Tips to Encourage Your Child’s Development (through schemas)

When I worked as an early-years teachers in London, England, there was a 3 year old boy that started in my class one September, who had a constant urge to throw things during any type of play. His hat would end up on the shed roof and his toys (and body) would frequently fly through the air. Often, his behaviour would perplex his parents and other staff.

After calling for a caretaker with ladder in hand or using a broom to fetch his hat down from the roof, he would be told repeatedly not to throw. But, inevitably, he would still do it, and was then labelled ‘naughty’. In actuality, what we all came to see was that his throwing was deep, important learning.

Children have an innate urge to learn and grow. Often times these urges appear as repetitive behaviours – there is a desire to master the skill set being practiced. Children become entranced by their learning, compulsive even, and often enter a state of “flow”. In early years literature and settings, these repetitive actions are often referred to as schemas.

There are six primary groups of schematic behaviours that children will explore during their early years. They very likely will display a preference for 1-2 schemas at a time. Understanding our children’s schematic patterns can help us encourage their learning in a deep way. It can also help deflect the “naughty” behaviour into perceived positive actions, for both ourselves and our children. 

The boy who lost his hat on the shed was directed to balls and soft items to throw and the water table to pour water in a more contained way. He got to fulfill his need to observe gravity, with a variety of weighted objects and his teachers didn’t have to worry about lost hats and mopping floors.

Schemas have helped me understand and encourage my own children’s learning too. One of my children loves to transport different items – laundry baskets, small boxes, gift bags, purses, back packs – you name it, and it will be filled with a wide range of items as it moves from place to place.

My other child loves to deconstruct and construct – lego blocks, paper and cardboard, tool sets – they will be built and unbuilt. While recognizing their schemas hasn’t saved me from ruined magazines, lost wallets and keys, the understanding has helped me create an environment that is more conducive to their specific needs.

Below is a chart that outlines each specific schema, with details on what it might look like. Plus, great ways to help your child develop their learning within their schematic preference and avoid mishaps the best that you can – they are children after all, and mishaps and mistakes are part of the learning process.

Connection and Disconnection

Children will enjoy exploring how objects fit together and how they come apart. They are fascinated by activities like: 

  • Building and taking down towers with wooden blocks or Lego
  • Constructing with tape, stickers, cardboard
  • Using screwdrivers and other tools to put items together and take them apart
  • Connect puzzles and train tracks
  • Use scissors

Areas of concern may be:

  • Ripping paper, magazines or books
  • Destroying other people’s towers or toys
  • Injuries from taking toys apart

Encourage children by:

  • Offering a wide range of materials that they can build with, including traditional blocks and non-traditional items such as books to stack.
  • Offering paper, magazines and newspapers, with a variety of texture, that they can rip and cut.

Containing and Enclosing

Children will enjoy exploring how their own body and objects can be covered or hidden. They are fascinated by activities like:

  • Building forts and dens or other structures to hide their objects or body
  • Wrapping objects or their body in blankets, scarves, pillows
  • Crawling through tunnels and hiding in closets
  • Fitting into small places like boxes

Areas of concern may be:

  • Wearing too many layers of clothing
  • Hiding objects or taking objects from others to hide (lost keys, books, toys etc.)
  • Covering a baby or child’s face with many layers or inappropriate objects
  • Getting stuck in boxes or chests

Encourage children by:

  • Offering blankets, scarves, chairs and tunnels to help create enclosures.
  • Offering safe spaces that children can enter and hide i.e. cardboard boxes or an empty closet that cannot be locked.

Rotation and Orientation

Children will enjoy exploring objects that move on wheels. They are fascinated by activities like:

 Drawing, making or exploring circular shapes

  • Watching a washing machine cycle
  • Watching and making wheels, balls or clock hands move
  • Using water wheels and windmills
  • Moving their body and hands in circular motions
  • Turning knobs, dials and keys

Areas of concern may be:

  • Turning dials on the stove
  • Low to high volume on a music player
  • Rolling their body into objects inside

Encourage children by:

  • Offering children their own clocks and items that have dials, that are safe to use.
  • Offering spaces that children can freely move their bodies, such as gyms and open basements or living rooms.


Children will enjoy exploring how items and their own bodies fly through the air in a variety of directions. They are fascinated by activities like:

  • Throwing balls or other objects
  • Pouring sand, water or other materials between vessels
  • Spin, run, twist and roll body on the ground or through rooms

Areas of concern may be:

  • Spilling water or food on the floor
  • Pouring sand or other crafts
  • Throwing hard objects through a room

Encourage children by:  

  • Offering a wide range of objects that can safely be thrown, including traditional items such as balls of different sizes, bean bags, water balloons etc.
  • Offer children open spaces to safely practice throwing and pouring


Children will enjoy exploring how objects mix together to be transformed. They are fascinated by activities like:

  • Gluing and sticking objects
  • Freezing and melting
  • Paint and colour mixing
  • Baking and cooking
  • Dressing up and face painting

Areas of concern may be:

  • Messes with food or other materials
  • Mushed up breakfasts, lunches and dinners
  • Baking materials pulled from the cupboards

Encourage children by:

  • Offering messy play with a variety of interesting items (food items, jello, glue, paint, flour, water, playdough etc.)
  • Offering specific activities where they can be an active participant in the changes – cooking dinner, baking cookies, making ice cubes etc.

Children will enjoy exploring ways to move objects from place to place. They are fascinated by activities like:

  • Using a stroller, wagon, or wheelbarrow to move items
  • Using bags, boxes or containers to move items
  • An interest in planes, trains, cars and buses and how they move people and objects

Areas of concern may be:

  • Missing or hidden items
  • Random items, like sand or water may end up in strange places
  • Piles of objects dumped out or hidden

 Encourage children by:

  • Offering a variety of bags, boxes and containers of different size, shape and colour
  • Offering select items, of varying weights and sizes, that can be transported

Schemas are one way, of many, to encourage learning. They are not meant to box in a child’s learning, but rather, they offer a way to understand and guide children in positive ways. They can help us as parents avoid (some!) messes and also enjoy the chaos that comes along when children are inquisitive and explorative.

About Kate

Kate SissonsKate is a Birth and Postpartum Doula, Childbirth Educator, Infant Sleep Educator and Yoga Instructor, currently living in Toronto, ON. When she’s not supporting new families on their parenting journey, she is running after her wonderfully active 2-year-old twins. She loves exploring the ravines of the city, drinking green tea and green smoothies (in large mugs), and the colour purple.

For more information about Kate and her support services, visit or visit her on Facebook.