Extend schemas to make children feel empowered

Written by: Dr John Siraj- Blatchford is honorary professor at the University of Plymouth and partner of community interest company, SchemaPlay
Monday, January 7, 2019

A project in Walsall highlights how practitioners are successfully building upon children’s favoured schemes and schema to build in new challenges, extend learning and improve EYFS outcomes.

In a three-month project in 12 Walsall pre-schools, training programme SchemaPlay has been working in collaboration with early years practitioners to provide genuine child centred free-flow play learning, and improve learning outcomes towards the EYFS outcomes at the same time. SchemaPlay builds upon the pioneering work of Chris Athey in the 1980s and 90s, and has responded to her challenge that: ‘if more were known about the build-up of coordinated schemas and concepts, more would be known about how best to teach some of the key concepts of the curriculum right through schooling’ (Athey, 1991, p114).

Since schema theory and practice was rst introduced by Athey into pre-schools, and then promoted further by Bruce, Nutbrown, Arnold and others, many thousands of practitioners in the UK and around the world have become expert in recognising the most common repeated operations ‘schemes’ or ‘schema’ that children favour in their free play. Transporting’, ‘containing’ and ‘rotation’ are among the most common ‘schemas’ observed, but there are many more.

What these activities all have in common is that the child has gained con dence in their application; they feel empowered by the activity and their novelty remains such that they are repeated continuously. ey are free of the risk and the anxiety that inevitably comes from attempting something new. e adult who supports with a helping hand the child’s rst jump o a step recognises that all learning involves risk, and they recognise how important it is to provide children with the sca olding support that they need to learn something new.

The same applies to every aspect of the EYFS curriculum. Skilled educators use formative assessment to identify what it is that the child can already achieve, and then provide them with the support they need to take the next steps forward. To achieve this, e ective early childhood educators need to be skilled in recognising the schemas each child is applying and to understand clearly what small steps will take them forward towards the complex concepts that represent the EYFS learning outcomes.


Helping to move schemas on
They first discovered schemas in the work of Jean Piaget who actually termed these learnt operations and behaviours of young children in French as ‘Schèmes’, and distinguished them from the figurative images and words that children learn, which he called ‘Schema’. These two terms and distinctions are rarely referred to in early years literature, but it is extremely useful to do so – especially when we want to look beyond merely encouraging the use of observed schemes, to the ways in which we can encourage the child’s learning and progression beyond them.

To apply Piaget’s terminology, typically, the practitioner identifes the operative or behavioural ‘scheme’ and then seeds the play environment with the material resources that encourage the child to apply this scheme to a new ‘schema’ context.

They encourage learning through assimilation. The SchemaPlay pedagogy recognises the value of this, and takes the process a stage further to show how the schemes that children acquire also serve as essential prerequisites and provide progression towards learning many of the more complex operations and concepts included in the EYFS outcomes and beyond.

If we take the example of a child who is observed constantly containing sand in buckets in the sand tray, they may be provided with other containers or beads to extend the scheme to additional schema contexts. These provisions will be successful whenever the child finds the new schema (the new containers, beads etc.) of interest. If we identify a particularly strong schema interest for the child to apply their scheme, then we have an activity that is especially motivating, and this will encourage risk taking in areas that may otherwise be outside the child’s comfort zone. The sensory enjoyment of pouring beads may therefore be extended to pouring between different sized containers and to the encouragement of grading behaviours. Grading, as another scheme provides a crucial prerequisite for many more complex mathematical operations including counting and measurement. SchemaPlay encourages practitioners to build upon the child’s favoured scheme’s and schema to support the accommodation of new learning. It provides a model for practice that accounts for both the socio-cultural and the developmental realities of the educational engagement, a pedagogic model where the adult and child co-construct a curriculum providing progressive challenge and improved EYFS outcomes.

SchemaPlay training was rst provided in the context of an ‘Education for Sustainable Citizenship’ initiative in Kent during 2016/17 (reported in Nursery World). is year the work has been developed further to speci cally address the underachievement of disadvantaged children in the West Midlands.

The project has been a success in Walsall and the local authority has recently extended it. SchemaPlay is applying in partnership with the authority for funding from the Education Endowment Fund (EEF) to carry out a robust evaluation and test its capability of being upscaled to tackle the problem of underachievement more widely.

Case study: Supporting children to develop their themes independently
Louise Mayne, an early years teacher at Kings Hill Primary school in Walsall, provides a good example of the learning progression that can be supported during free- ow play when both schemes and schemas are considered.

