The ORIM blog

When drawing becomes writing

Cathy Nutbrown
Professor of Education, School of Education, the University of Sheffield

May 2022

Research into the patterns that seem to underpin young children’s learning has helped many early years practitioners and parents to understand more about how children learn and what they need to help them further develop in their learning.

In the early 1980s Athey (2007) identified these underpinning patterns or ‘schemas’ as children in her study explored many indoor and outdoor experiences. Since then, many early years practitioners have usefully developed work to support young children’s learning, in collaboration with parents. I have written about this before, but here I want to focus on how the familiar marks in young children’s drawings – eventually evolve into conventionally recognisable writing. Here I share a few thoughts on schemas, how parents and practitioners can identify them, and how knowing the schemas children seem to be pursuing can help adults to focus on how best to respond to children’s interests.

What is a schema?

From birth children display particular patterns of behaviour – early on we see sucking and grasping schemas - and as children grow these schemas increase in number and complexity. Eventually, simple schemas that involve vertical, horizontal and circular movements become integrated and coordinated.

How can you spot a schema?

Watching children play and explore is the best way to identify the schemas that may be forming an underpinning pattern in their learning.

For example, if children seem to seek out toys and experiences related to vertical movement they may:

  • use the climbing frame,

  • draw vertical marks

  • build tall towers with bricks

  • look up at aeroplanes and birds

  • jump

  • prefer to be up high when they have a choice

  • make vertical marks

Sometimes children seem absorbed with circular movement. They may:

  • like to be spun round and round on a roundabout

  • enjoy spinning their bodies around

  • be fascinated with large wheels on big trucks

  • seek out objects that are circular or have wheels

  • enjoy rolling out pastry or playdough

  • make circular marks in their paintings or drawings

What do you do when you spot a child’s schema?

When a child’s interest in vertical movement is identified, other experiences and equipment can be offered such as:

  • visiting a shopping centre and using the escalator and glass lifts so that a child can see and experience the movement of going up and down,

  • playing with toy parachutes,

  • rolling a ball down a slope

By matching the learning opportunities they are given (at home and in group settings) with children’s schemas, parents and early years practitioners have a greater chance of sharing a child’s interest and further developing their learning because what is being offered is more likely to be ‘in-tune’ with the child’s pattern of development (Atherton and Nutbrown, 2013).

How many schemas are there and do all children work through all of them?

The original project identified a small number of schemas to do with movement: vertical (going up and down), enclosure (putting things inside other things), circular (going round and round), going over and under, going through, going back and forth, going round a boundary.

Other researchers have since identified other patterns that have dominated children’s play such as ‘connecting’. It’s hard to say if all children work their way through all of these schemas, but observations can reveal some common patterns of behaviour (Nutbrown, 2011), related to movements many children make. Spotting schemas depends on adults watching carefully for patterns in children’s preferences that emerge as they play and taking note of the marks they make and the stories they enjoy.

Why is it helpful to know about schemas?

Understanding what lies behind young children’s behaviours is useful to adults who live and work with them because sometimes it can explain why children do the things they do. For example: some children might spend considerable time making collections of objects inside a bigger container, if they do this time and time again, it might offer a clue to other things that they might enjoy and be interested in.

Many children seem fascinated at some point in their development by putting things inside other things. They may:

  • collect a set of apparently random objects into a handbag, a tin or a box.

  • like to hide themselves – in a tent, under a table, under their duvet, or inside the playhouse.

  • be fascinated with the homes of tiny creatures – rabbit’s burrows, birds’ nests and so on.

When adults offer children new experiences, which match with their underpinning schema, they can extend children’s learning and thinking.

Knowing that a child is interested in ‘enclosing’ (putting things inside things) might lead an adult to offer objects and experiences that fit with this interest, such as:

  • playing in tents

  • making dens

  • sorting a set of Russian Dolls

  • making food that has something inside (such as pies, sandwiches)

  • hiding in large boxes or other enclosures

  • making marks or drawings which have marks inside or outside a symbol.

So, knowing which schemas children are interested in helps parents at home, and practitioners in early years settings to offer them experiences – at home, in group settings and on trips and visits, which match their interests and are more likely to interest and capture their interest and attention.

Schemas seem to be about moving – how does that help learning, development and writing?

Much of young children’s learning is physical, it involves a lot of moving around - jumping, twirling, hiding, skipping, rolling - healthy, happy children are on the move much of the time. And this movement supports the development of their minds as well as their bodies. One thing that I find fascinating is the way in which several schemas (vertical, enclosure, going over, under and through) involve children in making movements, and later marks, that include all those needed to write conventionally recognised symbols found in many languages around the world.

When spiders, spokes and sunshine appear in children’s drawings, they have most of the marks they need to write all the symbols in the written scripts of many languages. So, the early development of schemas through children’s physical movement provides an essential underpinning for mark-making and drawing and - eventually for writing.

Watching children as they play is the best way to begin to understand the schemas that underpin their learning, and to plan the next steps in learning experiences to match their needs.

In the audio Powerpoint slide show here – I explain a little more about the links between drawing and writing.


Athey, C. (2007) Extending thought in young children: A parent-teacher partnership (2nd Ed) London: Sage.

Atherton, F. and Nutbrown, C. (2013) Understanding Schemas and Young Children: from Birth to Three London, United Kingdom: Sage.

Nutbrown, C (2011) Threads of Thinking: Schemas and young children’s learning (4thEd), London: Sage.

© Cathy Nutbrown 2022