Understanding Schemas and Young Children: From Birth to Three

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Frances Atherton & Cathy Nutbrown

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    Dedication

    To my family and friends with love. FMA

    In honour of Chris Athey, whose work has inspired my own. CEN

    Acknowledgements

    This book exists because of the generosity of the parents and children who allowed Frances to spend time with them. Thanks go to the parents and practitioners who became involved in this study and shared their experiences with her. The children, in particular, allowed Frances to spend time with them and this revealed so much about their astonishing capabilities.

    We would like to thank our colleagues at the University of Chester and the University of Sheffield for their support.

    About the Authors

    Dr Frances Atherton is a Senior Lecturer in Early Years and Head of Department in the Faculty of Education and Children's Services at the University of Chester. She has a growing reputation in the early childhood field for her research on children under three and their learning through schemas. She teaches on a range of early childhood programmes including BA Early Childhood Studies and MA Early Childhood. Frances also teaches research methodology and supervises undergraduate students and those undertaking higher and research degrees.

    Professor Cathy Nutbrown is Head of the School of Education at the University of Sheffield where she teaches on a range of early years courses from undergraduate to PhD. She is author of over 50 publications in the field of Early Childhood Education, including Threads of Thinking: Schemas and Young Children (now in its 4th edition). In June 2012 she reported on her independent Review of Early Education and Child Care Qualifications, Foundations For Quality, in which she made recommendations to Government to improve the quality of qualifications for those working with young children in early years settings.

    Foreword

    This book explores young children's learning and development through the identification and understanding of their schemas, repeatable patterns of behaviour and thought (Athey 2007). Over an 18-month period, seven children under three years of age were observed in a day care setting. Using observations of children, the book identifies what they were ‘telling us’ about their thinking, learning and development when they played. Conversations with parents and photographs of their child at play highlighted consistent patterns in children's actions, speech and representations. During these conversations, parents expressed very positive views about spending time coming to understanding their child's play from a schematic perspective.

    This book adds to the growing body of knowledge about how richly varied experiences can nourish schematic development and encourage a co-ordination of schemas where children are able to experiment and explore a range of ideas and concepts as active participants in the learning environment. The role of the adult and the nature of their accompaniment with children in the learning environment are also key features. The place of attuned, matched learning encounters between adults who have a knowledge of schemas and are aware of children's particular schemas and the children is highlighted with the importance of a conceptual response to children's patterns of thinking revealed as they played, discussed.

    This book is structured as follows:

    In Part 1 Knowing about Schemas, we consider the importance of the first years in a child's learning and development.

    Chapter 1, Schemas and the Youngest Children, provides an underpinning for the book, and examines research which supports our understanding of young children's learning and cognitive development. It focuses specifically on:

    • The ‘preciousness’ of early childhood
    • Schemas
    • The relational nature of learning
    • Quality practice in early years settings
    • Listening, watching and responding to children
    • The child as learner

    Chapter 2, Observing Children: Spotting Schemas, provides suggestions and examples of how observations can be used to identify children's schemas as part of their individual development profiles and also as an aid to curriculum planning. The chapter includes discussion on:

    • Observation
    • Photographs
    • Conversations
    • Stories from home

    This chapter also discusses schemas, definitions and implications, and explores the complexity of accompanying children in the learning environment in a way that matches their thinking concerns. It focuses on the nature of relationships in learning and reflects upon how precious the first years of early childhood are in terms of learning and development.

    Part 2 How do Children under Three Pursue their Schemas? ‘All about Henry’, provides a detailed account of the schemas of one child, Henry, over two years in his nursery setting. It includes rich accounts of him pursuing his schemas and his developing interests and language. This is a useful example of the importance of making close observations and indicates how observations of schemas can usefully aid a range of developmental aspects and support implementation of curriculum and assessment policy on children under three.

    In Chapter 3, Henry's Containing and Enveloping Schema, Henry's containing and enveloping behaviour is evidenced by a series of actions which he sometimes accompanies with talk. These behaviours deepen his understanding of insideness and provide a valuable practical foundation, upon which he builds his later symbolic representations.

