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Investigating young children’s learning through a schema lens: How can schema theory inform practice in an Early Years class in a special school?

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This is a reflection part-way through our research project to find out how reflecting on children’s play through a schema lens will add depth to our interpretations of their actions and language (Vygotsky, 2004). The context is a class of Foundation Stage-aged children in a special primary school in Kettering, Northamptonshire. The eight children in the class have a wide range of high needs. So far, we have focused on two pupils. We are a class teacher, Antonio, and researcher, Christine, working together to unpick how we can further enrich formative assessment processes by paying attention to schema theory.

Schema theory

Chris Athey’s research into young children’s schematic learning arose from her understanding of Piaget’s work on schema (Athey, 2007). Athey’s definition of schema as ‘patterns of behaviour and thinking in children that exist underneath the surface features of various contents, contexts and specific experiences’ (p. 5) underpins our research. Young children explore their environment through repeated actions, such as lining up their toys, making the sand wheel rotate, filling containers in their home and water play. When a child repeats a similar action in different contexts, it can be interpreted that their intrinsic play is focused on trajectories, rotation or containing, for example, and these actions can be described as schemas (Athey, 2007; see Table 1). Children combine schemas into clusters, and their play becomes increasingly complex, eventually influencing spoken language and abstract thought. But, as with any learning theory, development is not always linear (Arnold and the Pen Green Team, 2010).

Table 1: A key to some common schemas

Schema Description
Containing Children put objects inside other objects (containers) as well as putting themselves inside, e.g. a small tent.
Going through Children make themselves or objects go through a boundary, e.g. a tunnel, a hoop, water through a sieve.
On top Children place either themselves or an object/s on top of another object, e.g. sitting or standing on a stool, putting blocks on top of each other.
Scattering Children scatter objects and are intrigued by how they land, e.g. collage materials, using small toys. Equally, children may gather the pieces up and ‘heap’ them.
Trajectory Children move in lines as well as placing objects in lines, e.g. jumping up and down, lining up toys.
Transporting Children carry objects and take them somewhere else.

Schema theory has been researched within Early Years contexts (Whalley and the Pen Green Centre Team, 2001) but less so in special schools. We wanted to research more deeply the benefits of schema theory for children with special educational needs.

Antonio’s reflections

Antonio says: ‘I perceived play as a pedagogical intervention, giving children more freedom to explore their interests but supported by careful observation and adult dialogue (Pen Green Centre et al., 2018). Observations of schematic patterns used by the children show that they are engaged, focused and enjoy their learning (Seleznyov, 2020).’ One of the more recent challenges in creating inspiring learning environments, due to COVID-19, has been providing real objects for children to manipulate to enrich their learning. It could be that the way forward is to lessen the quantity of resources in order to maintain a more hygienic setting for children, without compromising the quality of play.

Elsa and Jude

The two focus children have high levels of additional needs. We use pseudonyms to protect their identities. They are Elsa and Jude. Both are five years old. Elsa has a high level of need and specifically requires additional support to be physically mobile. Her speech and language are limited. Elsa uses communication boards and sign language. Jude has moderate learning difficulties, alongside struggling with social and emotional contexts that he views as challenging.

We present two narrative observations (Bick, 1964) to illustrate how we are working. Our aim is to further enrich dialogue through references to children’s schematic play, and Antonio is active in sharing his learning with the class team and the children’s parents. This approach is integral to the research documented by Whalley et al., which is embedded in the theory of involving parents in their children’s learning (Whalley and the Pen Green Centre Team, 2001).


Learning journey observation

Length of observation: 10 minutes

Outdoor learning environment

Elsa was sitting under a tree playing with two medium-sized metal bowls. One of my colleagues sat beside her. From my dialogue with Elsa’s mother, I knew that she enjoys cooking with her at home. I believe she was cooking; she had leaves, sticks and small stones she had found lying about on the ground. Elsa was busy transferring her ingredients from one bowl to the other. She was able to concentrate on this for the 10 minutes. A colleague gently engaged in conversation with Elsa, asking her what she liked to eat. Elsa answered questions using single words, such as ‘cake’. She developed her answer through follow-up questions about flavour, what she needed to do next, etc. Elsa chose to answer using both sign and speech.


