July 26, 2020

Each parent, watching their 2, 3 or 4-year-old, recognises the frenetic pace and fleeting attention they seem to apply to every activity they choose. 

A child left to its own devices may one minute be in the toy box throwing each toy into the corner, emptying the entire box, and running off.  Two minutes later they are stood next to the fruit bowl dropping each item of fruit and watching them roll across the floor and then they’re running with a push-along all the way through the house, backwards and forwards, again and again!  Each activity abandoned within a few minutes, leaving disorder and disarray in their wake.  This seemingly erratic and chaotic behaviour is often labelled as ‘naughty’, ‘inappropriate’, ‘challenging’ or even ‘attention seeking’, but is it?

For many years children in their early years were seen as ‘blank slates’, unfinished miniature adults that needed to be completed or even fixed.  We now understand that during the period from birth to 3 years old the brain develops more rapidly than at any other time in life and by 5 years old this has slowed dramatically.  We also understand that in each period of life there appears to be schemes for the way we learn and the experiences we seek, in which case, Chris Athey decided there must be a positive scheme or system for the learning occurring at this stage in life that could help us understand this hectic period of development.

If we go back to the child who has just pulled your house to pieces and is now happily sitting in front of Cbeebies with his snack, pleased with his hard day’s work, can we apply this theory of development to his behaviour?  If we look at the form of his play and not the content we will see that the form of thought behind each activity is that of moving items from one place to another.  The content is the emptying the toy box, bruising the fruit and racing through the house but they all link with moving items from one location to another. 

This is now understood to be a ‘schema’ which is a cognitive system for connecting information children use to learn about phenomenon in their environment such as straight lines to move up and down and backwards and forwards.  This can then develop to explore concepts such as height, distance, force, gravity, speed, impact and many other mathematical and scientific concepts that then become the sound basis of their future academic studies.  Newton discovered gravity by playing with apples and your child is doing the exact same thing! 

We have all experienced the baby who suddenly finds that if they throw something from their pram it becomes a great game of fetch for mummy or daddy and any other willing volunteer.  This game is not designed to annoy you, please you or even make you fit!  It is a game the child is biologically driven to explore, to gain an understanding of the world around them, their place in it and how it all works.  This creates neurological links that will become the pathways for all future learning and all by the age of 5!

The range schemas that have now been recognised allow an understanding of many of the behaviours we all recognise as parents such as creating long lines of cars or other items, hiding in the smallest spaces, climbing on everything, carrying a bag full of seemingly random items everywhere or looking at everything from an upside down position.  As these schemas been recognised allow an understanding of many of the behaviours we all recognise as parents such as creating long lines of cars or other items, hiding in the smallest spaces, climbing on everything, carrying a bag full of seemingly random items everywhere or looking at everything from an upside down position.  As these schemas combine and develop to become more complex, the child is able to explore and investigate as a scientist and as their understanding grows so do their skills to learn.  So next time you trip over the line of cars made in the doorway or find a bag filled with all the items you’ve been looking for all day (including the car keys) please take a breath and remember, it’s all in a days work!

Case Study: Rose

Rose has shown evidence of a Trajectory schema since she was one year old and often engaged in any form of physical activity that focused on moving up and down and forward and back.  Rose particular enjoyed climbing up and down and jumping and could jump with two feet together before her 2nd birthday.  Rose’s language was limited until after her 2nd birthday however she knew ‘up’ and ‘down’ and often spent a lot of time holding her arms over her head saying “Up” and then touching the floor and saying “Down”.  She was and is fascinated with roller skates, bikes, climbing on to items and jumping off, travelling on the bus and planes.


Types of Schema

  1. Filling and Emptying - emptying boxes onto floor, filling cups to top…
  2. Trajectory - jumping off things, running backwards and forwards, swings, lines of cars…
  3. Enveloping - dressing up, face paint, messy play covering hands, paint covering everything…
  4. Transporting - bags full of bits, carrying lunch boxes, items that have to be taken everywhere…
  5. Rotation - spinning around, wheels, drawing circles, balls and hula hoops….
  6. Going through a boundary - climbing through shelves, going through tunnels, posting items…

So how do we use Schema?

For the practitioners at Our Monkey Club, observing the patterns in a child’s play is the crucial element in understanding what they are currently motivated to learn and how they wish to learn. 

These patterns in the way they play help us to understand the key concepts they are addressing, what understanding they already hold and what they are trying to accomplish.  By understanding this, we can support their learning effectively and key into their intrinsic motivations to enable deep level learning.

This exploration is the basis for the scientific and mathematical concepts that will underpin all future learning and interactions with the world.  There are many different schemas that have been identified so far.

Schema is based on Piaget’s idea of how children construct their knowledge.

His theory says that when a child comes across a concept in the world, for example, a dog they list all the components of the dog that they have just learned; he has four legs, a tail, fur, and he barks.

This concept is then used by that child to compare to different concepts they come across and will verify or challenge them.

For example, when a child sees a cat they will then use their concept about dogs and compare them; it has four legs, a tail, fur but it meows.

This then constructs a new concept for the child. This is what is happening when a child is exploring a schema.

We understand that when we plan for your child’s play we have to plan for the type of play/action and not the ‘content.  There is a difference and traditionally lots of planning becomes topic based in education but we understand that if you want to children to understand the world you must plan for the ‘form’ of their learning instead.

This is why our childrens play sometimes seems erratic and as if their is no connection but it you look for it, there is always a pattern and purpose.  Its our job to find it and help them extend their schema to underpin long term concept development.

Content vs Form

  1. Content is specific in the environment such as the item, story, situation i.e. pirates, the unit blocks or making a picture.
  2. Form: is the play/action when interacting with the environment i.e. filling and emptying containers, painting over an entire piece of paper or running backwards and forwards incessantly!

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