One of the boys in her class, Alexander, was first observed at 43 months. He was cooking pancakes with playdough. He referred to the term ‘cooking’ during his play, and, although he was being encouraged to engage in weighing the pancake mixture by an adult, a group activity, he continued with his own play theme of lling paper cake cases with the dough for most of the morning session.

The initial scheme identified in his play is that of ‘containing’ and there were many other examples of his containing scheme in his free play activity over the following weeks: Louise observed him playing with and sitting inside boxes that came to represent cars and other schema, such as re engines. He created drawings inside cardboard boxes and was also observed containing small world toys inside lines, such as in the picture below.

Sta observations provided evidence of his special knowledge and interest in cooking and it was therefore decided to ‘seed’ his play further by setting up a role play café to build upon his schema of cooking and the observed containing scheme.

Alexander rst helped make popcorn to be sold in a café (role-play). He was then asked if he would like to sell the popcorn. He really took on the role and happily lled and exchanged di erent size cones of popcorn for either one penny for a small cone, two pennies for a medium size cone or three pennies for a large cone. Alexander took to the role so much that he put on a hat from the dressing up corner and went behind a kiosk . ‘Next’, he shouted as the children would come up to buy their popcorn. The activity, although primarily enabling Alexander’s s containing scheme to be facilitated, supported a new scheme of grading while lling and selling the different size cones. Louise observed the play also o ered Alexander his rst meaningful context for dealing with numbers and counting.

Over the week, the Café role-play was developed further to enable the scheme of containing to be applied to new contexts, and menus and tally sheets were also provided for the children to take multiple orders.

The café was later adapted as a new schema interest of vegetables become evident in Alexander’s and some of his friends’ discussions. A vegetable shop supported the containing scheme as vegetables were sorted and contained in di erent baskets. Alexander also added peas to a tuff-tray where there were a variety of containers.

A day later Alexander chose to play in the vegetable shop again and began weighing the vegetables by containing them in cup scales, and selling them to the ‘customers’ after ringing them up on the till. Interestingly, weighing was the rst activity that his practitioner had tried to encourage him to engage in, so Alexander has eventually taken to this in his own way at a time that it was meaningful to him. He also used the dough tools that were kept in that area to pretend to be preparing the food. He was joined by other children also began to be engaged moving the vegetables from the shop onto the table and started cutting and mixing them up to make something.

Louise said: ‘I wanted to say – stop you’re not allowed to do that to the veg, they are for the role-play, but instead I just seeded extra implements for them and accepted the vegetable shop was no more! I could see the children were moving their play theme on independently.’

Alexander’s example shows how Louise, as a skilled practitioner, was able to respond to the child’s dominant schemes and schema interests to support progression, in this case in learning to apply numbers, grade quantities and count for a reason. Just a few very timely and limited interventions, where she introduced new resources or demonstrated the social practices of exchange in the café and shop were enough to ‘seed’ the learning and Alexander continues to progress signi cantly towards measuring and a wide range of other valued learning outcomes.

Useful resources
For more information about SchemaPlay and its Zone of Proximal Developmental Flow (ZPDF) pedagogy see here
SchemaPlay will hold its first National Conference and Training Seminars in Walsall on May 1st 2019. Further details 
An extended early bird discount is available for EYE subscribers until March 1st 2019. Fee £60.00 Apply to: conf@schemaplay.com


Arnold, C. (2010). Understanding schemas and emotion in early childhood. London: Sage.Athey, C, (1991) Extending ought in Young Children, London: Sage Publications

Bruce, T. (2004) ‘Play Matters’ in L. Abbot, and A. Langston, (eds) Birth to ree Matters: supporting the framework of e ective practice, Open University Press: Maidenhead

Goswami, U. and Bryant, P. (2007) Children’s Cognitive Development and Learning (Primary Review Research Survey 2/1a), Cambridge: University of Cambridge Faculty of Education.

Nutbrown, C. (2006) reads of inking, London: SAGE Publications Ltd

Renninger, K. (2009) Interest and Identity Development in Instruction: An Inductive Model, Educational Psychologist, 44(2), 105–118, 2009

Siraj-Blatchford, I., Siraj-Blatchford, J., Taggart, B., Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P., and Hunt, S. (2007) Qualitative Case Studies: How low SES families support children’s learning in the home’ in E ective Pre-school and Primary Education 3-11, Promoting Equality in the Early Years: Report to e Equalities Review Siraj-Blatchford, J., and Brock, L. (2016) Education for Sustainable Citizenship in Early Childhood, SchemaPlay Publications Siraj- Blatchford, J., and Brock, L. (2016) Putting the Schema back into Schema eory and Practice: An Introduction to SchemaPlay, SchemaPlay PublicationsFor more information see here 

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