What are schemes?

Schemes are often referred to as ‘patterns of repeatable actions’ (Athey, 2007:114). The words ‘scheme’ and ‘schema’ were introduced by Jean Piaget in his writing in the Mechanisms of Perception. Following on from Piaget’s writing on this distinction between a scheme and a schema, the early year’s academic Chris Athey (2007) with her colleague Tina Bruce engaged in a research project, The Froebel Project, and the findings of this led to the compilation of an extremely helpful list of definitions of these repeatable actions/patterns of behaviour- as Piaget defined – operational schemes, so that early years’ educators could identify them in children’s play and support their learning/their investigations in a meaningful context. Schemes provide evidence of what a child ‘can do’ – they are anchors to more complex operations, such as cooking, driving, writing, recycling, adding, subtracting, and measuring, for example (Siraj-Blatchford & Brock, 2015). As each scheme is explored, the child develops competencies in applying them in a range of contexts, often engaging in deep investigations of complex ideas, many mathematical and scientific in their nature. Over time as children develop more schemes they will start to combine them. For example, a transporting scheme is a combination of a trajectory and containing scheme. Complex operations, such as measuring, adding, writing are all a combination of schemes being pulled together when it is meaningful to the child.

Building upon what a child can do, affirming their schemes and sensitively responding to them by ‘seeding’ resources for the scheme/s to be applied in new contexts, along with offering timely guided activities to build upon their schemes, support children’s lines of enquiries – their investigations of say capacity, height, weight or distance, for example, we promote children’s self-belief, respect their capabilities, and foster their self-esteem. The aim of SchemaPlay Pedagogy training is to improve outcomes for children through free-flow play and enable them to have the best day, week, months possible and enjoy their early years! We aim to support children’s active investigations and develop a joy of learning.

The following provides a brief summary of some of the schemes that Athey (2007) defined and I am sure that as you read each one, you will have identified one or more of these schemes in young children’s play.

The Trajectory Scheme:

The trajectory scheme is an interest in lines (vertical, horizontal and diagonal). Babies exploring this scheme might be observed kicking, reaching for objects, or visually following an adult’s movements. Young children with a trajectory scheme may enjoy stepping up and down, or lying flat.  Dancing with scarfs and throwing balls, as well as moving their bodies in a variety of ways, including moving their feet and hands up and down in paint.   They will also be keen to get moving – crawling up and down ramps and they may find lining up objects in vertical or horizontal lines or dropping objects from a platform a huge fascination.

Older children might display this scheme in their constructions – building towers, collages, or graphically.  After schemes of horizontality and verticality have been explored separately, the two are often used in conjunction to form crosses or grids.  These are very often systematically explored on paper (which supports later letter formation – t, f, x, etc.) and children may find great joy in spotting grids in everyday objects; such as cake cooling trays, grills or nets. Your observations when spotting a trajectory scheme might identify the child exploring height, length, distance, equivalence and in their constructions developing an appreciation of the need for a large and solid foundation.

The Containing & Enclosing Schemes:

These schemes usually develop after the child has explored a trajectory scheme. For example, they might start to build on their application of putting objects in lines to create enclosures and for the children who enjoyed exploring a trajectory scheme by rolling or throwing objects, they may find it interesting to suddenly identify that they can throw objects into a container.

Children applying a containing scheme are often observed continually putting things into and out of different types of containers – the fascination is the inside, outside and the barrier between the two.  Treasure baskets can facilitate early independent exploration of this: Offering different types of containers, and fluid objects such as ribbons, chains, socks and other fabrics, as well as solid objects such as small balls, blocks and bangles all facilitate the child’s exploration of how objects fit and do not fit into the containers provided.

Baskets, buckets, bags, carts, boxes may be explored by toddlers.  Any containers offered should be provided with groups of objects, so that filling and emptying is enjoyed, and there should also be opportunities for children to contain themselves in boxes, crates, cubbies and tents (discovering how they fit – further exploring the inside, the outside and the barrier between the two).  This early exploration of grouping objects into containers – into ‘sets’ – is a pre-requisite scheme for later mathematics: We need to be able to contain two sets of quantities in our mind before adding 3 + 4 abstractly, for example.  Containing can also support perception of volume and weight.

Older children might enjoy role-play scenarios which include an aspect of containing, such as supermarket role-play or café role-play, supporting narratives and collaborative play.

Just as Kellog (Plaskow, 1967) identified in children’s drawings that their marks progress from dots, dabs and straight lines to enclosures and connected marks, we have been able to identify a progression in children’s operational schemes; first engaged in individually and then combined and, later, chunked together in the long-term memory and recalled as an operation of many schemes, such as cooking, driving, adding and reading. The transporting scheme, as mentioned above, is a combination of a trajectory and containing scheme being pulled together.

The Transporting Scheme:

The transporting scheme may be defined as follows, “A child may move objects or a collection of objects from one place to another, perhaps using a bag, pram or truck” (Athey, 2007).

A child who enjoys exploring a transporting scheme is very likely to have experienced being moved from one place to another whilst in a car seat or in a pushchair and of being contained whilst being moved.  The transporting scheme often develops after the child has applied a trajectory and containing scheme in a variety of contexts, and he or she now draws upon these two competencies to explore how they can be combined.  In combing them in a transporting scheme, the child may start to explore quantity, space, volume, size, weight and other material characteristics of the objects being moved from one destination to another.  The child may also explore spatial awareness, journeys/mapping, orientation and develop some appreciation of force, momentum, inertia and friction.

The following are a few ideas of resources that you might like to ‘seed’ in the continuous provision for a child who enjoys applying a transporting scheme:

Wheelbarrows, prams, carts, bags, baskets, sledges, pulleys, supermarket shopping trolleys etc., along with containing objects such as groups of blocks, balls, fruit and vegetables, logs, bark, sand, pebbles, leaves and pinecones.  In supporting transporting indoors as well as outdoors we might offer beads, pom-poms and different sized boxes and bags.  In sand play different sized dumper trucks could be provided and in water play, different sized boats with space on board to contain objects.  Small-world play might include airplanes/cars with small world people, fostering children’s narratives.

Children in pre-school are often heard verbalising their exploratory actions and, therefore, seeded resources should also include story books related to transporting, offered with props, so that the action of transporting can be carried out during the story telling and children can then go on to recall the story using props independently.

We can also consider the rhymes that we sing in terms of how they relate to children’s schemes. For example, rhymes that have transporting in the lyrics to support further language development and perhaps opportunities for counting.

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SchemaPlay provides in-service training for anyone working in the early years to develop their skills in observing schemes, and develop a deeper pedagogical knowledge to support children’s holistic development – following the unique child. If you are interested in your setting engaging in the SchemaPlay Setting Accreditation Program, please see our Accreditation Program page included in this site. If you wish to find out about our various SchemaPlay training offerings, whether it be CPD for your work with babies and toddlers, in pre-school, or reception classes to enhance learning outcomes or perhaps training specific to promote language development, physical development – activities anchored in children’s schemes, such as dance and drama, or a specific focus to promote engagement in literacy or numeracy, please email: admin@schemaplay.com