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Child learning, development and schemas

Nov 24, 2021 | Early Childhood

Child learning, development and schemas

In the 21st century, understanding of child development has built on the successes and failures of 19th- and 20th-century theorists.  

The work of American clinical psychologist Arnold Gesell (1880–1961) has been highly influential in establishing what are referred to as developmental norms. These patterns of development are taken as indicators of a predetermined, inbuilt sequence of behaviour – for example, that children will walk at around one year of age or learn to make two-word utterances at a prescribed age. 

Two important child development theorists

Italian educator Maria Montessori (1870–1952) believed firmly in critical periods of development, which she termed “sensitive periods”, and highlighted that once these have passed, they can never be regained. She argued that when children demonstrate a passion for or focus on a particular activity, their intensity is energising and important to learning. Failure to allow children to learn, for example, to use scissors or to jump at the stage at which they are passionate about these things will get in the way of future progress.  

Child development and planning

Although less strongly worded, the practice of planning provision around schema rests on a similar premise, that by noticing strong drives or interests in children, educators can support development. 

Schemas are patterns of repeated behaviour often seen in young children. Original research by Chris Athey (2007) identified a number of different schemas. Knowledge of schema theory is very useful as a tool for educators to observe and plan for children’s current focus. For example, in the baby room of a children’s centre, educators ensured that scarves and places for hiding were always available, since this is something they noticed that children love to do.  

Child development and planning

Similarly, they had a large stack of small shopping bags and baskets to allow children to envelop and transport at will.  

Parents and educators can find behaviour of this sort challenging, as it requires a lot of tidying up, but once understood as a developmental drive, it becomes both more interesting and acceptable.  

The trick is to provide an environment and materials that support and encourage schematic play. Understanding the schema being explored and providing opportunities to facilitate that in a positive way reduces play or behaviour that is often viewed as negative. Providing bean bags and baskets and creating a throwing game is a great way to explore trajectory and may mean that blocks are no longer thrown across the room. However, be mindful that there may be a need to vary materials over time, enabling children to explore throwing with items of different weight and physical characteristics.  

The trick is to provide an environment and materials that support and encourage schematic play

The characteristics of some common schema

Assembling – Bringing things together in random or ordered piles eg, piling toys onto an adult’s lap.

Connecting – Fastening things together eg, knotting things together; using masking tape to link things; making “maps” with lines joining all the elements.

Dabbing – Random marks eg, drawings or paintings made up of splodges (death to felt tip pens); numerous buttons, eyes, spots, raindrops etc on drawings.

Enclosure – Outer shape (may be left empty or closely filled in) eg, walls made of Lego and filled with different colours; sitting in boxes, dens and tunnels; building cages (or prisons or swimming pools) with hollow blocks.

Enveloping/wrapping – Completely covering objects or themselves; wrapping things up eg, filling bags, boxes, pockets etc with random objects; covering self with scarf or blanket (as in peek-a-boo).

Orientation – Finding a different viewpoint eg, hanging upside down; peering backwards with head between legs.

Radial – Lines radiating out from a central core eg, drawing spiders, sun, fingers, hair.

Rotation – Exploring things that turn eg, spinning on a roundabout or enjoying being spun round by an adult; observing wheels, cogs, windmills, tumble driers.

Trajectory – Investigating horizontal and vertical lines; later combined to explore grids, diagonals and zig-zags eg, building towers; climbing; throwing; dropping objects from cot or high chair; running water from taps and hoses; saws and dragon’s teeth.

Transforming – Focus on change eg, mixing paint; melting ice; eggs hatching; seeds germinating; adding sand to a water tray (and vice versa).

Transporting – Moving objects or collections from one area to another eg, using a bag, truck or pram to move all the bricks, sand or dishes from one place to another.

Something to think about

  • What urges have you noticed in young children?
  • Did you support them in exploring these? How?
  • How can you support educators who feel nervous about children finding challenges for themselves?

This article is adapted from Child Development by Nicole Halton and Linda Pound. To read more on child development, see our other articles on the early years.

Reference: Athey, C (2007) Extending Thought in Young Children: A parent–teacher partnership. Thousand Oaks, CA, USA: Sage.


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