Supporting Schemas - Link up

Can supporting children’s schemas increase their level of involvement in learning activities? Yes, explains Dr Amanda Thomas

Supporting schemas enables more attuned learning experiences
Supporting schemas enables more attuned learning experiences

Supporting children’s schemas in play-based activities and curricula are a valued and embedded part of early childhood practice in many education systems. However, this is not the case in Wales’s early years Foundation Phase (FP) curriculum – something that my study sought to address. As the first piece of research into children’s schemas in the Welsh FP curriculum, it looks at the link between schemas and child involvement.

Currently, FP practitioners are given little policy guidance on what schemas are, how to recognise them and how they can provide a window into a child’s thinking. This is despite the ethos of the FP play-based curriculum advocating starting with a child’s interests and being child-centred, holistic and experiential – all key concepts that should make the FP a ‘schema-friendly’ curriculum.


There are many different definitions of schemas:

Piaget suggested children organise their knowledge into cognitive structures he called schemas. He believed that children learnt through repeated patterns of behaviour on objects in the environment and, through these repeated patterns of behaviour, working theories were built up and understood.

Athey (1990) built upon Piaget’s work on schemas, defining them as ‘a pattern of repeatable behaviour into which experiences are assimilated…’.

Nutbrown (2011) described schemas as ‘repeatable patterns of behaviour, speech, representation and thought’.

Therefore recognising and supporting schemas allows practitioners to be able to observe underlying patterns of thinking and support children along their learning journeys by providing attuned (meaningful) learning experiences.

This concept of the practitioners accompanying the child along their learning journey – and a knowledge of schemas facilitating this – resonates with the FP in Wales. Here, policy guidance positions the practitioner in partnership with the child along their learning continuum and encourages practitioners to provide meaningful learning experiences.


In my study, I observed children aged three to five in an FP setting and rated their levels of involvement in activities that support their schemas and in those that do not. The activities spanned the seven areas of learning:

  • Mathematical Development
  • Language, Literacy and Communication Skills
  • Creative Development
  • Physical Development
  • Knowledge and Understanding of the World
  • Welsh Language Development
  • Personal, Social Development, Well-Being and Cultural Diversity.

Before starting the study, the children were observed over several weeks to determine their schemas (see box, left). The children’s levels of involvement were then rated using the Leuven five-point scale of involvement (Laevers 1994) between activities that support their schemas and those that are routinely planned for and do not specifically support their schemas.

The children were observed in small groups as part of routine classroom practice and the results were collated over two school terms.

Through the study, I aimed to address two key questions:

  • Can the FP curriculum in Wales support children’s schemas?
  • Does supporting children’s schemas make a difference to their levels of involvement?

Activities provided to support the different schemas:

  • included a particular resource, such as twistable pens for writing activities (supporting a rotational schema), and putting the finished writing inside envelopes (enclosing and enveloping schema)
  • used attuned vocabulary, such as, ‘Let’s position your writing on this line or in this space’ (positioning schema). Or, ‘Let’s put your writing inside this envelope’ (enclosing schema).


Of the seven areas of learning rated using the Leuven scale, five showed higher levels of child involvement when the activities were adapted to support their schemas. The two areas of learning that did not were Creative Development and Physical Development. Perhaps this was because these two areas incorporate activities (planned or not) that are naturally more suited for children to use their schemas anyway. For example, when painting, children can move the paintbrush in different directions, position colour and envelop or enclose objects with paint (Arnold 2013).

Similarly, in physical activities children have more opportunities to use their dynamic action-based schemas. For example, playing with hoops, balls and beanbags enables them to use schemas such as rotational, enclosed and trajectory naturally.

Initially, staff had been sceptical about changing their pedagogy to include schemas, and wanted evidence of the worth of adapting their planned activities to support schemas. However, after reviewing the findings, staff were much more open to reconceptualising their classroom pedagogy, and this led staff to consider ways to include schemas in their learning provision across the seven areas of learning.

