Schemas/Learning Languages

What are they?

The use of schemas as a basic concept was first used by a British psychologist named Frederic Bartlett as part of his learning theory. Bartlett’s theory suggested that our understanding of the world is formed by a network of abstract mental structures. A schema could also be thought of as a ‘learning language’, as described by Malaguzzi in the Reggio Emilia philosophy.

Theorist Jean Piaget introduced the term schema, and its use was popularized through his work. According to his theory of cognitive development, children go through a series of stages of intellectual growth.

In Piaget’s theory, a schema is both the category of knowledge as well as the process of acquiring that knowledge. He believed that people are constantly adapting to the environment as they take in new information and learn new things.

As experiences happen and new information is presented, new schemas are developed and old schemas are changed or modified.


For example, a young child may first develop a schema for a horse. She knows that a horse is large, has hair, four legs, and a tail. When the little girl encounters a cow for the first time, she might initially call it a horse.

After all, it fits in with her schema for the characteristics of a horse; it is a large animal that has hair, four legs, and a tail. Once she is told that this is a different animal called a cow, she will modify her existing schema for a horse and create a new schema for a cow.

Now, let’s imagine that this girl encounters a miniature horse for the first time and mistakenly identifies it as a dog.

Her parents explain to her that the animal is actually a very small type of horse, so the little girl must at this time modify her existing schema for horses. She now realizes that while some horses are very large animals, others can be very small. Through her new experiences, her existing schemas are modified and new information is learned.

Types of Schemas

Schemas are patterns of repeated behaviour that allow children to explore and develop their play through their thoughts and ideas.

As an adult, you can learn about your children’s interests by observing their play. By stepping back and watching, you may notice how apparent some of these schemas are. Some children clearly display schematic play; however, it may be more difficult to recognise the schemas other children are exploring.

Here are some common schemas that children exhibit:


Children exploring this schema may show an interest in joining things together or tying things up, e.g. connecting train track pieces or Lego. They may enjoy binding things together, like ribbons, wool, string and tape.  The ‘connecting’ schema can also lead to disconnecting, e.g. taking or pulling things apart.


Children show an interest in creating enclosed spaces for themselves or placing objects; they have an interest in ordering and organising things and spaces.


Children may be interested in enveloping themselves, objects or space, e.g. wrapping themselves in blankets or curtains! They may enjoy making parcels and putting everyday objects inside.


This schema can be related to children who like to see the world from different angles – you may find these children spend a lot of time upside-down, looking through their legs, or turning toys and objects around to look at them from different angles.


Children exploring this schema may put objects in lines, sequences and patterns, and will carefully position them. They may enjoy working with small objects, which have a number of pieces.


Children exploring this schema are interested in things that rotate or that are circular, e.g. objects with wheels and spinning tops. You may find they are fascinated by your washing machine!


This is perhaps the most common schema. Children are interested in how they and things move. The most familiar trajectory is repeatedly dropping things from the highchair! They may also love throwing things, running around, or playing with running water.


You may observe your children repeatedly moving things from one place to another, either with their hands, or by using something to contain the object, e.g. a trolley, bag, or doll’s buggy.

You may despair when your children drop something on to the floor for the hundreth time, or when you find that your things have moved from where you last put them, or there are baskets and boxes full of random bits and pieces from all over the house. Celebrate their actions, instead! Schemas are a natural part of children’s play and development and help explain why some children show such persistence and determination to do things in a certain way.

By spotting and encouraging patterns in your children’s play, and by offering them more ideas or materials, we are helping our children to learn.