top of page

Identifying Play Schemas

Updated: Jul 28, 2023

The Power of Play Schemas in Supporting Development

As behavior analysts, we are constantly seeking ways to improve and expand our intervention strategies. One approach that has gained traction for early intervention providers is the incorporation of play schemas to support the development of communication, social, and play skills.

This strategy can be highly effective when working with young children, as it takes advantage of their natural inclination towards play and exploration. This is also true for young children with ASD or other developmental delays. Identifying their preferences and special interests and supporting the development of play patterns can help promote social engagement with others.

In this in-depth look, we provide practical tips for identifying play schemas (i.e, patterns in play) that will help you better support children's learning and development.

What is a Play Schema?

As a provider or parent have you ever observed a child climbing on furniture to jump off of, crawling under tables, throwing things (that aren’t meant to be thrown), filling and then dumping things out repeatedly, or running around in circles? If so, there’s a good chance that they are displaying play schemas.

Renowned child psychologist Jean Piaget described schemas as patterns of repeated behavior which allow children to explore and express developing ideas and thoughts through their play and exploration. The repetitive actions of schematic play allow children to construct meaning in what they are doing. At its core, a play schema is a recurring pattern of behavior that children exhibit during play. These patterns allow them to explore, understand, and make sense of the world around them. Young children learn best through opportunities to engage in active learning through hands-on experiences. These opportunities allow children to problem solve, predict, imagine, speculate, and develop independent choices through play.

By identifying and understanding the schema in children's play, parents and behavior analysts can modify their support and interventions to better suit the child's interests and encourage learning through play.

Types of Play Schemas

Utilizing Play Schemas to Foster Communication and Social Skills

While there are several different types of play schemas (depending on what source you research), here are seven common play schemas that children may display:

Rotating: Spinning or turning objects, or engaging in activities that involve circular movement.

Trajection: Involves dropping, throwing, kicking, swinging items.

Enveloping: Involves the child covering themselves or objects.

Positioning: Lining up toys, positioning things in order, etc.

Transporting: Moving objects from one location to another, often involving carrying, pushing, or dragging.

Connecting: Joining objects together, such as stacking blocks or linking toys.

Enclosing: Creating boundaries or enclosures, like building a fort or drawing a circle around an object.

Tailoring Intervention with Play Schemas for Optimal Development

Practical Tips for Identifying Play Schemas

Observe and Document

Spend time observing the child during play without interrupting. Take notes or record videos to document any recurring patterns or behaviors.

Analyze Observations

Review your notes or recordings and look for any themes that align with any of the types of schema in play discussed earlier.

Engage in Reflective Practice

Consider what you've learned from your observations and reflect on how you can use this information to support the child's learning and development better.

Additionally, if you are looking for a more structured way to identify play schemas, we have created the Inventory of Play Patterns to help you do just that.

The Inventory of Play Patterns (IPP) form is designed to help providers and parents identify play schemas to help increase a child's motivation during play and everyday activities. The rating scales are developed to help identify a child's interests across seven different play schemas (e.g., rotating, trajection, enveloping, positioning, transporting, connecting, and enclosing).

Incorporating Play Schemas into Naturalistic Developmental Behavioral Interventions

Understanding Play Schemas to Enhance Engagement

Not every child enjoys the same types of activities, and understanding play schemas will allow you to tailor activities to interests that may otherwise not be obvious. By incorporating schema in children's play, your intervention strategies can be more effective and engaging for the child. Here are some ways to do this:

  • Integrate schemas into goals: Develop intervention goals that align with the child's preferred play activities, ensuring that activities and tasks are relevant to their interests.

  • Use schemas to motivate and engage: Utilize them to motivate and engage during intervention sessions.

  • Monitor progress and adapt: Regularly assess the child's progress and adjust your intervention strategies as needed, taking into account any changes in their play schemas or interests.

When you are observing a child through the lens of play schemas, try shifting the focus from containing and controlling the child’s behavior (throwing rocks outdoors) to facilitating and allowing the play schema to be played out (throwing balls into a bucket).

Toy Play Ideas for Technicians to Keep Children Interested

This resource provides supervisors with endless activity and toy play ideas to make sure their technicians are capturing the child’s attention, maintaining their interest (i.e., motivation), and facilitating the development of the child’s social engagement. They are also a great resource for parent coaching sessions, as many of the items can be found around the child’s house.

The Inventory of Child Interests (ICC) and Play Patterns Inventory (PPI) are also included in this bundle to help professionals and parents identify motivating interests to increase social engagement and help the child connect with others. An observation data-sheet is included to help identify play schemas across routines, as well as a treatment goal bank loaded with objectives to target pivotal foundational skills to support social engagement.

Enhance and Advance Your Skills with Sage Learning Systems

Identifying play schemas can be a powerful tool for both parents and behavior analysts, offering new and engaging ways to support children's learning and development.

To help you on this journey, Sage Learning Systems offers a range of courses designed for behavior analysts, including those focused on play schema and other cutting-edge techniques.

Motivation + Play Patterns

Learn how play schemas are the secret to a successful play experience!

Motivating Children to Initiate and Communicate through Play

If you work with young children with ASD and are looking for ways to help develop their play skills by identifying and incorporating play schemas...then this course is for you.

Learn how to motivate the child to initiate, communicate, and stay socially engaged during learning activities. These are a natural part of children’s play and development and help explain why some children are persistent and determined to do things in a certain way. However, not every child enjoys the same types of activities, and understanding play schemas will allow you to tailor activities to interests that may otherwise not be obvious. This is also true for children with ASD. If they do not develop play schemas, they have no schemas to expand, practice, or master through play…which is often why their play looks different. This course will discuss the social attention and motivation differences observed in children with ASD, provide an overview of the seven main play schemas, and provide strategies for how to capture and contrive motivation through play schemas to increase social engagement. It also provides information on identifying a child’s interests, play schemas, and motivation to provide endless learning opportunities. Troubleshooting information for when things aren’t going to plan is also covered.

Behavior Analyst Continuing Education and Training

To stay current with the latest research and best practices in the field, it's essential to engage in continuing education and training. Some ways include:

  • Attend workshops and conferences Participate in workshops and conferences, or behavior analyst training that focus on play schema and its applications in behavioral intervention.

  • Enroll in online courses Sign up for online courses and their relevance to the field of behavior analysis.

  • Read research articles and books Stay informed about the latest research and findings and their application in behavioral interventions.

  • Collaborate with colleagues Discuss and share experiences with fellow behavior analysts to learn from one another and expand your understanding of play schema.



Piaget, J. (1929). The child’s conception of the world. Routledge & Kegan.

25 views0 comments


bottom of page