When young children are allowed to play freely, they often repeat actions over and over again through sensory-motor behaviour, roleplay and representation (drawings, paintings etc). The patterns of play that are revealed through these repeated actions and behaviour can be interpreted as ‘schemas’ as they allow a child to explore and learn about their world in a way that reflects their own learning preferences and intrinsic brain patterns. Schemas can be identified through regular observation, and can be categorised under a number of headings.
This booklet reports the actions and findings of a small-scale action research project into children’s schemas undertaken over a nine-month period (November 2005 – July 2006) in Crewe, Cheshire. This was not a definitive study but more a prelude to a potentially much larger piece of work to be carried out over the next few years. Helping children to realise their potential through play
Understanding schemas can be useful as a framework for helping practitioners interact more closely and effectively with young children. It enables them to encourage development and enhance learning through the child’s innate motivation to learn. Understanding schemas may also help to develop closer relationships with parents through shared observations, which lead to mutual understanding of the individual child, enabling both to learn more deeply about the child from the child’s intrinsic learning patterns. The researchers Val Melnyczuk and Wendy Whittaker, hope to encourage an interest in schemas by reporting on the project outlined here. “Understanding schemas…helps adults to relate to children more easily and to enjoy their company more, as well as helping children to learn in deep and thorough ways.” Research undertaken by Val Melnyczuk (Below) and Wendy Whittaker (Bottom)
Involvement & well-being
When observing children playing, it is important to remember that they vary in how engrossed they become in what they are doing, and, just like adults, have times when they are more involved in their activities than others. In order to accurately identify a child’s schema or schemas (as they often reveal more than one), it is important to observe a child when they are deeply involved in what they are doing.
Using these signals as key indicators it is possible to grade a child’s involvement on a scale of one to five, with one being no active involvement to five being total involvement, expressed by concentration and intense activity.
A second area that the Leuven Involvement Scale focuses on is well-being, with indicators in this area being: • • • • • • • • openness and receptivity flexibility self-confidence and self-esteem assertiveness vitality relaxation and inner peace enjoyment without restraints being in touch with oneself.
Leuven Involvement Scale
It is much easier to recognise the level of a child’s involvement if there are specific indicators in the child’s behaviour which can be assessed. Therefore, we chose to employ the Leuven Involvement Scale (1996) developed by Prof F. Laevers at the University of Leuven, a framework that makes it possible to grade levels of involvement through observing signals in the child’s behaviour which are: • • • • • • • • • concentration energy complexity and creativity facial expression and posture persistence accuracy reaction time language or verbal expression satisfaction.
However, as Prof Ferre Laevers says, “Not all of these signals need to be present at the same time and in their complete form to speak of well-being.” Well-being can also be graded numerically from one to five, with one being representative of children who “usually feel and look low and are unhappy” to five when children “radiate vitality, relaxation and inner peace.” We found utilising this scale in conjunction with trying to identify schemas helpful as it allows adults to observe when a child may be most deeply involved in their play, and therefore most likely to be exhibiting their schema(s).
Why action research?
Action research was chosen as the most appropriate way to involve parents in the investigation and to produce some clear learning recommendations. Action research emphasises: • organised reflective inquiry • co-construction with participants in the research • improvement in understanding of a situation or problem.
Project development in Crewe
For Val Melnyczuk and Wendy Whittaker, the discovery of schemas as a way of understanding and identifying young children’s play was for them both illuminating and revelatory. In 2004 as part of their MA studies, they first encountered the theory and practice behind children’s schemas, through the work of Piaget (1953) Athey (1990), and practitioners at Pen Green Research and Development Centre in Corby, Northamptonshire.
The growth in understanding about individual learning over the last ten years has encouraged practitioners to work with children from a ‘childcentric’ perspective. This does not minimise the role of the adult, but instead re-defines the purpose of the adult as “a partner who shares the process…the skills lie in knowing how and when to intervene”. In this way, needs of children can be met more fully and their learning can be extended in ways that are more individually meaningful. As a result of these developments in early years education, and of their own learning, Val and Wendy chose to explore how the understanding of a child’s schema could enhance the child’s (and adult’s) learning. The targets for the Cheshire County Council Strategic Plan emphasise a focus on key aspects of early years including personal. social and emotional development – and communication language and literacy. And these were included as part of the aims of the project.
Not only does the concept of schemas provide a great way of observing children within a setting – therefore being a tool for providing appropriate learning opportunities – it is also a way of working much more closely with parents by sharing observations and insights. It was this that compelled Val and Wendy to do further research in their own fields. Having met each other by chance at a local Sure Start Programme meeting, they discovered their mutual interest in children’s schemas and decided to investigate this with parents within a Sure Start context, by undertaking an action research project.
Action research question
After discussion and debate, the action research question we postulated was as follows:
Schemas can be observed in children as young as six months, but as they get older, children’s schemas are more recognisable and can be identified through language, representation and role play. We decided that in order to work closely with parents of children of a suitable age, and to address the action research question, various criteria had to be met. These were that the setting identified for the project needed to be non-maintained, located within a Crewe Sure Start designated area and focused on the needs of children under five years of age. After assessing the suitability of various Sure Start groups and activities, the setting of Tots ’n’ Us was chosen, which is a parent and toddler Drop-In based at Pebble Brook Primary School.
Socio political context
Pebble Brook Primary School is located in the Alexandra Ward of Crewe & Nantwich Borough Council, and was one of the cluster wards that was part of the Sure Start local programme as it fell into the government’s top 20% Index of Multiple Deprivation. Tots ’n’ Us was one of the Sure Start groups set up to contribute to the delivery of the national Sure Start targets which were: • improving children’s social and emotional development • improving health • improving children’s ability to learn • strengthening families and communities.