    In Chapter 4, Henry's Back and Forth Schema, we see Henry discriminating in his use of objects to play with. He is fascinated with horizontal movement and his choice of items is sensitised in favour of cars, trucks, vans, bikes, glockenspiels, pizza cutters, soft play cylinders and so on. He reveals the relationship between form of thought and environmental content to be assimilated.

    In Chapter 5, Henry's Dynamic Vertical Schema, we see Henry distinguishing the possibilities of disparate environmental content. He identifies a conceptual relationship between dissimilar objects and his own existing cognitive structures. Henry is involved in motor-level trajectory behaviours in the vertical plane which are significant as a precursor to symbolic representations, co-ordinations and thought.

    In Chapter 6, Henry's Mark Making and Figurative Representations, Henry's dynamic thought patterns, his schemas, can be clearly seen in his actions, language, model making and constructions. These important action representations provide a foundation upon which mark making can emerge. This chapter aims to identify Henry's thought patterns as they are represented figuratively in his mark making over a seven-month period.

    In Part 3 Developmental Journeys: Tracing Developments in Children's Thinking from Motor to Symbolic Behaviours, we cover a number of children's developmental journeys through their schemas. Richly detailed observations depict the movement from motor to symbolic thinking, including evidence of their understanding of functional dependency relationships, the effects of their actions on objects. The observations are discussed to reveal their significance in terms of schemas and of other aspects of young children's development. It identifies how children's behaviour can be interpreted both from a schematic perspective and from a holistically developmental perspective.

    Chapters 7, 8 and 9 have at their heart a set of observations of five children aged from eight months to 17 months who are focusing on particular schemas, namely containing and enveloping, going through a boundary or dynamic vertical schema. The observations, taken over a 12-month period, are then discussed to reveal their significance in terms of schemas and of other aspects of young children's development. It begins with a set of schema-oriented observations. This is followed by ‘an unpacking’, which answers the ‘so what?’ questions that many people have once they have observed schemas.

    Chapter 10, Stories from Home, focuses on communication between home and settings. The importance of taking time to talk with parents and carers about their child's learning and development is recognised. In sharing detailed observations, the significance in terms of schemas and other aspects of their child's development is revealed. Instances of schema behaviour in the home are discussed during these conversations, as the opportunity to dwell upon their child's developing thinking is enjoyed.

  • Epilogue

    This book has reported a study of the schemas of babies and toddlers and asked how they pursued their schemas in an early years setting. It has investigated aspects of thinking, learning and development that were revealed in children's representational behaviours. The study also explored how adults could intervene to support young children as they pursued their schemas and considered what the implication of identifying schemas could be in practice on the learning experiences of young children.

    The nature of relationships between adults and young children in the learning environment must emphasise nurturing, sensitive, responsive adults who situate the child at the heart of learning. In order to match children's forms of thinking – their schemas – and to be able to accompany them in their learning in a relevant and meaningful way, Bartlett's (1932: 85) assertion is pertinent:

    It is not merely a question of relating the newly presented material to old acquirements of knowledge, … it depends upon the active bias, or special reaction tendencies, that are awakened in the observer by the new material, and it is these tendencies which then set the new into relation to the old.

    Bartlett (1932) understood the active nature of children's minds and the necessary place of relevant experiences which may be assimilated to cognitive structures. Athey's (2007: 50) definition of schema as ‘a pattern of repeatable behaviour into which experiences are assimilated and that are gradually co-ordinated’ therefore supports Bartlett's clarification of knowledge acquisition. Bartlett and Athey articulate the personal active endeavour of the learner, in that knowledge acquisition is not a passive integration but an active process of cognitive disturbance.

    There is an understanding here of the uniqueness of the child and their precise, distinct thinking idiosyncrasies. If the experiences a child encounters are to nourish their forms of thought, and if the adult is to be a meaningful accomplice in this process, one who actually takes account of a child's cognitive structures and allows this to shape intervention, then more attuned accompaniment is possible. Those who work alongside children need to be mindful of these personal cognitive features of mind, so that time spent together in learning environments can be attendances of conceptual relevance.