Although these findings are from one FP setting in South East Wales so cannot be generalised to the wider population, they are timely. Wales will embark upon a new curriculum in 2022.

This new ‘Curriculum for Wales’ for three- to 16-year-olds will keep the ethos of the child-centred approach of the FP but provide more autonomy for practitioners. There is the opportunity for practitioners and policy-makers to shape curriculum delivery and content to make it relevant for the individual learner. This could include supporting children’s schemas, as long as practitioners are able to access relevant training and guidance. I have now developed a schema toolkit to support schemas across the current and new FP curriculum (see box, below).

Perhaps the worth of knowing about schemas can be summed up by Nutbrown (2011), who points out, ‘Children’s ways of learning do not change because national policies or the prescribed curriculum change.’


  • Trajectory: This is all about movement and can be seen later as horizontal and vertical lines in mark-making.
  • Rotation: Turning, rolling and spinning.
  • Enclosing schema: Often observed after children have explored vertical and horizontal lines. Children may begin to join lines, building fences and walls.
  • Enveloping schema: Children cover objects or themselves, make dens and hide under blankets or paint over a picture with a single colour.
  • Transporting schema: Children move objects and themselves from place to place. They fill up bags and buckets and push around empty or full prams or wheelbarrows.
  • Connecting schema: Children show a fascination with using rope, string, tape, staples and glue and may join materials together. As this schema evolves, disconnection becomes just as important.
  • Positioning schema: Children will order and position objects including their own bodies. They will position things over, under and besides a particular object. Young children may also place things in rows such as lining up cars.


Activities to support… connecting schema

  • Sequence recipes
  • Sequence stories and make own books (link words and pictures)
  • Connect (and disconnect) more complex models
  • Explore pulleys, pipes and electrical circuits

positioning schema

  • Position objects by length
  • Extend repeating patterns
  • Sort by more than one criteria
  • Extend positional language
  • Create and design maps

positioning schema

  • Problem solve how to make something go faster/slower
  • Construct moving model
  • Sort objects based on pushing and pulling
  • Measure heights and distances
  • Explore body movements in straight and oblique lines

From Planning for schemas in the Welsh Curriculum.


View the schema toolkit at:

A full list of references is at:

Dr Amanda Thomas is a senior lecturer in education at the University of South Wales




Disrupted and poor-quality sleep in the earliest months of a child’s life can be an indicator of behavioural problems among toddlers, according to a new study.

Although the link between poor sleep and behaviour in young children is well recognised, this study shows for the first time how sleep difficulties in infancy are associated with particular emotional and behavioural problems at 24 months of age.

The study was carried out by researchers at the Institute for Mental Health at the University of Birmingham, in collaboration with the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare in Helsinki.

The team compared the results of two questionnaires completed by parents within the CHILD-SLEEP birth-cohort, a large study cohort in southern Finland. In one questionnaire, nearly 1,700 parents reported on their children’s sleep habits at three, eight, 18 and 24 months, while in another, 950 parents reported on their child’s emotional and behavioural symptoms at 24 months.

Poorer self-regulation

The researchers found that infants who experienced shorter sleep duration, took longer to fall asleep and woke frequently in the night in early childhood were likely to have emotional, behavioural and self-regulation problems at 24 months, leading to disrupting emotions and behaviours, such as temper tantrums.

Lead researcher Dr Isabel Morales-Muñoz explains, ‘It’s likely that sleep quality in these early months and the development of self-regulation – the ability to control our behaviour – are closely intertwined.

‘Scientists think there are links in the central nervous system between sleep-wake behaviour and our emotions, and so it’s possible these links have a biological basis. Environmental factors, such as sleeping practices in the family, parental reactions to crying and parental stress, also play an important part in a child’s sleep and socio-emotional development.

‘Although more research needs to be done in this area, we think early interventions in infants experiencing these sleep problems could be really beneficial and help very young children develop their behavioural and emotional self-control.’

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