Activites for Families



Play Schema And
Toddler behavior Patterns

Category: Body Skills

What are schema and why should you care?

There are patterns of repeatable behavior known as "schema" that you can notice in your child's play during early childhood (~18months-age 5 or 6). No matter where you are in the world, these same schema are exhibited by kids. Experts believe that when kids repeat these patterns in different situations, kids develop physically and cognitively. In turn, they are better able to understand, navigate and interact with their worlds, resulting in transformative learning. Kids naturally become absorbed in repeating these patterns, and practice with schema is highly engaging for them.

“Children’s schemas can be viewed as part of their motivation for learning, their insatiable drive to move, represent, discuss, question and find out.”—Professor Cathy Nutbrown, UK

How are schema useful to parents and teachers?

First, it just feels great to better understand your little ones. Once you notice these patterns, your child's seemingly random and (occasionally frustratingly) repetitive actions suddenly appear elegant and purposeful. Best of all, once you realize that they are really exploring a certain schema or two, you can pick activities for them that give them the opportunity to practice them, increasing their engagement and extending their learning.

Does every kid get absorbed in schema?

These are universal patterns, but different kids will engage in schema in different ways. For example, some kids dabble in schema, engaging in several at any given time. Others move from one schema to another over time. Others still stay working on a single schema for years.

How should you support your child as they exhibit schema?

Exploration with various schema is built into Tinkergarden activities. It's also interesting to notice how some of the best kids' toys enable children to practice with schema. To get started, check out the most common schema and see if you recognize these patterns in your child's behavior. If you do, check out our activities that help to extend his or her learning by supporting that schema. For fun, mention these to your friends as you watch their children at play. They'll be in awe of your observation skills, any maybe even refer to you as the toddler-whisperer?!

The scoop on common schema:


You may have noticed that your child seems to spend lots of time picking up objects, putting them into a container, perhaps only to transfer them to another container or dump out the container and start again. Your child may also simply love to haul around hefty things (e.g. logs, books, blocks). Kids may also love to fill up wagons, carts, strollers, etc. so they can "transport" objects or people around.


So many children become engrossed in spinning around and around to the point of dizziness…who hasn’t?! Kids who are focused on rotation/circulation spin themselves or become fixated on watching things that rotate, like a wheel, or the clothes dryer. That is the magic behind rolling down a hill.


Many kids go through a phase or just always seem to like moving in straight lines. They probably like to walk along the cracks in the sidewalk, balance on the curb, walk along a log, climb up and down ladders or whiz down slides. Some can't get enough of those swings. They also love to throw, drop, roll and toss all kinds of things.


Kids like to order, arrange and position objects or themselves. They may arrange blocks, cars, rocks or other objects in lines, rows, piles or patterns. Drawing, painting and sculpture work likely includes lines and patterns as well. Lining up may be a favorite activity, and where friends and family stand, sit or walk may be of particular interest.


Kids like to cover, wrap or enclose things and themselves. For example, your child may hide themselves under the bed covers, love to wrap up in a towel after the bath, or use a single crayon to cover a whole piece of paper during art time. You may also notice a time when your kids continue to find places to tuck objects or themselves out of sight (aggrrr, not the keys again!). They may love to sit in tunnels, climb into empty boxes, hide up in trees, build forts, or squirrel away in a little area under the stairs. Or, they may love to tuck treasures away into boxes, bags, pockets or hidden nooks around the yard.


A child might spend a great deal of time connecting things to one another. You may notice that they love to join the train tracks together, link LEGOs in long chains, build “fences” out of blocks, each block touching its neighbor. They also love to use tape, glue, string, and other things that connect objects.


Kids like to transform the shape, feel and look of things and themselves. You'll notice this when they are dressing up in costumes or putting on make up. These are your potion-makers and demolition crew, who may add milk to their mashed potatoes, make potions in the backyard, knock down buildings and towers, and mix all of the play-doh colors short, they can be a big sister’s nightmare!