This was a long time for Elsa to engage purposefully in one action. She was demonstrating her ‘containing’ and ‘going through’ schemas, strengthening her fine motor skills and interacting with an adult. I reflected on Elsa’s levels of wellbeing and involvement, as described by Laevers (1997). Laevers worked with teachers in the Belgian city of Leuven to observe children of seven to eight years of age, to analyse the impact of low and high levels of wellbeing and involvement on the child’s ability to engage in school learning. Elsa showed high levels of wellbeing and involvement (Laevers, 1997), as well as demonstrating the ‘on top’ schema, trying to put objects on top of one another.


Learning journey observation

Length of observation: 10 minutes

Outdoor learning environment

Jude went to the sand area immediately, picked up a bucket and spade and started to build sandcastles. He repeated his actions over and over again: filling the bucket, turning it upside down, patting the bottom of the bucket to reveal his castle before using his spade to destroy it. As he worked, I could see that Jude was talking to himself. I could tell from his body language and his facial expressions that he was enjoying himself, that he was re-enacting a skill that was well practised.


It was reassuring to see Jude’s high levels of wellbeing and involvement (Laevers, 1997). I could identify a cluster of schemas in Jude’s play: containing, on top and scattering. Making sandcastles was a skill that he enjoyed revisiting at school. He was developing his fine motor skills and muscular strength. He was moving and handling materials, as well as recognising the properties of the sand that afforded him the ability to build the sandcastles. To develop his play further, I shall introduce more resources into the sand pit. I want to see how he manages playing alongside his peers.

Possible lines of direction (Pen Green Centre et al., 2018)

Nutbrown writes about the value of identifying stories to enrich children’s schematic learning (Nutbrown, 2011). Antonio decided to present the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears to Elsa and Jude, providing opportunities to feed their interest in containment schema. He performed the story for all the children, before supporting them to participate actively. Jude was able to put the bowls and spoons in order from the smallest to the biggest, and Elsa enjoyed pretending to eat the porridge.

Antonio says: ‘I thought deeply about what I could do to explore “on top” schema in a more adventurous way. Outside I gave the children umbrellas and poured jugs of water over them. Both Elsa and Jude loved this. They knew they were not going to get wet because the umbrellas would keep them dry!’

Antonio explains: ‘Working in a special school is challenging for me; I am a caring person and it is my natural inclination to step in and help. But now, I step back and observe each child first, before making better judgements about when to intervene. I create more opportunities for the children to make choices and attempts first, before an adult comes to their assistance. Our formative assessment judgements are more authentic because we see children’s achievements without adult support. For both Elsa and Jude, to support their social interaction with their peers, I have added to the resources in the areas of provision they prefer, thus encouraging more children to access the areas and engage in parallel play. Since I have developed this pedagogic approach, I notice that Jude can engage in cooperative play with another child and Elsa has started to talk to her peers using her communication board.’

What next?

This research project is at its midpoint. Antonio and his colleagues are analysing their in-depth interpretations to plan ahead. Our findings tell us that identifying and paying attention to a child’s schematic interests provides emotional comfort and a relational connection between adult and child, and ensures that learning is meaningful, challenging and rewarding. For both Elsa and Jude, there appears to be a correlation between their spoken language acquisition and active engagement in play that nourishes their preferred schemas. However, a limitation is that we have only focused on two children with a high level of additional needs to date, and therefore wish to increase the number of children involved. We need to gather more evidence and promote more dialogue to further develop our ideas.


Arnold C and the Pen Green Team (2010) Understanding Schemas and Emotion in Early Childhood. London: Sage Publications.

Athey C (2007) Extending Thought in Young Children: A Parent–Teacher Partnership, 2nd ed. London: Paul Chapman Publishing.

Bick E (1964) Notes on infant observation in psychoanalytic training. International Journal of Psychoanalysis 45: 558–566.

Laevers F (1997) A Process-Oriented Child Follow Up System for Young Children. Leuven: Centre for Experiential Education.

Nutbrown C (2011) Threads of Thinking: Schemas and Young Children’s Learning, 4th ed. London: Sage Publishing.

Pen Green Centre, Charnwood Nursery School & Family Centre and Rowland Hill Nursery School & Children’s Centre (2018) Celebratory approach to SEND assessment in the Early Years. Department for Education. Available at: (accessed 25 March 2021).

Seleznyov S (2020) Researching play-based pedagogies in Year 1. Impact 10: 37–40.

Vygotsky L (2004) Imagination & creativity in childhood. Journal of Russian & East European Psychology 42(1): 4–84.

Whalley M and the Pen Green Centre Team (2001) Involving Parents in their Children’s Learning. London: Paul Chapman Publishing.

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      Author(s): Bill Lucas