Learning & Development: Schemas - On repeat

Frances Atherton
Monday, January 27, 2014

Being attentive to the development of behaviour patterns can help practitioners better understand children's thinking. Frances Atherton explains

Remarkable capabilities are divulged in the most conspicuous ways as children play. This can lead the discerning observer to a deeper understanding of the intricate nature of young children's thinking.

In what they do, the language they use and the things they make as they play, children acquaint us with important aspects of their learning and development.

Through careful observation, underlying patterns in thinking can emerge as children work on their schemas. An awareness of these patterns and consistencies is important, for if adults are mindful of, and receptive to, children's cognitive structures - their schemas - the time spent together can be a more attuned and conceptually relevant encounter.

There are many different definitions of schema. Donaldson (2006) characterised schemas as 'organised behaviour patterns,' which Bartlett described in his earlier work as 'active, developing patterns' and Flavell (1963) noted as behaviours with an underlying sameness. Schemas, therefore, may be defined, as Nutbrown (2011) explained, as 'repeatable patterns of behaviour, speech, representation and thought'.

However, it is Athey (2007) who clarified schemas as 'patterns of behaviour and thinking in children that exist underneath the surface features of various contents, contexts and specific experiences' and named specific dynamic schemas as follows:

  • dynamic vertical
  • dynamic back and forth
  • dynamic circular
  • going over and under
  • going round a boundary
  • going through a boundary
  • containing and enveloping space.

Athey (2007) and Meade and Cubey (2008) document the developmental aspect of schemas, with Athey noting a continuity and progression from motor behaviour, through symbolic representations to thought.

Previously, Meltzoff and Moore (1998) suggested that 'initial mental structures' infants possess 'serve as discovery procedures for developing more comprehensive and flexible concepts'. This echoes work by Piaget (1950) and Bruner (1966), which highlighted the importance of early action as foundational for later representations when actions become capable of being internalised.

Athey (2007) described the development of symbolic representation from these early motor and perceptual behaviours and identified advances in young children's thinking. In her observations of children's schemas (1990), she noted 'the largest number of motor-level examples occurred at three years one month; symbolic representation at four years one month; and thought level at four years five months'.


schemasbangingThe following observations of Jack occurred between the ages of three years 11 months and four years five months and reveal his prevailing form of thought - his dynamic vertical schema. He can also be seen co-ordinating schemas and exploring functional dependency (cause and effect) in his symbolic representations. Jack was also observed thinking about his dynamic vertical schema entirely in the abstract. Together, the observations illustrate the holistic thinking of a young child as he played and absorbed himself in important personal investigations.

Athey (2007) observed the repetitive nature of trajectory behaviours and clarified that motor level examples of dynamic vertical trajectory behaviour are precursors to symbolic representations which, in turn, anticipate later co-ordinations of schemas and abstract thought.

Dynamic vertical schema: motor level

schemasstandingJack explored verticality with his body and with the things around him. He climbed up and down the rope frame, and scrambled on top of the tunnel and train. Rather than rotating the screwdriver in a horizontal position, he preferred to use it vertically so that he could strike it with a hammer.

He spent a lot of time clambering on top of objects and jumping down in his continuing acquisition of trajectory motor experiences. He joined two pieces of guttering together, then put in boats and watched them sail down the extended channel into the tub below. It was not the splashing, pouring, dripping or measuring potential of the water trough and contents that appeared to captivate, but the movement of the boats as they drained into the container beneath.

He recognised the possibilities of the things around him and used them in a precise way. Clambering up, jumping down, striking the screwdriver and extending gutters all represented his prevailing form of thought as he furthered his understanding of vertical trajectory movement.

Dynamic vertical schema: thought level

Piaget (1959) maintained that thought proceeds from action - something Athey (2007) upheld in confirming that 'a schema is a pattern of repeatable behaviour into which experiences are assimilated and that are gradually co-ordinated. Co-ordinations lead to higher-level and more powerful schemas'. The observation described here reveals both continuity and progression.

schemasextendingJack's form of thinking threads through the observation, with progression evident in co-ordinations of schemas and actions that have become internalised. Jack is now able to evoke ideas and predict in thought alone.

Jack's coherent and expressive narrative led the listener towards a better insight into the ideas that he had been exploring and his conceptual understanding: 'I built a high fence so Harriet couldn't see us (she was occupied on the other side of the "fence"). I smashed the top down then knocked down the middle bit quickly. I got the big, big tall ladders climbed right to the roof. I ran home and got some sticky tape and put it all round the building and barrier signs to keep the monsters out. I made a tightrope out of big planks; it went from there to there.'

Nutbrown (2011) explained the significance of connections in learning marking progression, where co-ordinations of schemas evolve into higher-order concepts. Jack had been working on his dynamic vertical schema at a motor and symbolic level, but as he got older had begun to represent his prevailing, dominant schema in the abstract. Within the 'big high fence' observation, evidence of co-ordinated action schemas is apparent:

  • Dynamic vertical Upending blocks; big high fence; 'smashed the top down'; 'knocked down'; big, tall ladders'; roof; climbed.
  • Dynamic back and forth Tight rope; 'there to there'; 'ran home'.
  • Going round a boundary 'Sticky tape all round the building'.
  • Containing and enveloping 'Monsters out'; 'middle bit'.


More information

  • Children's Minds by M Donaldson (1978). HarperCollins
  • Extending Thought in Young Children (2nd edition) by C Athey (2007)
  • 'Object Representation, Identity, and the Paradox of Early Permanence: Steps Toward a New Framework' by A Meltzoff and M Moore (1998) in Infant Behaviour and Development, 21 (2), 1998, pp201-235
  • 'On Cognitive Growth' by J Bruner (1966) in Studies in Cognitive Growth by J Bruner, R Oliver and P Greenfield et al
  • The Developmental Psychology of Jean Piaget by J Flavell (1963)
  • The Psychology of Intelligence by J Piaget (1950)
  • The Language and Thought of the Child by J Piaget (1959)
  • Thinking Children: Learning About Schemas (2nd edition) by A Meade, and P Cubey (2008)
  • Threads of Thinking: Schemas and Young Children Learning (4th edition) by C Nutbrown (2011).


schemasbookA 20 per cent discount is available to Nursery World readers for Understanding Schemas and Young Children: from birth to three by Dr Frances Atherton and Professor Cathy Nutbrown (£21.99). Enter the discount code UK14SM02 at checkout when ordering at www.sagepub.co.uk. The offer is valid until 31 March 2014.


Dr Frances Atherton is a senior lecturer in early years at the University of Chester and is co-author of Understanding Schemas and Young Children: from birth to three

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