How to support your toddler’s schema play

Give your toddler chances to practice

If you notice your toddler working on a particular schema, you can offer toys and activities to encourage their exploration. If they love carrying things around, for example, they’re in a “transporting” schema—give them a small bucket with a handle to carry objects.     

Offer appropriate alternatives

Schema play can sometimes feel frustrating to parents and caregivers. You may be at a special outing and all your child wants to do is spin the wheels on their stroller. Whenever possible, allow them to continue their play. 

If their behavior is disruptive or inconvenient, try giving them an acceptable alternative. For example, if they keep hiding your car keys, see if they’d like to hide a child-safe version, like the Stainless Steel Jingle Keys

Resist the urge to show them how to do it “right”

Schemas are developed through seemingly endless repetition that can include lots of trial and error. If your toddler is struggling to do something, let them keep trying on their own as long as they aren’t getting too frustrated. 

13 - 15 Months

The enveloping schema:

what’s behind your toddler’s fascination in hiding things

Does your toddler love hiding under a blanket or stuffing little toys between the couch cushions? Covering up and hiding objects is a type of schema play known as “enveloping.” 

Toddlers are often fascinated by what they can and can’t see. What does something look like when it’s covered? How much material does it take to completely hide something? Why do some things change shape when draped over others? When something disappears, how can you get it back?

Unlike the “enclosing” schema, enveloping involves hiding objects completely from view. 

5 enveloping schema activities for your toddler

  1. Play toddler hide-and-seek. For example, drape the Bright & Light Play Scarf over your head. When your toddler figures out how to pull it off, say, “You found me!” Then, cover your toddler up and “find” them 

  1. Provide posting toys, like the Wooden Coin Bank, where objects disappear inside. Remove the base of the Coin Bank so your toddler can lift it up and find the coins that they dropped in. 

  2. Give them objects to unwrap. Loosely wrap books, blocks, and other familiar items (skip the tape) with scratch paper or blankets. This is also a great way to use old tissue paper that may otherwise go to waste. 

  3. Hide small toys in a laundry basket under some clothes or tissue paper. 

  4. Create a sensory bin. Fill a bin with sand or dried lentils and place it on a drop cloth or outside. Add small objects, like shells and rocks, for your toddler to cover and uncover. 

16 - 18 Months

The connection schema:

Putting things together and taking them apart

Toddlers love discovering how objects fit together and come apart—otherwise known as “connection” schema play. At age 1, this can look like attaching a bug to the Fuzzy Bug Shrub and pulling it off or stacking then knocking down a set of blocks. Even linking arms or holding hands as you cross the street is related to this schema 


Connection also includes “disconnection”: pulling toys apart or knocking over a tower of blocks. 

5 ways to support your toddler’s love of connecting and taking apart

1. Cover a wall with sticky notes. Invite your toddler to rip them off, then show them how to stick them back on.

2. Provide threading activities. If your toddler is still learning how to put beads onto the thread of the Threadable Bead Kit, you can offer it to them pre-threaded or start it for them and let them finish. When they’re done, they’ll love letting the beads slide off and clatter to the floor.

3. Play with blocks. Blocks offer many opportunities for building and knocking over. Between 16 and 18 months, some toddlers are able to make a three-block tower—but they may want you to build something higher to topple.

4. Give them simple puzzles to solve. A puzzle with only circular pieces, like the Circle of Friends Puzzle, allows your toddler to focus on putting the pieces in the right place without needing to rotate them. Some toddlers may be more interested in dumping out the pieces than solving the puzzle 


5. Provide toys and objects that join or click together. Train tracks, magnetic tiles, locks and keys, ring stackers, and everyday items like plastic food storage containers with matching lids are all great options.

