Essential Resources: Containing Scheme - Going all in

By Nicole Weinstein
Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Why the ‘containing scheme’ is an important part of play and learning in the early years, and how settings can appropriately resource for it. By Nicole Weinstein

Babies experience being contained from birth: when they are placed into a cot, wrapped in blankets or strapped into a car seat. As they get older, they discover that they can contain all kinds of things – even themselves – in an array of containers.

It has long been the practice in Australia to provide ‘cubbies’ for children to crawl into or spaces where they can close themselves in, with a curtain or fabric to contain them. In the UK, there are a wide variety of cosy dens, snug dens, forts and tents on the market where children can fulfil their desire to occupy small private spaces.

Dr John Siraj-Blatchford, co-director of SchemaPlay, says, ‘The containing scheme is a totally abstract idea that babies begin to play with long before they know anything about how adults differentiate between dishes, cups and other containers. For example, for a young child, it is just as much fun and of interest to put their dinner into a pocket as it is to put it into a dish. If you think about it, what is significant is that every container has an inside and outside and it has some form of barrier between the two – and that includes our pockets!’

Containing closely correlates with enclosing, the difference being ‘one of perspective,’ John explains. ‘If you’re looking at containment from the outside in, you’ve got containing. If you’re looking at it from the inside out, it’s enclosing.’


A child with a containing scheme will often be observed putting things into and out of different types of containers, from loading toy trucks with sand and then emptying them to packing and unpacking bags or climbing in and out of small spaces.

Lynnette Brock, co-director of SchemaPlay, explains that sometimes when a child tries to explore this scheme, they may be considered to be displaying inappropriate behaviour. ‘When a child empties all the resources from a box onto the nursery floor, it may appear to be challenging behaviour on the surface, but if a child has the containing scheme and has limited opportunities to apply it, you might expect to see this type of behaviour, which is why providing the right resources is important,’ she says.


When practitioners have identified a containing scheme, it is important to ‘seed’ or extend the resources in continuous provision so the scheme can be applied to a range of contexts. The new activities anchored in containing can support new schemes and new schema interests to develop. ‘Building upon a child’s schemes to support new schemes will not only support a child’s “flow”, their full immersion in activity as they combine schemes to develop their play themes, but also their engagement across the EYFS curriculum,’ says Lynnette.

Learning opportunities include:

Volume, space, shape and size: encourage water play with different height tubes, sand play with buckets of varied width or playdough with tins of different heights to support children’s perception of size and capacity as they fill and empty them.

Sorting and grouping: early exploration of grouping objects, such as natural resources, into containers and ‘sets’ is a pre-requisite scheme for mathematics. It supports a child’s understanding of shape, space and quantities, as well as offering a meaningful context for counting and, later, recording. It also helps children to see similarities and differences and better understand the characteristics of materials.

Language and literacy: it is not unusual for a young child to verbalise their exploratory actions with phrases such as ‘in’, ‘out’, ‘went in’, ‘get out’, ‘more in’, ‘all gone’, while exploring a containing scheme. This early prepositional and positional language supports children’s language development and understandings, which practitioners can build upon by reading books with containing in the storyline.

Physical development: handling small objects supports fine motor development. Loading building blocks into a wheelbarrow will build up the muscles in upper arms and support gross motor development.

Personal, Social and Emotional Development: children as young as ten months engaged in treasure basket play will share and pass items to each other. Containing supports collaborative play as children get involved in role play and making enclosures.