    There is a correspondence with their subsequent mark making, how children use the things around them to pursue their schemas, both in action and in subsequent mark making. The observations in this book have shown that there is a connection between form revealed in dynamic actions and form observed in subsequent mark making, using a variety of tools and materials (Athey 2007; Meade and Cubey 2008). A richness of experience and opportunity in the early years, therefore, in the company of adults who are able to respond to the individual needs and interests of young children, is the preferred environment for these fervent young thinkers. When children have time to explore and investigate, make decisions, take risks, choose, organise and follow things through, their potential can be released. It is important to cultivate this potential and enable children, through the experiences they encounter and the people they meet, to blossom and grow.

    A range of schemas may be explored at different developmental levels. The foundation for future representations, which enriching sensory experiences can provide, was articulated through a series of observations of young children's investigations. Motor level actions, symbolic representations and functional dependency relationships were revealed as children absorbed themselves in their play, pursuing their forms of thought. These observations described the holistic nature of children's thinking, evident in actions, speech and representations, and were evidence of the astonishing competencies of the young child.

    The responsibility for adults who work with children in learning environments not only to accept the profound nature of young children's thinking, but to herald this in their practice, was acknowledged. The right of a child to be heard, to express their views and describe what is of consequence to them, through their actions, in their talk and in the things they made, featured as an essential discussion. Alongside this, the person the child may hope to meet in their learning was made known. An implicit philosophy of respect, which weaved through the work as an unspoken, yet understood imperative, described this adult as one who is receptive and responsive to the needs of the other, the child.

    In seeking to address the importance of the relationship between the home and setting, it is important to acknowledge the shared nature of understanding and the harmonising potential of parents and practitioners coming together to talk about their child. This connection allows a deeper and more enriched knowledge about children's holistic thinking, learning and development to be more fully realised. The potential of these shared times together, where insights could be divulged and understandings further secured, was invaluable in building an image of the child which accurately described their exceptional qualities.

    Wells (1987) and Athey (2007) understood the essential place of parents in their child's care, learning and development in acknowledging the significance of collaborative relationships. Parents and practitioners coming together to share their own expertise and insights about the child is an involvement and engagement which the authors identified as vital if an authentic picture of the child is to be formed. This book has identified examples of shared times where significant adults converged to discover more about the child who was their shared focus, creating chances to get to know a child better by talking about what had been seen. This simple premise, however, belies the considerable significance of talking together, in that these times proved to be wonderful enabling opportunities for reciprocal enlightenment.

    When early years practitioners, who have the learning, development and care of children at heart, come together with parents to share pedagogical understandings, the prospect of delightful details emerging which add to and enrich the unfolding picture of the child can be shared. Children spend time in different places, doing different things, with different people, so when there is a coming together with the shared purpose of interest in and support of the child, a happy collision of deeply rewarding consequence can be the result. Warm relationships can evolve where all feel able to contribute what they know about the child to deepen their understandings.

    Holliday, Harrison and McLeod (2009) recognised the formidable capabilities of young children in asserting that they should be given uninhibited opportunities to express their thoughts. They foreground the contribution children make so that their thoughts, concerns and feelings count, indeed must be heard. It is a prospective view which describes a powerful child and locates that child in the prime position. It understands the peripheral influences of place and relationships but distils the focus to converge on the child. Conversations with parents can allow relationships to develop so that, through a schematic lens, the learning and development of a child so well-known can be more fully and richly understood.

    This book has shown how adults can intervene to support young children as they pursue their schemas. Through conversations with parents about observations taken of their child in the setting and brought from home, a new and different way of understanding particular representational behaviours was described. In these shared times, where children's behaviour was reinterpreted from a schematic perspective, an alternative appreciation of familiar endeavours was made possible. The implication of this new way of looking, which sought to reconsider something so well-known, celebrates Clough and Nutbrown's (2007: 48) clarification of ‘radical looking’, which attempted to ‘make the familiar strange’. To interpret children's behaviour schematically suggests a different and complementary understanding and enables intervention in learning to be more securely attuned to the thinking concerns of the child. The implication for practice is in the way this alternative understanding may shape how adults accompany children in their learning.