16 - 18 Months

The enclosing schema:
4 simple activities for toddlers

When your toddler crawls into a cardboard box or places a cup inside a bigger container, they’re exploring the “enclosing” schema. This can involve enclosing their own body in a small space, surrounding small toys with other objects, or nesting containers inside slightly larger ones. The enclosing schema is related to your toddler’s emerging sense of order: They’re starting to learn how to organize objects and spaces.

4 ideas for enclosing play

  1. Give your toddler cups, bowls, baskets, and other items that can nest together. For example, the Nesting Stacking Dripdrop Cups and the Lovevery Nesting Felt Baskets allow your child to explore how one thing can enclose another. 

  2. Play games in a play tunnel. Sit on the opposite end from your toddler and encourage them to crawl to you. Or, place a toy in the middle of the tunnel and “race” your toddler to see who can get it first. You can also try positioning the tunnel vertically over your toddler as they stand or gently rolling your toddler back and forth as they lie inside.

  3. Build a fort using a large cardboard box or couch cushions and blankets. You could also put the cover on The Play Gym and invite your toddler to sit inside. Many toddlers love the feeling of being in a cozy space.

  4. Use blocks to create enclosures for small toys. A ring of blocks could be a pen for animal figurines or a parking lot for cars.

19 - 21 Months

The rotation schema:
why your toddler loves things that spin

If your toddler can’t get enough of things that spin, they’re probably working on their “rotation” schema. This is a form of play that can involve rolling balls, pushing toy cars, twirling their body, watching a pinwheel, and turning and twisting anything they can get their hands on.

What they learn from this schema play will help them later as they tackle math concepts like symmetry and geometry. It can also help develop physical skills like drawing, turning knobs, and dancing.

4 ways to support your toddler’s developing rotation schema

Watch things that spin. Put things in motion that your toddler can watch go round and round—for example, a pinwheel, a spinning top, a hula hoop, bike tires, or a fidget spinner.

Roll objects to them. Sit on the floor a few feet away from them and roll them a ball, toy car, or even a soup can or water bottle on its side.

Encourage rolling and spinning their body. Try taking them on a carousel or merry-go-round at the park, letting them roll down a gently sloped hill, or holding them in your arms and twirling them around. Toddlers love getting dizzy, as it informs their vestibular system—a sense that helps them orient their body in space.

Mix things in a bowl. Let them stir some water or dry ingredients in a mixing bowl with a spoon or whisk. 


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If your wee one...Places toys in neat rows instead of playing with them “properly”Has strong feelings about who sits wherePrefers food presented separately instead of mixed togetherEnjoys patterns and grouping similar objects togetherThey’re not being “naughty” – they’re exploring the positioning schemaSchemas are patterns of repeated behaviours which children engage in. They are a crucial part of development and learning. Here are some ideas can help channel their interest.

  1. Scavenger Hunts
    How many things in your house can you find that are pink? Go on a scavenger hunt for objects that have something in common, then let your wee one position everything the way they want to. This is a great way to chat together about shapes, colours, numbers and size.

  2.  Sorting
    Items like pom poms are great for sorting by colour, but you could find use any other small object. Find them together and sort them by shape, colour, pattern or material!

  3. Stacking
    Creating piles or towers of objects can be a great way to explore positioning too. Blocks or stacking cups are the most obvious examples, but your wee one might enjoy the challenge of natural objects like sticks or stones when out and about. Or what about stacking dishes in a dish rack?

  4. Mandalas
    Mandalas are large circular patterns. Gather items to make a piece of art – natural materials like stones, leaves and sticks can be great for this. Start a centre and radiate outwards in a circle – once your wee one gets the idea you’ll be amazed how often they start building their own.

  5. Move together
    Positioning can also be learning about how to move our bodies together – try mirroring their movements, matching body parts and letting your wee one take the leadMore ideas that explore the positioning schema...

5 Ways With… Pom Poms

5 ways with... is a series that gives you a whole week of ideas with one resource! This time we're focusing on pom poms.

