Guest blog: What are schemas?

Guest blog: What are schemas?

What are schemas?

Eat, sleep, work, repeat evokes a shudder of the monotonous adult world of responsibility and early morning alarm clock snoozes before going about the daily routine. Hold that thought for a second, and in the words of Mr Wonka, step into a world of pure imagination. Let’s marvel at the sheer ingenuity of a child’s brain, children are not merely adults in simple form. They are construction workers, applying constant intellect. Their brains are navigation stations, building knowledge and skills through application and interest blocks to form cognitive connections conceptualising the world around them.

How can our tiny humans be the real masters of education?

The starting point to this is all those “little (sometimes annoying) things” they do that appear to mean nothing... but provide the foundations to cement those building blocks, enabling them for all future endeavours. These “little annoyances” are actually schemas and are as fundamental to a child’s development, as popcorn is to a full cinema experience.

Coined by Piaget, schemas are concepts of knowledge and purposeful acquisition of that knowledge. In order to promote long term embedded learning in children they need to be able to tune into their holistic development by exploring an engaging environment in a way that supports their current phase of learning style. I say phase because this changes: sometimes sporadically, sometimes over a longer period of time and sometimes infrequently. Learning for children is far from a linear road but in fact, a cognitive motorway with slip roads, roundabouts and alternative routes to the destination of new knowledge and skills. Building on existing learning all of the time. Simplistically put- continually connecting the dots.

How can we use this in our early years practice to support children through the cognitive learning? Because after all, all they do is play, right?

Wrong. Of course, all early year’s practitioners gasp at that misconception of what we do in eyfs. The world around us not always aware that actually “play is the highest form of research”, according to a man called Einstein anyway!

When children research with schema play it can look like messy, disorganised and unstructured chaos. It can look like children not sharing with their friends or risky upside down hanging from a climbing frame. Shock horror it can even be a child throwing toys around the room.  It doesn’t look like we are “teaching” reading and writing or early mathematics. It certainly doesn’t look like we’re exploring EYFS understanding the world or expressive arts and design... but we are. In fact that’s exactly what we are doing.  So what are the schemas? Why are children doing certain things? What schema are they displaying? and what is the learning purpose?


Schemas in a nutshell


Rotation: We live on a sphere that rotates so it’s no surprise that there is a natural fascination to some children to explore rotation, whether this be spinning themselves in circles or moving objects around a central point. Did you know rather than knocking children into a dizzy clumsiness this kind of research play supports the child’s physical sturdiness, matures their nervous system and supports coordination of both sides of their body. Alas the pressure of “teaching a child to read and write” is pre stimulated by this form of activity through nerve development for following lines of text across a page. So yes, lets enable children to access this schema because in fact, we ARE teaching them to read and write. We can support this kind of motor skill play through resources and activities such as ribbons to twirl and swirl, wheels to turn and steer, cars, whisking and mixing, rolling down hills, roundabout play, fidget spinners and beyond!



Trajectory : This schema can cause headaches, literally real headaches if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a wooden block to the head! This is the acquisition of space and movement knowledge to children exploring this schema. Children become engulfed in a world of movement, from throwing items, stacking blocks to knock them down again, to running... everywhere! It’s important to remember safety boundaries but as practitioners it’s important to stimulate and provide safe resources to support this schema (to reduce the headache incidents!). Balls in hoops or boxes, wide open spaces to run enhanced with zig zags or curves, pouring equipment and ramps to launch cars. What else is this supporting children with? You guessed it... motor skills as a prerequisite for those all-important specific areas of EYFS when developmentally appropriate. Heck, as an ambassador for discreet all encompassed learning why not make a fun game of how many baskets balls little Freddie can score to add some number fun in there too?  The beauty of early years is how much fun we can have playing with children knowing they are endlessly exposed to learning opportunities.