    When practitioners are able to see the conceptual in young children's repeated behaviours, it supplements the detail which children reveal about their thinking in the things they do. It has been shown that the children in this study were able to bring all that was needed, in any given moment, to whatever they may be involved with at the time. Through these investigations, clear insights into what is important for the child and what is being experienced are visible. These children demonstrated their thinking through their representations, which adults may or may not fully understand. The implication for practice is that adults should watch attentively and seek to reflect on and learn from their observations in concert with parents and the child.

    In this book, we encountered Annie, Florence, Tommy, Nell, Patrick, Henry and Greg, who were all under two years old when Frances first met them. Her careful observations of these young children, taking time and gradually building up a picture of their unfolding interests, have informed our understanding of their learning. The observations, made over many months, revealed the children's schematic forms of thinking and the development of these in motor and symbolic behaviours. In addition, the holistic nature of thinking was revealed in representational behaviours, as they went about their business in an early years setting.

    Arnold (2003), Bruce (2005), Athey (2007), Meade and Cubey (2008) and Nutbrown (2011) have taken account of children's schematic pursuits in their observations of children in different environments, focusing mainly on children over three. In the light of current curriculum policy focusing on the youngest children (DfE 2012), the Early Years Foundation Stage acknowledges the remarkable competency of young children's thinking and challenges practitioners to take account of this. The Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage (DfE 2012) acknowledges that children's own thinking concerns, their unique qualities and characteristics, are of fundamental importance and should be at the heart of planning for learning. The entitlement of children, therefore, to a curriculum that celebrates powerful young thinkers resonates throughout key policy documents of recent years which recognise the implications of this in terms of response.

    The DfE (2011) report, The Early Years: Foundations for Life, Health and Learning – An Independent Report on the Early Years Foundation Stage, features familiar, expected themes which must not be considered as mere rhetoric. The confirmation of things of such fundamental importance for the early years, which are essentially present again in the Tickell Review (2011), cannot be over-emphasised. Many of the key issues which appear in the Tickell Review are resonant with aspects of practice which have been part of the early childhood tradition and understood by practitioners steeped in the field for many years. The Nutbrown Review, Foundations for Quality (Nutbrown 2012), argued for high-quality provision with well-qualified practitioners as being key to that quality:

    It is vitally important that babies and young children have rich and varied opportunities to play both indoors and outside, and I regard it as a fundamental part of their early education and care. It is worth making clear in qualifications that an understanding of the importance of play in children's lives and learning – both guided exploratory play through a well-planned environment, and play which allows children to explore their world for themselves – is part of fully understanding child development and fostering independent and enquiring minds. It is necessary, therefore, that adults understand their roles in providing for play, including when they should participate to extend and support learning, and when they should observe and not interfere. (Nutbrown 2012: 20, para 2.10)

    The role of parents and carers as partners in their children's learning is recognised as essential, with the guidance and support children receive in settings as complementary and building upon home experiences. Understanding the importance of parents’ active involvement in children's learning with clear and shared theoretical understandings about learning is crucial to young children's development, and the different and complementary roles parents and professional educators have needs to be recognised. In coming together to talk, parents and practitioners can strengthen their own understanding of the child's learning through schemas which allows for interventions to be more closely matched to the thinking concerns of the child.

    Children pursue their schemas in an early years setting and in so doing reveal aspects of thinking, learning and development evident in children's representational behaviours. Professional early years practitioners who pay careful attention to children's patterns of learning, their thinking concerns, through finely detailed observation, are able to develop their approach to working with young children, which is acutely attuned to their particular interests.

    To acknowledge the rich legacy of the early years pioneers and to embrace contemporary contributors who continue to enhance our understanding of this vital time have a significant influence on how professional adults may work with young children. Noticing what matters to children, and letting them know this, is an approach to practice in the early years which understands the entitlements and respect these young souls deserve. For as Nutbrown (2011: 177) has reminded us:

    Children's hearts, minds and bodies are valuable and precious. Young children must receive the respect and recognition they deserve as capable thinkers and learners in all aspects of their learning and development.

    Throughout this book we have seen how looking at young children's learning through a schematic lens can illuminate behaviours that might seem inconsequential, showing them to be consistent threads of learning woven by capable learners.

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