Same, But Different

Wee ones often love handing objects to adults - it's a great way of communicating what they're interested in. Name the object and try to match it to something the same colour, shape or texture. "That's blue teddy - what else is blue?"

Mini Worlds

With a little imagination, cracks in pavements, plants or rocks become their own miniature worlds. Slow down, find an interesting spot, then ask some "I wonder..." questions: I wonder who could live there? I wonder what they need?

Dancing Cheek to Cheek

Next time you're having a kitchen disco, say"Dancing cheek to cheek!" then dance with yourcheek against theirs as you count to 8. Vary theshapes and moves you make by naming differentbody parts - "dancing knee to shoulder" anyone?

Creative Skills Podcast


Mandala Patterns

A mandala ("circle" in Sanskirt) is a circular pattern dating back as far as 400BC, used in religions including Buddhism and Hinduism. You can use natural materials, small objects or toys. Place one item in the centre, then radiate layers outwards to build concentric circles.

Let ’em Rip

If you have a wee one who loves ripping or shredding bits of paper, turn it into temporary art. Bits of coloured paper from takeaway menus, magazines or junk mail can be sorted into colours to make shapes, mosaic pictures or even a rainbow!

Wee Inspirations 

Visual Arts

You’ve Been Framed

Create a piece of art by laying out natural materials (leaves, sticks, stones etc) in a frame on the ground. The frame can be made of sticks, tape, anything that that helps focus the eye.


A ‘positioning’ play schema will often express itself in the desire and drive to line items up and position objects in space, like sorting things by category or stacking them one on top of the other. If you've got a child who can spend hours lining up objects in a row, that's likely the positioning schema in action.

At its most fundamental level, this has to do with children exploring the concepts of order, alignment and sequencing. These children are often also interested in shapes, classification and categorising, which forms the foundations for later mathematical concepts. But to grasp those concepts later on, children learn the basics through play.


In short, the best activities to support a positioning play schema are those that do not necessarily appear to be ‘activities’ but instead offer resources, ideas or provocations for children to continue driving the play in ways that are meaningful to them. 

1. Positioning parts with tinker trays

Source: Tinker Trays- Little Miss Early Years- TTS

 How it connects to play schemas: Tinker trays are the perfect activity for children who use a positioning schema. They are an expression of loose parts play (learn more about this here) which allow children to follow their own motivations and engage in a very open-ended type of play. Tinker trays are an ideal part of continuous provision or a provocation for learning, rather than a set activity.

Tinker trays allow children to engage in positioning schema play

What you'll need:

Popular items to include in tinker trays include:

  • Natural items: pine cones, leaves, stones, sticks

  • Mechanical items: Nuts, bolts, screws

  • Craft items: lolly sticks, foam shapes, sequins, buttons

How you do it: You can take a tinker tray in whichever direction you like. Some practitioners like to add numbers or play dough, or to theme the tray around children’s current interests or topic learning.

Simply leaving this out in a range of learning spaces will encourage positioning schema play as children will be able to line the items up, stack them, categorise them and explore in a way that suits their current needs. It's open-ended play at its best, and opens the door for developing many key skills for early childhood.

2. Experimenting with symmetry through mirror books

How it connects to play schemas: The positioning play schema is a way that children can develop their spatial awareness and reasoning (read more about spatial reasoning in our blog here), and this activity is a fantastic way to support the development of those concepts. Mirror books, are the perfect resource for allowing children to use their positioning schema and explore concepts like symmetry.

A child plays with mirrors

What you'll need:

  • 2 safety mirrors

  • Tape

How you do it: To make a mirror book, you just need to tape two safety mirrors together so that they form a ‘book’. Then take some time to show children how this book can be opened up and positioned to show objects from lots of different angles. Children can use the book to examine objects, explore reflection and symmetry, or to create beautiful patterns using loose parts.

