Aug 28, 2014

Creating a recursive template in KnockoutJS

Sooner or later you will face a problem of rendering flat data as hierarchical representation in your KnockoutJS application. This data can come from the database, or a flat file (txt, csv, etc.). Recursive template are here to help! Check out the live sample on jsFiddle.

We have the data presented below:

Sample data
// ItemModel constructor takes in 3 parameters: ID, Parent ID, Label
var items = [
    new ItemModel(0, null, "Item 1"),
    new ItemModel(1, null, "Item 2"),
    new ItemModel(2, 0, "Item 1-1"),
    new ItemModel(3, 0, "Item 1-2"),
    new ItemModel(4, 3, "Item 1-2-1"),
    new ItemModel(5, 1, "Item 2-1"),
    new ItemModel(6, 1, "Item 2-2"),
The values are coming from a table that references itself - Parent ID points to an ID in the same table. In case the Parent ID is null, it is a top level item.

We start with this Knockout template that references itself, going into recursion. The ViewModel is accesses through $root variable, and $data holds the current item being rendered. In order to avoid adding an extra <ul> where there are not sub-items, containerless control flow is used:

Recursive template
<script type="text/html" id="item-template">
        <span data-bind="text: label"></span>

        <!-- ko if: $root.hasSubitems($data) -->
            <ul data-bind="template: {name: 'item-template', foreach: $root.subitemsOf($data)}"></ul>
        <!-- /ko -->

Main part of the code are the models:

  • ItemModel - a simple value holder
  • RecursiveListViewModel - ViewModel that has a list of ItemModels and a couple of utility functions:
    • subitemsOf - uses Knockout utility function arrayFilter in order to find the items with a specific parent
    • hasSubitems - uses Knockout utility function arrayFirst in order to determine whether an item has at least one child
KnockoutJS models
function ItemModel(id, parent_id, label) {
    var self = this; = ko.observable(id);
    self.parentId = ko.observable(parent_id);
    self.label = ko.observable(label);

function RecursiveListViewModel(tasks) {
    var self = this;

    self.items = ko.observableArray(tasks);

    // Gets the sub-items of an item, if any
    self.subitemsOf = function (item) {
        var children = ko.utils.arrayFilter(self.items(), function (arrayItem) {
            var parentItemId = (null === item) ? null :;
            return arrayItem.parentId() == parentItemId;

        return children;

    // Returns a bool value indicating whether an item has sub-items
    self.hasSubitems = function (item) {
        var firstMatch = ko.utils.arrayFirst(self.items(), function (arrayItem) {
            return (arrayItem.parentId() ==;

        return (null !== firstMatch); // At least one item found in array

To kick of the whole sample, bind an unordered list to our recursive template with top level items (null parent id):

<ul data-bind="template: { name: 'item-template', foreach: $root.subitemsOf(null) }"></ul>

Voila! The template renders itself - see jsFiddle here.

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