Learning & Development: Schemas - Interior worlds

Kath Tayler
Friday, July 26, 2013

Observing children's schemas is not only a useful way to shape play - there is evidence that these patterns of behaviour offer guidance to individuals' emotions. Kath Tayler looks at a case study.

Many people working in early years are familiar with schemas and the idea that observing and planning around young children's preferred schemas can be beneficial to their cognitive development. However, can these patterns of repeatable behaviour also give us an insight into children's emotional worlds?


Sam, aged four years and seven months, lives with his mum, dad, six-year-old sister and 11-month-old brother. Recently, his grandmother died unexpectedly. Sam was very close to her and was looked after by her two days a week. Since her death, he has increased his time at nursery from two days a week to four days a week because both his parents work.

His key person noted these observations in the course of one day, two weeks after his grandmother died:


10.15am Sam has filled his pockets with small objects, including Duplo bricks, a car, a piece of Play-Doh and some crayons.

10.45am Sam is sitting by himself in the book corner. He has taken the things out of his pocket and hidden them under a cushion. He then goes outside and joins Seth and Joe who are digging with spades and moving sand from one part of the sandpit to another. Seth puts sand on top of a truck. Sam says, 'Look, it's under!' He picks up a spade and joins in. He says, 'Soon it will be really under and we won't be able to see it.'

12pm Sam is eating his lunch and opens his sandwich and puts a crisp inside. He says, 'You can't see it but it makes it crispy. It goes crunch when it is in my mouth!'

12.30pm Sam and Seth go back outside. They collect leaves and put them in the bag on the back of a trike. Sam rides the trike under the tree, gets off, takes the leaves out and puts them in a pile. He says, 'They'll blow away! I don't want them to.' He runs to get a piece of paper from the mark-making area, puts it on top of the leaves, then gets a stone and puts that on the paper. 'Now they can't blow away.' Seth kicks the stone and paper off and kicks at the leaves. Sam shouts, 'No!' He picks the leaves up again and puts them back in the bag on the trike. He rides the trike to the toy shed and wheels it into the shed. 'I want them later,' he says.

2pm Sam is playing with the Duplo. He has built four walls on a base. 'Don't touch it,' he says and runs outside. He goes to the toy shed, retrieves the leaves, runs back inside and puts the leaves in the Duplo building. He says, 'People living there, but they might not be there tomorrow. If the walls come down, they will go away to somewhere else.' I ask if he knows where they'll go. He says, 'Somewhere you can't see.'

2.45pm Sam and Shrina are playing with the large bricks. They line them up in a row, which starts straight but then bends. 'We could join it up!' says Sam. The bricks form a circle. Sam is on the inside and Shrina on the outside. Sam says, 'I'm in here.' Shrina jumps over and says, 'So am I!' They sit down inside the circle. 'We could live here. It could be our house,' says Sam.


'A schema is a pattern of repeatable behaviour into which experiences are assimilated and that are gradually co-ordinated. Co-ordinations lead to higher-level and more powerful schemas' (Athey, 2007, p50).

Sam's schemas

Enveloping and containing: covering self or objects and putting self or objects in containers.

Enclosing: making enclosures from bricks or other objects.

Transporting: moving objects or self from one place to another. Putting things in containers and moving them around.

Connecting: joining objects together.

Sam displayed several schemas during the course of the day. His predominant interest appears to lie in enveloping, containing and enclosing. He filled his pockets with objects and later hid them under a cushion. He appears excited by covering the truck with sand and by hiding a crisp in his sandwich.

His play with the leaves spans several hours. He puts them in a trike bag, covers them to stop them blowing away and tries to keep them safe by returning them to the bag and putting the trike away. Later, he contains them within a Duplo structure. In a similar way, he and Shrina contain themselves in a brick enclosure.

Sam is also showing some interest in transporting himself and objects around. He transports his collection of objects in his pocket to the book corner, moves sand from one part of the sandpit to another and moves the leaves to various places around the setting, outside and inside.

There is also evidence that he may be developing an interest in connecting objects, as in his play with the Duplo and large bricks.


In terms of Sam's cognitive development, most of his play and schemas indicate that he is at the pre-operational stage. He uses one thing to represent another in symbolic play when, for example, the leaves become people. He also shows understanding of functional dependency. For example, containing leaves is functionally dependant on the surrounding walls.

While his schemas are often still expressed in terms of movement (of himself when on the trike, and of objects when moving the leaves), they also operate at the thought level (awareness that if he carries on putting sand on the truck he will not be able to see it and thinking through how to stop the leaves blowing away).


While we need to use considerable caution when considering links between children's schemas and their emotional states, there is growing evidence that there is a link. Arnold (2010) carried out a research study at the Pen Green Centre in Corby, based on a 'hunch' that 'young children are motivated to explore certain schemas or repeated patterns because of emotional events in their lives at that time' (Arnold, 2010, p149). She suggests that each child will do this in their own way, using their own schematic interests.

Could Sam be using schemas to 'seek comfort, to give form to and to explore and understand emotional events' (Arnold, 2010, p151)? Much of Sam's play involved keeping things safe. By gaining a sense of control over things important to him in his play, is he trying to regain a sense of control over the people that matter to him as he comes to terms with the loss of his grandmother?

Much of his play also involves things being hidden. While his grandmother is no longer visible to him, she is still with him in his memory and possibly he is exploring his feelings about things 'being here' and 'not being here'. He is also exploring this idea with the leaves in the Duplo building and his awareness that sometimes people go 'somewhere you can't see'.

He appears to also be using his interest in enclosing as a means of trying out feeling safe and contained when sitting in the circle of bricks with Shrina. A lot of his play mirrors the way emotions ebb and flow. Sometimes they are difficult to manage and at other times things are calmer. This can be seen in his play when Seth kicks his leaves and Sam shouts 'No!' By experiencing difficulties in his play and finding solutions using his preferred schemas, maybe he is also finding a way of dealing with the difficult emotions around the loss of his grandmother.

What next?

Being aware of preferred schemas can help practitioners support learning. Being encouraged to explore movements and ideas of interest to him will enable him to deepen and enrich this exploration.

More specifically, in terms of his emotional well-being, his learning could be supported by providing:

  • resources for building dens and other enclosing spaces
  • sandpit resources to enable him to move sand around and cover items with sand
  • rhymes and stories that fit with his schemas, for example, My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes by Eve Sutton and Lynley Dodd, The Three Little Pigs and lift-the-flap books.

Such support might encourage Sam to:

  • remember that he likes to revisit his activities and allow him time to do so
  • use resources from different areas, to allow him to explore enclosing and containing - for example, putting animals in his brick enclosures
  • transport precious items around the setting and to hide them in boxes, drawers, etc.

It is possible that by using Sam's favoured schemas in this way, he will be given meaningful support that links with the way he is exploring and expressing emotion.



  • Again! Again! Understanding schemas in young children by S Louis et al (2008), A&C Black Publishers, London
  • Extending Thought in Young Children: a parent-teacher partnership by C Athey (2007), Paul Chapman Publishing, London
  • Threads of Thinking: Young Children Learning and the Role of Early Education by C Nutbrown (2006) Sage Publications, London
  • Understanding Schemas and Emotion in Early Childhood by C Arnold and the Pen Green Team (2010), Sage Publications, London

Kath Tayler has more than 30 years' experience in early years and is an associate lecturer with the Open University

© MA Education 2019. Published by MA Education Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, Herne Hill, London SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 04002826. MA Education is part of the Mark Allen Group. – All Rights Reserved