In a sample of we children from a Cre setting how does understanding and d’s encouraging a chil eir schema enhance th nd personal, social a ing emotional well-be and increase levels , of communication cy? language and litera
In 2004, the Labour government decided to mainstream much of the good work that was happening in Sure Start local programmes by developing Children’s Centres. “Sure Start Children’s Centres are places where children under five years old and their families can receive seamless holistic integrated services and information, and where they can access help from multi-disciplinary teams of professionals with a fully integrated approach.” Pebble Brook school was chosen to be a Children’s Centre within the second phase of developments in Crewe.
a: how we Schem it at Tots ’ and ran
Schema learning starts at the Drop-In
The schema project started in November 2005 when Wendy and Val began to attend the Drop-In on a regular basis to get to know the parents and children who were attending. In order that the crèche workers had some understanding of the project aims, a training session on schemas and the Leuven Involvement Scale was organised on 15 December 2005. The researchers also created a pamphlet for parents and carers to introduce the concept of schemas, and these were passed around at the Drop-In. In order to ensure that parents had enough knowledge and understanding to be partners in the action research project, an informal training session was organised for them on two key areas that would underpin the work: • schemas • involvement and well-being. A crèche was organised to care for the children of the eight interested parents, who were then shown video clips of children engaged in a variety of schemas. The parents and researchers discussed what could be observed and how children’s schemas are revealed.
Schema: how we introduced and ran it at Tots ’n’ Us
The Tots ’n’ Us Drop-In meets on Monday mornings between 9.15am and 11.15am during term time, and provides an opportunity for parents/carers and their children to meet with other parents and access the support and advice of various services in an informal and nonthreatening environment, including: speech and language therapy health visiting midwifery bookstart toy library.
Parents take part
On 16 January 2006 a number of parents were approached on a one-to-one basis at the Drop-In to ask if they would be interested in taking part in the research project. The parents who gave a positive response were asked to complete a questionnaire to elicit some basic information about their child (name, date of birth etc) and also information regarding the current interests of their children (what they liked to play with, what their favourite books were etc). A week later, parents were given further opportunity to engage with the project when completed consent forms and questionnaires were collected.
Creche workers organise the sessions by setting out a variety of activities for children and by purchasing healthy snacks. Parents are encouraged to take on an active role in running the sessions and undergo training to enable them to do this.
Methods of observation
Parents were then encouraged to make observations of their child at home, to help gather more information about their child’s play, and to examine whether it was possible to identify a schema from collated observations. They were provided with notebooks and pens in a folder for them to make observations of their own children at home.
13 February 2006 saw a very successful feedback session from the parents of observations made so far. The parents (all mothers) were enthusiastic and engaged with the project and were beginning to view their children’s learning in a new light. Photographs of the children were taken to enable the researchers and crèche workers to identify the children involved during the Drop-In, thus providing further observational evidence which was collated in a file of information on each child. Regular feedback was also given to crèche workers at the Drop-In and to discuss progress of the project. Additional observations made by them were recorded and notated.
After the first couple of weeks, parents were beginning to become quite excited about what they were observing in the way that their child was playing, and they particularly enjoyed being able to recognise their child’s schema(s). After a number of weeks, and once all parents had had an opportunity to use the video equipment, the group met again to discuss what had been learnt, and whether it was possible to answer the original research question.
Parents were asked to complete a consent form to give permission for any photographs or video footage to be taken for inclusion in the project. The researchers explained clearly to the parents what the project was all about and answered any questions the parents had. Parents were told that they could withdraw at any time and that further consent would be sought to use photographs and video footage of their children in any publicity or publications.
Video recording play
After the first couple of weeks, parents borrowed a video camera to capture their child’s play behaviour at home. This method of collecting information and evidence about children’s play is useful as it allows re-watching of the film over and over again, which can produce fresh insights and reveal things not noticed originally. Video recordings were also taken at the Drop-In, and these were compared to the play observed in the home setting.
What was learnt
Conclusions & recommendations
Nothing gets under a parent’s skin more quickly or permanently than the illumination of his or her own child’s behaviour.
What was learnt
At the end of the project the group met once more for a discussion around what had been learnt, and a number of ‘learning moments’ had taken place for children, parents and researchers. • Firstly it was clear that this experience taught us that children exhibit repeated patterns of play (schemas) which are observable, identifiable and can be named. • Working with schemas provides an excellent way to involve parents in their child’s learning, and to develop a stronger relationship between practitioner and parent. • We experienced the fact that schemas allow practitioners to develop ‘a vocabulary of observation which in turn informs curriculum planning’ (Bruce, 1997, p66). • Parents learned a great deal more about their child, and their confidence in their role as a parent was strengthened.
• Some parents reported a closer attachment to their child. • Parents reported a greater awareness of their child’s play needs and being sensitive to levels of involvement and well-being at home. • Junk materials became play objects, and parents used their imagination to develop play objects within the home, which they found to be a satisfying and creative experience. • Parents accommodated their child’s play within the home by becoming more flexible about how and when their child was playing, and not insisting on tidying away before the child had indicated a sense of completion and satisfaction about their playing. • Parents developed a fascination with observing their child within which they were able to ‘watch, wait and wonder’.
Schemas in the early years setting
Through the project we have realised many benefits for recognising and working with a child’s schema(s) – some are reflections of similar findings from earlier work (e.g. the Froebel Project), and it has been exciting to see the mothers involved so enthusiastic about what they have learnt about their children. The research question may not have been conclusively answered, as a longer timescale would be needed for this; however, there is enough evidence for us to feel justified in continuing the involvement of parents, practitioners and other professionals in using the concept of schemas in their work with children in the Early Years Foundation Stage.