3. Decorating your own nature crown

How it connects to play schemas: Nature crowns are a popular Forest School activity, but it’s also great for supporting a positioning play schema because it allows children to arrange and rearrange small objects and parts.

A girl wears a crown made of natural materials

What you'll need:

  • Length of card

  • Double sided tape

  • Tape or stapler

How you do it: Provide children with a strip of card with a piece of double sided tape. The children can then be encouraged to look out for interesting pieces of nature whilst playing outdoors, or going on a walk and placing these onto the tape. When they feel they are finished you can staple or tape the ends of the card together to create a crown that fits the child’s head.

4. Build your own bracelets with threading activities

How it connects to play schemas: Children who love to use the positioning schema also typically like patterning, because it’s just another way for them to experiment with the way in which different things are positioned with very visual results. It's a great complement for a child who's engaged in positioning schema play.

Plastic beads allow children to engage in positioning schema play

What you'll need:

  • Beads

  • String

  • Coloured pasta

  • Threading sets

How you do it: Threading is a fantastic activity for supporting positioning and  patterning. You can provide children with beads and string, or coloured dried pasta to make jewellery, or you can allow them to thread in a range of different contexts; this nature threading activity is ideal for supporting positioning schemas and patterning interests. 

5. Practice positioning with toy car parking

Source: Car Parking Montessori Activity 

How it connects to play schemas:  Observing a child lining up their toy car, or setting them out as though they were in a car park might be your first clue that a positioning schema is at work. You might notice that a child pays careful attention to the exact placement of cars, or categorises them in different ways.

Positioning schema play represented through lined up toy cars

What you'll need:

  • Cars

  • Paper

  • markers

How you do it: Ensuring that cars are made available may be all that you need to do for some children. If you want to take a more adult-led approach perhaps you could number cars or have different coloured parking spaces for the children to match up.

6. Simple stamping for positioning play

Source: Maths- Stamping Activity

How it connects to play schemas: For children using a positioning play schema, simple stamping activities are ideal. They give children the opportunity to experiment with position, alignment, space and pattern. This activity allows children to build the mathematical concept of patterns and can help to improve fine motor skills.

A child's hand stamps ink on a paper

What you'll need:

  • Paper or card

  • Purpose made stamps

  • Ink pads

  • Sponges

  • Playdough cutters 

How you do it: Provide children with a range of stamping resources. You can allow them to select something that takes their fancy from your resource cupboard or select items that fit with a theme or topic you’ve been exploring. You could discuss patterning with older children and see if they pick up on the invitation, or create your own stamped pattern work as inspiration for them.

19 - 21 Months

The orientation schema:

why your toddler loves a new view

Can’t get your toddler off the stairs? You can blame the “orientation” schema 



When your toddler hangs upside down, looks through their legs, rides on your shoulders, or climbs up or down stairs, they’re exploring what the world looks like from a different perspective. The orientation schema teaches your toddler about balance and movement, and what their body can do in relation to their environment.

5 toddler activities for the orientation schema

1. Offer opportunities to climb safely

  • Make a small obstacle course with something to climb over (like pillows), under (a chair or table), through (a play tunnel), and around (an ottoman or other larger obstacle). You can end your course with a homemade “crash pad”—a gym mat, large bean bag, or other soft landing spot for them to fall onto.

  • Section off part of a staircase by sitting on one step and having someone else sit a few steps below. Invite your toddler to go back and forth between you.

  • Consider investing in a Pikler Triangle, a classic Montessori tool for climbing.

2. Engage in “frolic play”

Frolic play is fun, physical play guided by an adult. This might include bouncing them on your lap, holding them around their torso (not their arms) and gently swinging them, playfully tossing them up in the air, or holding them by their ankles. This kind of movement engages their vestibular system, a sense that helps them learn to balance.

3. Push them in a bucket swing

This may seem like a no-brainer, but toddlers love the constant motion. If they need a little support, stuff a rolled-up blanket behind their back to steady them. To mix it up, try catching them by their feet, pushing them from both behind and in front, giving high fives, and playing peekaboo.

