Schemas are the repeated patterns of actions that can be observed in children’s play. You might notice a child transporting crayons one at a time from one container to another; stepping up onto a box to jump down over and over again; or spinning the wheels on a toy round and round.
As children develop and grow, their schemas do the same, increasing in complexity and sophistication. By repeating these patterns and connecting together what they learn through exploring each schema, children discover and make sense of the world around them.
By observing a child’s play it is possible to spot these different patterns of action. There are many different schemas ranging from the sucking and grasping seen in young babies, to more sophisticated actions such as wrapping objects in fabric.
Schemas continue into adulthood and you may be able to spot some of your own. Activities such as playing a musical instrument, rock climbing and swimming are all examples of schemas; even tidying up at the end of the day is schema driven behaviour.
Schemas and brain development
It’s helpful to remember that schemas are urges to do something.
Children are hard-wired to create their own opportunities for learning and development, and as an action is repeated over and over again it supports the development of neural pathways in the brain.
That’s why at times a child’s need to repeat an action can appear uncontrollable. This urge provides caregivers with an opportunity to extend a child’s development. For example, a child who is enjoying mixing her water with her fish pie may enjoy other opportunities for ‘transformation’ such as water and sand play or baking. This range of experiences facilitates brain development.
Making connections between the childcare setting and home
Sometimes schemas can be more difficult spot and childcare professionals can play an important role in supporting parents and carers to recognise schemas.
It’s not that the behaviour is necessarily particularly subtle; but how easy it is to spot schema can depend on the context and the frame of mind of the caregiver. For parents, schemas can appear puzzling and even frustrating at times.
Why does my child seem ‘obsessed’ with the wheels on her toy car? Why does my child insist taking each piece of food from his plate and watching as it falls to the floor? Your first thought might not be schemas! But understanding these behaviours as urges can help caregivers to feel less frustrated and more able to respond in a way that will support the child’s development.
Children also give clues as they enlist adults as part of their schema. This can be recognised in the familiar ‘again, again’ as a child asks a caregiver to do something repeatedly such as lifting them up in the air or hiding them under a blanket.
For children, learning through schemas is a bit like joining the dots. And whilst children are joining the dots in different environments, their development can be maximised if they are supported to join the dots between different environments.
When parents, carers and childcare professionals work together it makes it easier to identify the current dominant schemas for a child. Then everyone can work together to think about ways of extending schemas. One of the many advantages of childcare is that it means children are exposed to a wide range of environments; all of which provide new and exciting opportunities for schema development.
Schemas and the emotional world of the child
A favourite schema in our house at the moment involves my little boy starting from a distance and running towards his dad or me. We call out “Here he comes, running cuddle” and when he reaches one of us we scoop him up and cuddle him.
Over time, he has gradually increased the distance. Sometimes I even start to think he’s been distracted by something in another room but he’s usually just getting a good run up! This is a good example of the way schemas provide a window into the child’s emotional world too. Whilst doing ‘running cuddles’, my little boy is also playing with the strong emotions associated with separation and reunion.
Again, this is when making connections between home and the childcare setting can be really valuable. Something may be happening at home that is preoccupying a child or child may be negotiating a particular development task and using schemas as a way of making sense of this. It may be helpful for the childcare professional to understand this in order to ensure that these schemas are sensitively developed.
Schemas are child’s play
Schemas are fascinating. Providing opportunities to develop schemas not only supports child development but also lays important foundations for positive child-caregiver interaction such as observing and being child-led during play. Schemas are also potentially complex; particularly when thinking about how they may relate to the different aspects of the child’s life. But for children schemas are playful and often joyful and it is important that as adults we remember to be playful too, and in this way schemas will often take care of themselves.
- How would you start to talk with parents or carers about schemas?
- What schemas can you spot that may relate to a child’s social or emotional development?
About the author
Dr Virginia Lumsden is a clinical psychologist working with children, young people and their families in the NHS and independent practice. She has an MSc in Child Development from the Institute of Education and a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from University College London. Virginia is registered with the Health & Care Professions Council and is a member of the British Psychological Society.
Virginia believes that a strong caregiver-child connection is the key to developing a child’s psychological and emotional wellbeing. To this end, she is committed to supporting parents and other caregivers in their own self-care as she believes that this helps to ensure that these adults are emotionally available to build meaningful connections with children.
Virginia is a guest lecturer at City University London, she presents her work at conferences, and has had her research published in peer-reviewed journals. When she is not working, Virginia enjoys being in the moment with her own young family.