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What Are Schemas? Aren’t They Just What All Children Do?

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 second article for That Nursery Life, Dr Stella Louis explores schemas and their role in childhood learning and development.

Photographer: Sigmund | Source: Unsplash

A schema is a repeated action which is seen in babies, toddlers and young children. Schemas are part of Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive structures that has been expanded by Chris Athey and Tina Bruce. The Department for Education and Skills (DfES), provides us with a helpful definition:

‘A schema is a repeated pattern of behaviour. Children often have a strong drive to repeat actions such as moving things from one place to another, covering things up, and putting things into containers, or moving in circles or throwing things. These patterns can be observed running through their play and vary between one child and another. If practitioners build on these interests powerful learning can take place’ (DfES, 2007:134).

Schemas are biological. We are born with them. They are linked to child development and always adjust and change in light of children’s experiences and responses from others. Although basic schemas are found in every human in every part of the world – in the same way as vision, hearing, touch and movement are present, unless there is damage – there are fascinating variations in the way in which they are expressed, depending on cultural context and individual interests, which emphasise some schemas more than others.

Anyone who has observed young children will see early schemas developing, for example, children repeatedly moving up and down (vertical movements) or moving back and forth and side to side (horizontal movements). These behaviours are characteristics of the trajectory schema, where a child is interested in either vertical or horizontal lines. Children might be fascinated in moving themselves or their playthings up and down, pushing trains along a track, or perhaps arranging lines of blocks. In this way children learn about height and distance.

Schemas develop through children’s first-hand experiences and their interaction with their immediate environment (socio-cultural). Babies want to learn – they will look around for an object and find out about its properties through repeatedly banging, mouthing, biting or squeezing it. This is how young children learn, by repeatedly playing, exploring and interacting with others and objects. Children have a natural curiosity and desire to learn and we can build on this by tuning into what fascinates and already interests them.

For example, Raphael (1 year, 8 months) has an interest in lines. He took sand from the sandpit with his hands and patted it down along one plank on the bench. Later, in the kitchen, he pulled out the three drawers of the cupboard and left them open at the same time. He observed the cutlery drawer intently. Raphael is not being forced to learn here – he is learning through his natural exploration. He is literally experiencing how to make lines as he pats the sand down on the plank, while also experiencing the contrast with something malleable and something rigid. The drawers being pulled open allow him to feel the force of a line as his arms work to slide the drawers open and closed. The cutlery drawer has lots of lines in it with the cutlery and tray and also provides a learning opportunity.

Importantly, schemas develop as our brain develops, with new neural pathways being formed. Schemas are a reflection on how information is processed in the brain. Children will need opportunities to practice repeatedly what they know and can do, so that they can use their knowledge in many different ways. What is known then becomes more deeply understood.

Photographer: Ryan Fields | Source: Unsplash

As we observe children closely, we begin to see the different ways in which schemas can operate. Sometimes a child might learn through action and movements, such as banging, running, climbing or jumping. At other times they operate through symbolic representation, where they use one thing to stand in for another, such as a block becoming a car. Or children may express an interest in cause and effect relationships. They may say, ‘It’s going to fall down if I put another block on top’. Schemas are not merely a repeated action – they are about children’s conceptual development. We should not only be able to recognise schemas in action when we see them but we also need to know what concept is below the surface of a particular schema and what we can do to support or extend a child’s learning.

Schemas are often observed when babies, toddlers and young children have opportunities to be autonomous and lead their own play. This matters for learning for three reasons. Firstly, schemas are a very specific pattern of learning. Each stage of schematic learning is dependent on what has gone before and will need to be experienced fully and thoroughly, without being rushed.

Some adults may think that such repetitive actions are a waste of the child’s time. On the contrary, as a child repeats their thoughtful actions and behaviours, doing them again and again leads to thinking, reasoning and understanding. Secondly, a child’s development and learning follows biological and socio-cultural paths. These influence each other and are connected to how the brain develops. A quality curriculum involves both the biological and socio-cultural elements. Each time children repeat their actions and behaviours they are using a way of learning that they know works and this will reinforce connections in the brain, thereby making it easier for them to make connections in their own learning. Thirdly, schemas are linked to the child’s natural curiosity and desire to explore places, objects and materials. Repetition is a child’s way of recalling what they know. If we ignore the child’s intrinsic motivation, it will inhibit their development.