ways.



An interest in enveloping (wrapping) themselves, objects, filling empty boxes with bits and pieces, wrapping dolls up in blankets etc.

In this schema children are trying to work out what happens if they wrap/hide something. Internally they are experimenting and asking questions such as; ‘Can I still see it? Can I feel it? What if I wrap it in a different material?’


An interest in creating enclosed spaces for themselves, others or objects; This is an interest in organising things and spaces and learning about boundaries. It is similar to the enveloping schema but with enclosing the child can usually still see the focus of the schema.

It isn’t about hiding things but rather creating a boundary to keep things out or to protect something inside. This schema develops ordering and organising skills.



Repeatedly moving things from one place to another, either with their hands, or by using something to transport an object, e.g. a bag or cart.

The transporting schema is a building block for mathematical development that later lead to understanding concepts like quantity, numbers, size and weight. It also has many physical attributes through the act of moving things from A to B.


Children exploring this schema show interest in joining things together like connecting train track pieces or building LEGO. Other loose parts like tapes and fabric materials can also be used. Connecting objects also leads children to explore disconnecting or backwards design.These are fundamental skills that lead to understanding how things work and go together. When thinking about people that have high level connecting schemas think about mechanics, engineers, and doctors.


The 4 Levels of Development Schemas Operate in!

A child’s 'schematic structures' function on 4 different levels;

Level 1. Sensorimotor,

Level 2. Symbolic Representation,

Level 3. Functional Dependency

Level 4. Abstract Thought.


Children go through these levels sequentially and don't move to the next level until they have acheived enough understanding in the previous. A child can struggle if asked to work at a level above their development. For example, you can not expect a child who has never used paints before to know how to mix colours to make new ones

Level 1


Children’s senses are the first tools they use to learn about the world around them. The multisensory interconnections made through what children see, hear, smell, taste and touch are the starting point to which schemas (cognitive structures) develop and strengthen. This is often why babies and young children love to put things in their mouth. Taste is important because an infants intial internal drive is based on hunger and eating. As they grow they then discover new emotions and motives that develop how they engage with the world.

Level 2 

Symbolic Representation

Children often use objects in play and make them into something else. For example, a child might take a shoe or a banana and use it as phone. We call this Symbolic Representation. In play-based schools resources (toys) are mostly ‘open ended’ which means they aren’t designed for a single purpose. Open ended resources allow children to develop symbolic representation and let their true intentions and interests reveal themselves.

Level 3 

Functional Dependency

Functional Dependency is when a child uses something they have previously learnt (prior knowledge) to help them in their play/ complete a task. For example a child who has previously explored colours and how mixing them makes new colours can use their functional dependency when painting. If they want green paint they know that by mixing blue and yellow they can achieve their goal. This is functional dependency.

Level 4

Abstract Thought

When children verbally recall and describe events, objects or experiences they are engaging in abstract thought. This is one of the ways children show adults that they learnt, remembered or understood something. Using this knowledge they recreate their own new ideas that stem from their interests. A child talking about what doctors do and how they help people is an example of abstract thought in action. These abstract thoughts are based on experiences the child has had and so may not always be completely true. For example, a child may say doctors only help mummies if that has been their experience so far.

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