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All in a Straight Line: Lining Up Everyday Objects and Playthings

Dr Stella Louis is an author and leading early years consulting, specialising in Schemes, Observation and Characteristics of Effective Learning, Equality, Race and Unconscious Bias and Froebelian Practice and Principles.

In her third article for That Nursery Life, Dr Stella Louis explores trajectory schemas and their role in childhood learning and development.

A schema is a Piagetian term used to describe repeated behaviour patterns in children’s movements. When we observe children closely, we will see repeated pattern across all aspects of their play. Children are often compelled to throw things, place objects in lines, or move things and themselves from one place to another. Some children may be interested in constructing enclosures that surround themselves and objects or completely covering themselves and their playthings. Other children maybe fascinated in joining and connecting things together or twisting and turning things.

Photo by Morgan Housel on Unsplash

These schematic patterns of behaviour which I have briefly described are an important part of child development because they link directly to how the brain develops. A child’s brain is not fully formed like an adult’s; adult brains are also in a process of becoming. Different parts of the brain develop at different rates as children continue to grow. Babies and young children engage and interact with the world through the emotional and sensory part of the brain and it is this part that reacts to their impulse and natural instinct. If adults are aware of children’s impulsive schematic explorations, they can use it to develop children’s physical capabilities and thinking. This can be done by providing appropriate experiences and resources which will more effectively support and extend their play and learning.

Schemas are a learning mechanism. They help children to co-ordinate their whole body, remember and recall their actions as well as develop and refine their deliberate actions. Children will use schemas to help them process their inner thoughts and ideas into memories, conceptions, classifications and categories.

For example, 2-year-old Raphael was observed lining up S-hooks on a horizontal bar. He pointed at a potted conifer, wanting to hang hooks on the branches. At this point he dashed off to drive his pedal car, riding it in a horizontal straight line. After a while he found the garden hose and used it to “put petrol in his car”.

Photo by Joshua Olsen on Unsplash

Raphael’s experimentation with lines developed into an interest in lining everything up, in straight, horizontal lines, from cars to pencils to S-hooks. S-hooks are especially interesting to him because he can see that they hang down vertically. He is also beginning to discover how to make vertical lines by hooking them together. He was able to apply his existing knowledge that some lines can be straightened. It is in this way that children systematically learn as they explore aspects of their world. As Raphael repeats his actions, he is developing his ideas and concepts about lines; everything connects. These experiences will form the foundation of his understanding. His interests in lines (trajectory) have enabled him to generalise about some lines.

This example shows how schemas can operate at different levels of action and thought. At the point that Raphael dashed off to drive his peddle car he experienced the sensation of riding in a horizontal straight (sensory motor). In discovering that the garden hose could be straightened and used to put petrol in his car, Raphael was using one of the highest levels of thinking and functioning - symbolic representation. What is fascinating about his schematic moment is that it is helping him, through his senses, to understand and experience lines both physically and mentally. The important point here is that whatever he does with his playthings he also does to himself, and this links directly to his brain development. So what might look like random and unconnected activities – arranging the hooks, followed by riding his car, then by searching out the hose – are, in fact, deeply related to each other and inform each other.

There are three important things to consider when identifying children’s schemas. Firstly, despite the child’s own motivation for learning, children need guidance and support from adults. Adults are vital in supporting and extending children’s development and learning. This means adults need to observe what it is that a child is actually doing. For example, when observing the trajectory schema, adults need to consider whether children are making vertical or horizontal lines. Are they interested in things moving through the air? Do lines of objects have a start and end point? Are lines connected or combined? Are they making intersections and/or grids? Are they representing lines in their mark making and drawings?

Photo by Yunsik Noh on Unsplash

Secondly, adults must try to always look for the good intentions in children’s schematic play. For example, Raphael’s good intentions were that he wanted to hang hooks on the branches, at a horizontal angle to the tree trunk. They must also consider what concepts a child might be learning about - the trajectory schema could include learning about straight lines, flow, height, length, space, symmetry, shape or angles. The act of being able to do things over and over again helps children work towards a greater understanding of their immediate physical environment and particular interest. It also enables children to explore and manipulate their movements or actions, leading to them being able to predict what will happen next and adjust their thinking in light of new information.

Thirdly, adults need to be aware of how children represent their sensory and symbolic experiences. An awareness of schemas can help adults to see the connections and complexities involved in children’s play. Adults need to take time to identify and interpret what they see and consider the implication of children’s actions for planning the learning environment, in order to better support or extend their playing and learning.

Ultimately, schemas assist children to construct ideas that enable them to develop as active learners, helping them to think and deepen their understanding of things that are of interest to them.