Friday, 12 December 2014

Book review - Understanding schemas and young children from birth to three and Young children learning through schemas: deepening the dialogue about learning in the home and in the nursery

Schema Theory, the idea that children’s concepts in early childhood are developed through repeated physical actions on objects in the world (like throwing up and down, covering up, pushing through boundaries), twinned with the idea that children have cognitive structures that are attuned to certain actions (up/down, under, through) has achieved lasting popularity and, indeed, increasing influence in English early years pedagogy since it was first advanced by Chris Athey (1990).

These two books about schema theory share a highly principled approach to documenting the lives and fascinations of young children. They take a respectful position towards the child, seen as a capable and competent learner, and towards parents and other family members, seen as essential collaborators in early education.

I was very fortunate to study alongside the late Katey Mairs at the Pen Green Centre, and Young children learning through schemas exemplifies many of Katey’s qualities, perhaps most strikingly the way she took children seriously, as learners, thinkers and experimenters.  The practice described in the book is highly sophisticated, whilst the underlying theory is, perhaps, less satisfying.
Schema theory was first developed from a Piagetian base several decades ago, yet in Athey’s chapter in this book, and indeed throughout the whole volume, there is very little discussion of how Piaget’s account of child development has been problematised. Instead, Young children learning through schemas holds onto what Bruner critiqued over three decades ago as the “‘development idea’ – that children must be allowed to develop in congruence with their own needs and modes of thought” (1980, p. 202). This “development idea” arguably pays too little attention to the role of language and of social context in child development. Perhaps as a result, Young children learning through schemas is strong on the documentation of children’s self-chosen actions and adult interpretations of these. As each case study of a child’s learning develops, the different authors show how more resources and opportunities were arranged for the children so that they could extend their interests. There are numerous, delightful and vivid descriptions of children playing, supplemented by well-chosen photographs; for example, Jack’s ambitious designs with maple blocks and constructions outdoors with planks and ropes are testament to the Pen Green Centre’s faith in the seriousness of children’s intentions.

But, with the exception of Pam Cubey’s interesting chapter based on observations from the Wilton Playcentre in New Zealand, the book has less to say about how children and adults in early childhood settings mutually “construct” relationships of care and learning, through what Bruner (1995, p.5-6) calls the “intersubjective encounter” with a pedagogical focus in which the adult teaches the child to take increasing control or agency “through the provision of affordances and the imposition of constraints”.  The volume is, as a result, more of an illustration of Athey’s (1990) original work, than a development or exploration of her theory.

Understanding schemas and young children from birth to three by Frances Atherton and Cathy Nutbrown is original in the way that it situates schema theory in the context of other contemporary theories about care, learning and development, and also original in its specific focus on babies and toddlers. The observations of these very young children’s activities and their play are strikingly written; the book is exceptional for the quality of its material, and the skilful ways in which narratives from children’s lives are presented.

However, the very high quality of the research data and the overview of different theories of children’s learning and cognitive development is somewhat in contrast to the lack of a detailed examination of schema theory and its assumptions. Atherton and Nutbrown situate Chris Athey’s (1990) schema theory historically, quoting Susan Isaacs’s argument that it is essential to meet “the spontaneous enquiries of the children … and to give them the means of following these inquiries out in sustained and progressive action” (Isaacs, 1930, quoted in Atherton and Nutbrown, 2013, p. 124). Yet this elides the question of how the theoretical underpinning of Isaacs’s approach is quite different to the Piagetian schema theory of Athey (1990) and her followers.

Isaacs, an early psychoanalyst as well as a teacher, argues that there is no simple distinction between the child’s inner processes and thoughts, and the external world of objects. She proposes the notion of phantasy, which Juliet Mitchell (1986, p.23) explains is within the infant and imagining the external. Phantasy, the dialectical origin of thought, “offers an unconscious commentary on instinctual life and links feelings to objects and creates a new amalgam: the world of imagination … External reality can gradually affect and modify the crude hypotheses phantasy sets up”.

Isaacs proposes that imagination, play and thinking help the child to mediate the powerful and sometimes persecutory anxieties of early childhood (abandonment, persecution, desires to cut and destroy), with a reliable adult “who understands their needs and whose rulings or suggestions follow the true lines of their social growth” (Isaacs, 1933, p. 269)  This leads to a lessening in anxiety; hence her argument that “play is not only the means by which the child comes to discover the world; it is supremely the activity which brings him psychic equilibrium in the early years” (ibid, p. 425).

Whilst Isaacs’s model of cognitive development is complex, and not obviously open to traditional methods of research, it does pose an interesting, relational model, involving the child’s internal models of thinking, other people, and objects. Conversely, the Piagetian ideas which underpin Athey’s schema theory have little to say about other people or the role of the emotions. Whilst Piaget’s basic proposition that the child constructs meaning out of interactions with the world of objects remains well-supported by research, his stage-based schema theory has been almost entirely abandoned by developmental psychologists. This has been usefully summarised by Goswami and Bryant (1997, p. 7): “the basis of cognition is indeed in sensory-motor learning, as Piaget proposed. However, sensory-motor representations are not replaced by symbolic ones. Rather, they are augmented by knowledge gained through action, language, pretend play and teaching.”

Yet schema theory remains popular with many early years practitioners. It has the virtue of creating a positive and supportive emotional climate around children’s explorations; children are seen as capable, strong and determined, rather than as infuriating and repetitive.  These virtues of working with schema theory are apparent in both these books, together with a strong commitment to careful observation and the crafting of rich, detailed narratives about children’s lives. One might, therefore, argue that the power of the approach lies in its practice, not its theory.

Christopher Hitchens related a good anecdote in 2005 about “a professor at the École Normale Supérieure [who] is popularly supposed to have said: ‘I agree that it works in practice. But how can we be certain that it will work in theory?’” Understanding schemas and young children from birth to three and Young children learning through schemas are both filled with fascinating material; but schema theory is neither as rich, nor as satisfying, as these excellent accounts of children’s learning.


Athey, C. (1990).
Extending thought in young children: a parent-teacher partnership. London: Paul Chapman.
Bruner, J. (1980).
Under Five in Britain. London: Grant McIntyre.
Bruner, J. (1995).
“From joint attention to meeting of minds: an introduction”. In C. Moore and P.J. Dunham, (Eds.), Joint attention: its origins and role in development. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates).
Goswami, U. and Bryant, P. (2007).
Children’s Cognitive Development and Learning (Primary Review Research Survey 2/1a), Cambridge: University of Cambridge Faculty of Education.
Hitchens, C. (2005).
“Transgressing the Boundaries”. [Online]. Available at: 20the%20Boundaries [Last accessed: 19th October, 2014]
Isaacs, S. (1933).
Social development in young children: a study of beginnings, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Originally published in the journal Early Years at