4. Let them step or crawl onto higher surfaces

Toddlers often love to get higher—or lower—whenever they can. This might mean stepping or crawling up onto a low curb at the park or a small step when you’re out for a stroll. When time permits, let them get up and down over and over again.

5. Give them a sturdy mirror during diaper changes

The Framed Mirror is a great tool for exploring this schema, as it allows your toddler to see their surroundings—as well as their own face—from multiple angles. Since your toddler is on their back, an unbreakable mirror gives them a new perspective as well as something to do with their hands 


16 - 18 Months

Collecting and transporting

A few months ago, your toddler might have carried objects from one place to another one-by-one in their hands. Somewhere between 17 and 24 months, they will start to get more strategic, using a bucket or container to be more efficient. 

Their little bustling movements might not seem to have a purpose to you, but your toddler definitely has a plan 


 They’re starting to use tools to solve problems, thinking ahead and inventing new methods to reach their goals. 

Walking while carrying (or pushing) an object requires more coordination and motor skills than walking empty-handed. By holding onto a bucket or basket while walking, your toddler learns they can carry several items from place to place.

The best containers for transporting have two rigid handles and a wide opening, like a basket. Baby strollers and small shopping carts are appealing for this purpose too.

Your toddler is also learning to put a group of items into a container without taking any out until they’re finished. Putting objects in containers and taking them all out again increases focus and extends your toddler’s attention span. They are practicing more refined grasp and release skills while cultivating independence.

How to support your transporting toddler:

Place small items in a container

Give your toddler a group of items (maybe some beads from the lacing kit) and a container and encourage them to put all of the beads into the container. Mastering this skill may also make cleanup more fun 


Walk backward

Woman and toddler carrying a wooden box together outside

To practice walking backwards, ask them to help you carry the large bucket to another part of the room. Let them walk backwards, holding one edge of the bucket while you slowly push the other. 

Model transporting

Show your toddler how to use the bucket to transport or carry things during play.

Find and collect treasures

Give your child a container and take them on a walk outside or around your home. See if they want to pick up “treasures” they find along the way and invite them to put everything they find in the container. You might be surprised by how long your toddler will be happy to walk, picking up treasure after treasure for their collection.

Pack your bags

Young child putting a water bottle into a yellow bag

Allow your toddler to help you pack a bag when you’re going on an adventure. They can put in diapers, wipes, a water bottle, snacks, books, or small toys.

Build motor skills

Your toddler will build gross and fine motor skills—as well as curiosity—as they walk, squat, and collect objects.

19 - 21 Months


how your child learns by throwing, dropping, and flinging

Of all the play schemas your toddler explores, the “trajectory” schema may be your least favorite 


 Children learn so much about the physical world by throwing, dropping, rolling, and flinging things—including their own body. It can get a little bit annoying, but there are ways to redirect this kind of schema play to make it less destructive. 


1. Give them better things to throwIf your toddler is throwing food, rocks, sand, or something else inappropriate, redirect them to items like light scarves, soft balls, light plastic balls, small bean bags, or a small stuffed animal.

2. Let them play with water* Set up a baby pool outdoors and give your toddler cups and other objects to throw in to make a splash. They can also pour water into the tub or kitchen sink from a cup or small pitcher. Even a simple water sensory tray works well, with a few pouring tools. 

3. Give them fun ways to move their body. Part of the trajectory schema is exploring the way their own body moves, so provide your toddler with opportunities to tumble, roll, jump, crawl, bounce, swing, and more. 

*Note: Please supervise your toddler at all times around water, as it’s possible for them to drown in less than 1 inch of water.

In this post


Learn more about throwing

Throwing is sometimes an overlooked early childhood skill, until your toddler starts throwing food. Discover why throwing is important and how to help your child practice their throwing skills in more useful ways.

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