Positioning:  A personal favourite of mine as an adult! All you have to do is look at my neatly lined up tins in my kitchen cupboard to realise I like “arranged”.  To the child who lines up their cuddly toys by size at the picnic or the little girl who wants to stack all of the stones on top of one another, I feel your pain when your trajectory friends find it fun to knock them down or kick them over.  Support in this schema is not just about resources but also respect. When investing so much time in practicing early mathematics (that’s right! early shape space and measure in abundance through this schema)  it’s really important that their research can be completed in an environment that allows them the time and space to explore these positioning concepts. Giving children an abundance of opportunities such as: lining the bikes up after play, loose parts of different shapes and sizes, stacking towers and shape templates are just what they need for this schema, ideally with an area of safety to secure their skills.


Connecting : “I’m sticking with you coz I’m made out of glue” the very notion of creating connections between two different things naturally occurs from the very first moment a child is born and they wrap their tiny hand around a parents finger. Isn’t nature a wonderful thing? This schema can be displayed in so many ways. From junk modelling to pipe connections in water play. Instilling that creative flair, alongside scientific engineering noticing that two separate entities can become one or a structure can became strong or wider or taller and of course that a small piece of train track can become a large journey when connected together. Let your children join hands, plumb pipework in water play and create structures from recycling, or through den building. Why not inspire them to build houses or world landmarks and support their understanding of the world through this schematic play?


Enveloping and enclosing: Have you ever had a child hide inside a box or wrap themselves up like a mummy, giving you palpitations that they can’t breathe? We have all been there! Children love to be inside things and put things inside other things. Such clever little creatures teaching themselves capacity and volume, albeit that they don’t know it in this technical sense. Future scientists and mathematicians embedding their learning at such a young age. Support this schema by giving children an environment that enables them to bury items in sand or soil, wrap up toys or even themselves, create walls around their play or fences around their farm set up. Provide containers for filling, tipping and pouring into bigger or smaller spaces. As a practitioner be the thought provoker by asking questions “Is that big enough? Which will fit? How much or many can you fit into the box?”

Transforming: “Yuk, Eurgh, sticky mess and gloop” the words that spring to mind when exploring sensory play and transformation schema. As natural as the changing of seasons children in this research phase love to explore changes of matter. From melting ice to adding water to mud they are wowed by how things can change when mixed together or added to something else. Never has awe and wonder been so apparent as it is in this stage. Let children mix paint to explore colour, you might be supporting the next Picasso or Banksy, let them model with clay and play dough moulding masterpieces as a future engineer rivalling the Burj Khalifa, bake bake bake to encourage the next Mary Berry.. ultimately exploration is the key in this schema. Talk to them about the concept of weather, day and night and the changing of seasons embedding the skills and knowledge that things can and do change, that some things are permanent, and some things can be manipulated. Not least, as ever let’s support communication and language with alliterative description, repeated refrains of roll roll and pat pat, provoking thinking through open questions.


Transporting:  We’ve all been there, the bricks are found with the pencils or random toys from around the room moved to another equally random place of storage. Children researching in this play schema love to move things around! They like to put things in bags and boxes and move them from one place to the next. Perfect discreet fine motor skills activities such as tweezers and pipettes can encourage this through play, diggers and tractors to move sensory resources such as sand and mud. This schema can greatly be encouraged and supported through real life experiences such as tidy time and setting the dinner table. After all we are supporting the whole child and can adapt to every schema in a positive way through real life experiences.


Most important resource


Some children will explore all schemas, some will stick to one and some may not display any schematic play. Be observant to recognise patterns of behaviour and reactive enough not to hinder play.


A final thought. Remember YOU. You make the difference. As an early years educator you are the most valuable resource, what you say, what you ask and what you explore with the children fundamentally underpins all of their learning regardless of which schema they are currently exploring. You are the difference between “the ice has melted” compared to “oh my goodness the ice has melted because it has warmed up in the sunshine, that’s what’s happening in Antarctica and the population of polar bears in the world is reducing”......


They key to successful early years learning and support is offering up an abundance of awe and wonder experiences filled with discreet learning opportunities in an all encompassing environment that develops every child, every moment, every day.



Lorna Marshall

Concept education, Teague Day Nurseries

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