Resources to support containing

  • Treasure baskets facilitate early independent exploration, so offer different types of containers and fluid objects such as ribbons, chains, socks and fabrics, plus solid objects such as balls, blocks and bangles, to enable exploration of how objects fit – or do not fit – into the containers.
  • Toddlers will enjoy filling and emptying objects and liquid into a range of containers – baskets, buckets, bags, carts, bottles and boxes. Try Early Excellence’s Set of Tagua Beads, £13.95, Set of Square Natural Baskets, £24.95, or its Red Trolley, £49.95. TTS’s Giant Potion Bottles (3pk), £34.95, add a magical dimension.
  • Nesting boxes are useful. Try Hope’s Hexagonal Storage Boxes, £12.99, or TTS’s Colourful Nesting Seagrass Storage Baskets, £38.95.
  • Put buckets and tubes in sand and water play or hide sensory items in wet and dry sand.
  • Provide a wheelbarrow and building blocks. Try Hope Education’s Wheelbarrow, £39.99, and Pretend Foam Breeze Blocks, £52.99 for 20. Or TTS’s Outdoor Wooden Pull Along Cart, £164.95.
  • Provide children with dolls, blankets and prams so they can wrap them up and push them.
  • Large cardboard boxes, crates, cosy dens, tunnels and tents are perfect. Try Hope’s Playscapes Cosy Mirror Den from Millhouse, £319.99, or its Under 3s Wooden Den Frame, £149.99. TTS’s Wooden Mirror Tunnel, £324.95, and its Giant Balance Spinning Top, £44.95, can also be used for den play.
  • Provide blankets and fabrics so children can make enclosures or create dens with furniture or crates. Try EE’s Role Play Den Covers Collection, £155.
  • Put bags and shopping trollies in the role-play area to store shop ‘purchases’. Try Early Excellence’s Set of Wooden Crates with Food, £225. Or introduce pots, pans, dishes and cups containing ‘food’ and ‘drink’. Hope’s Stainless Steel Pots and Pans Play Set, £19.99, and Enamel Tableware Set, £24.99, can be used inside or out.
  • Contain small-world play figures in dolls houses or farm animals in barns like TTS’s Wooden Farm Buildings Small World Play Set, £69.95.
  • Provide coloured stones and frames to create pictures, or clay, sand, mud, feathers, bark, spades and shovels for children to create transient art pieces outdoors. Try the Transient Art Resource Collection, £105, from Early Excellence or Hope Education’s Bamboo Leaves, £4.49, or Green Moss, £6.49, with its Mark Making Frames, £24.99.
  • Share books such as Spot Goes Shopping by Eric Hill; Billy’s Bucketby Kes Grey and Garry Parsons; and The Bathtub by Soon Jae-Shin.

CASE STUDY: Tops Day Nursery, Poole, Dorset

Two-and-a-half-year-old Jane (name changed) was observed by her key person, Jodie, filling and emptying water from a jug in the mud kitchen. Later, she began to transport water from the jug into different sized bowls.

Jodie says, ‘I set up a provocation to extend the play theme further, by adding mud to the largest bowl. Jane noticed this and started to copy, also adding leaves to the water and mud. Her perception of containers is developing.

‘She continued scooping mud and leaves into containers and moving the mixture between the bowls and the sink for over 15 minutes. I noticed that she was applying containing, transporting and transforming schemes in her play so I offered a focused activity – planting herbs – to draw upon her containing and transporting schemes and to support her growing knowledge of plants.

‘Before introducing the activity, we read stories about planting and discussed what they need to survive – water and sunlight. Over the weeks that followed, Jane took care of her plants, watering them as necessary and noticing that they were dry in sunny weather. She was now combining a containing, transporting and trajectory scheme in her self-chosen play.’

Inside the nursery, she began showing an interest in sorting objects. She selected a large tin of shells and some baskets and sat for over 20 minutes picking up each shell, exploring it, turning it around in her hands, touching it and noticing that some shells had pointy edges and some were flat. She sorted the shells into the properties of pointy, flat and shells with holes in them.

Jodie seeded this by offering other sorting, transporting and containing activities. ‘By enabling these schemes to be combined in play, Jane’s immersion in her play is usually anything between 15 and 40 minutes. She appears esteemed, self-motivated and keen to explore the indoor and outdoor environment independently. She is keen to identify objects that are the same and explores similarities and differences with great interest.’

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