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In the schema things

Rosemary Roberts makes sense of children's compulsions. Iwill always remember Carrie and Paul, children in my first nursery class, in the days before I knew about schemas. The first thing Carrie needed to do when she came to nursery was move the home corner. This was not something she thought about now and then, but every day. She used to gather all her friends to help; and they would transfer every plate, doll and stick of furniture to some far-flung corner. Her friends usually wanted to put the new home corner in the tiny space behind the sofa, or hide it under the table.

In between negotiating with this apparently compulsive "removal" child about other children's right to play in the home corner, I would be attempting to dissuade Paul from leaping off the top of the climbing frame. If he wasn't there, he would be throwing every bean-bag in the nursery on to the roof, or investigating the maximum water-shooting power of the squeezy bottles in the water tray. There was no doubt that Paul had a great time at nursery and was always busy, but I some-times wished that he would choose things to do that caused less chaos.

I knew these children were doing things that were important to them, and so I was reluctant to stop them. In any case, any efforts I made to distract them towards different activities were usually fruitless, or only temporarily successful. Apart from the disruption, I also wished that I could find a way of extending their experiences and their learning, as they seemed to be "stuck" in these particular activities.

Then I learned about schemas (patterns of repeatable behaviour), and my view of children's play and the ways I could provide for it gradually began to change. Now I am convinced that this idea of recognising and accommodating children's patterns of behaviour in our provision is one of the most useful and effective developments in early childhood education.

The work of Chris Athey, Tina Bruce, Cathy Nutbrown (see Further Reading) and others has shown how an awareness of these schemas - described by Piaget - can be used to support and extend teaching and learning. Children from two to five are especially likely to show these patterns in their play; the result is familiar territory to anyone working with young children. Easily identifiable schemas are connection, enveloping, enclosure, rotation, trajectory, transporting.

To give some examples of schemas in play, connecting children enjoy train track and construction sets. Envelopers - and Carrie's friends were an example of this - love making dens and wrapping things up. Rotaters go for circle games. Trajectory children - like Paul - need throwing, jumping and kicking games. And transporters are seldom seen without a shopping bag, buggy or truck of some sort.

Some children seem to be particularly schematic, showing a combination of these patterns in their play. Recently I was watching two boys playing on bikes outside. They had invented a circular track and were happily riding round and round. After a while they attached a trailer to one of the bikes and loaded it up with the toys from the sandpit, before continuing. Protests from the sandpit crowd were to no avail, nor was a request for the return of the trailer to a previous game. The boys needed to have the trailer connected to the bike, they needed to carry something in it, and they needed to go round and round.

Of course these patterns ebb and flow. Do we all grow out of schemas in the end? When I think about the popularity of football and golf - such trajectory games - I rather doubt it. Wouldn't it boost a very schematic child's self-esteem and learning if his or her primary school took schemas seriously, both in the classroom and in the playground?

And I wonder about the gender implications of it all. Girls are so much more likely to show enclosing and enveloping schemas; strong trajectory schemas seem to be far more often displayed by boys. Taking anatomy into account, perhaps this is hardly surprising. Does this go a little way towards explaining how determined boys and girls sometimes are to play with "boys" and "girls" toys? Is this why it feels like a losing battle to encourage boys to use the home corner (so full of enclosing and enveloping play), and to make sure the often uninterested girls get their fair share of the trajectory bikes?

Clearly there are implications here for behaviour management. When I was trying to manage Paul - before I knew about schemas - I used to say that he must stop jumping and throwing things, and I would suggest alternative activities. But as they were usually not trajectory he showed no interest. If I had thought about offering him "legal" trajectory play (splatter painting, home-made throwing games, the marble run, hammering, water play with pipes and gutters) we might have got on better.

How can we use these ideas to support and extend children's learning? It is possible to think about almost any activity in a pre-school setting in terms of its schematic content, as well as its learning potential. Observing children's schematic behaviour opens up the possibility of matching the most compelling interests of the child with provision for learning. Paul's understanding of sequence was shaky, so involving him in a turn-taking game throwing bean-bags into a row of buckets graded small to large would have been just what we both wanted. Carrie never chose to paint, and I wish I had suggested that her "removal team" would know where to take everything if she made some big arrows, and she could signal "clearing-up time" by making another set in a different colour to point the other way.

Children's schemas are fundamental to them. Knowing about them makes a wonderful basis for discussions with parents - and when parents know about them too, the exchange of information can be seriously useful.

One of the most valuable aspects of working in this way is that it recognises and values children's fundamental interests and needs.

Instead of experiencing frequent disapproval for playing in ways that are natural and important to them, children's self-esteem can grow because they feel understood and accepted. Their self-esteem grows too, in their knowledge of their own progress in coming to terms with those things that interest them most.

Further reading about schemas: * Extending Thought in Young Children, Chris Athey, published by Paul Chapman * Getting to Know You, Tina Bruce. Hodder and Stoughton * Threads of Thinking, Cathy Nutbrown, Paul Chapman * A Nursery Curriculum forthe Early Years, edited by Rosemary Roberts, National Primary Centre, Westminster College,Oxford OX2 9AT * Self-Esteem and Successful Early Learning, Rosemary Roberts, Hodder and Stoughton

Rosemary Roberts is co-director of Peers Early Education Partnership(see page 11).

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