Toddler Developmental Schemas

Toddler developmental schemas (TDS) are repetitive patterns of behaviour which are evident in some form or other from birth. These patterns allow children to develop, explore and express their thoughts and learning through their play and behaviours. Different children will make use of a variety of different schemas. The schemas do not follow in a sequence, and not every schema will be used by every child.  These developmental schemas have been described as being ‘urges’ a child has – a somewhat uncontrollable method of expressing themselves or learning and developing.

The most common TDS are transporting, enveloping, enclosure, trajectory, connecting, rotation, scattering, positioning, orientation and transformation. The explanations for each, as well as what children using a particular schema will do are mentioned in the table below.

  What a child will do or be interested in:
Transporting Move everything from one place to another. Put sand in a bucket – move to another place, go back and forth bringing you items from around the room. Carry many things in their hands at once.
Enveloping Wrap themselves in material, make parcels containing everyday items, cover hands or body in paint, paint a picture and then cover it with paint. Children may build couch forts.


Create enclosed spaces which they may or may not put things into. Your child will like putting things in bags or pots, sit in boxes, love filling up items with sand, draw pictures then draw squares or circles around them. Build enclosures for animals and keep them inside. Put their thumb or toes (as a baby) in their mouth.
Trajectory Have a curiosity with how things or they move. They may throw or drop things, push things in a line, play with running water. Bash 2 cars or blocks together.
Connecting Join things together. Tie chair or your legs together, enjoy joining train carriages or blocks and then pulling them apart, enjoy dot-to-dot activities. A child may also destroy another’s sand castle or construction to watch it disconnect.
Rotation Like things that are circular or rotate. Play with wheels on toys, like spinning around, play with water wheels or toys that spin. Children may like watching the washing machine or going on merry go rounds and may enjoy rolling down hills.
Scattering Scatter objects, tip out baskets or buckets of water, wipe items or materials (such as flour) across the table, and tip all Lego or blocks onto the floor.
Positioning Carefully position objects or self in lines, patterns or sequences. Stack unlikely objects, line up toys, and create layers of paint on top of one another, like working with objects with lots of pieces. Children may not like to mix their food and may ensure they place items in the same place after use.
Orientation Hang upside from monkey bars, turn themselves upside down (eg when watching TV), turn objects or toys around to look at them, climb up objects to look around and gain a different perspective.
Trans-formation Like to change the state of items. Pour water on sand, mix food with juice in their mouth, and enjoy baking.

Table 1Adapted from ‘Early Years Schemas.’ SL Baker-Jones, 2010 ( and ‘Your Child’s Schema’ (2011) (


How will understanding your child’s schema help you in choosing play situations, schooling choices, and further down the line… understand any problems that may arise in their development?


Benefits of knowing your child’s schema(s)

Knowing toddler developmental schemas and being able to identify various schemas in your child’s play or behaviour will provide parents or teachers with an indication of which toys to provide a child or how to respond to them when they play in a certain way, as well as what motivates a child to learn.  Parents and teachers may experience a child as being difficult, and will need to make some allowances for certain learners if their method of learning and exploring (their schema) is unconventional.  It must be noted, however, that preference of a preferred schema does not mean that a child only be allowed or encouraged to participate in activities using such schemas.  They should be given freedom to explore as they see fit.

Inclusive education suggests that there is no set way in which children learn, and that the onus is on the parents, school and school system to develop and adapt their curriculum in such a way that suits each individual child. Individual Educational Programmes (IEPs) are widely used in schools in order to accommodate for a child’s learning needs. At a level earlier than formal schooling, knowing a child’s schema will help parents or teachers adjust their curriculum and allow for their individual educational and developmental needs in order to extend a child academically and cognitively.  While it may not be identifiable early on, it is possible that a child’s choice of schemas will influence their interests and choices later in life, although focusing on certain schemas and not on others does not mean a child will be limited in their abilities or choices later on.

Karen Smith, 54, a pre-primary school teacher from Pietermaritzburg explains that (resources allowing) every pre-primary or nursery school should have the following areas of play: cognitive, fantasy, art and outside.  Each of these areas assists children in developing different skills and allows the individual child to participate in tasks that appeal to them, and allow for use of their preferred schemas.  For example, a child in the cognitive (or puzzle room) who likes connecting or positioning will be able to use blocks, build puzzles and play with peg boards. A child whose schema is enclosing or enveloping will enjoy the fantasy room where they can dress up (themselves or dolls), or the outside play area where they can hide in tunnels and build forts.  Numerous sensopathic trays filled with sawdust, beans, waterwheels, sand and water (amongst others) will appeal to children with an urge to transform or rotate. The art room with boxes, and glues and paints and stickers will be the first choice of a child with an urge to position, envelop, transform and connect. While this is a simplified explanation of where different schema needs can be met, it is an example of how schools can and need to offer a variety of activities in order to accommodate for their unique learners.

Parents need to find a balance between allowing their child to follow their schema ‘urges’ and to act appropriately. Children need to be taught that it is unacceptable to break something that somebody else has made, or that throwing a ball in a small space may break something.  As in almost any situation, boundaries are important so that your child can thrive and learn in a way best suited to them, without limiting their urges, and keeping their behaviour appropriate.


Some helpful resources for parents

  • Activities to support various schemas

  • Activities involving multiple schemas


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