Saturday, 6 February 2010

Trillions of interconnections in the early years

Since attending a series of workshops a the Institute of Education in the 1970's when I was just 14 years old, I have had a fascination with how the brain develops and have possessed a passion for making the most of my own potential.

My gratitude goes to Tony Buzan and my then, brother in law Michael Gelb for fuelling this interest in me. From them I learnt about mind mapping, memory association techniques, speed reading, how to exercise both sides of the brain and to recognise the phenomenal potential of it. I was a teenager, who had at that time lost the desire for learning and possessed a limited belief in my own potential. they helped me know what I possessed, just like we all do......AN AMAZING BRAIN!
Throughout my career I continued to develop my knowledge and understanding about the brain and its neurobiology and I developed technical skill in wiring and re-wiring!
This is why I enjoy delivering SCHEMA training for early years practitioners.
Much of my work is with adults, who as we know are already pretty much wired. Unlike, young children's brains which are developing at the most rapid pace, full of plasticity, being modified by the environment and expanding to fulfill its potential, which is pretty much set in intellectual structure by the age of 5 years.

New born babies brains weigh around 25% of its adult weight and already have made a number of interconnections when in the womb. At six months it's about 50% of its adult weight and trillions of connections have been made which continue at an incredible pace until about 2 and half years, when it's weight reaches 75% of what it will be as an adult and at 5 years it is 90%. At this stage the major part of the child's intellectual development has already been completed.

Young children, as long as they are emotionally secure, are innate explorers and naturally intrinsically motivated by by everything they see, hear, smell and touch. Innate SCHEMA's are clearly evident in all that they do, for example:when they play, speak, draw, build, paint and relate. Common SCHEMATIC patterns can be observed and it is these patters that appear to be the absolute building blocks ...The "Threads of Thinking" as Cathy Nutbrown (1994) labels them. These building blocks seem to form the structure for how we make sense of all our experiences in life.

"It is best to think of schema's as being a cluster of pieces which fit together "Tina Bruce

For the past two years I have been travelling to Hampshire for a training company to deliver two day workshops on the subject of SCHEMA's in the Early Years and have had the absolute pleasure to work with highly motivated and committed early year' practitioners from many areas of this County Council.

Commonly I hear statements like this: "Yes, I remember doing something on Schema's at college..Does it mean when children repeat things, maybe line things up or something like this, it's interesting, but I don't really know why"

The confusing thing for me is I just don't understand why colleges and universities are not helping practitioners to learn just how fascinating these patterns are and how crucial they are in providing the fuel for children's intrinsic motivation to learn across the six areas of the Early Years Foundation Stage through a range of activities.

The good news is that when practitioners get this knowledge, in my experience they immediately use it in their work with children.

Day one of the training is concerned with raising participants understanding of Schema's in young children and identifying how they might nourish these. Participants return to their settings to carry out some action research, which they share with the whole class during Day two of the training.

I have seen some really inspiring projects and am grateful to the many participants who have provided me with copies of their work to use in my workshops. Sharing experiences in this way really does benefit the early year's sector as a whole.

Here is what one course participant did last month...

Charlotte has been a teacher in a Primary school in Southampton for 11 years. She has taught across the Foundation Stage, Key Stage 1 and 2. She has recently taken a post as a Children's Centre Support Teacher (CCST) in this role she supports and leads others to ensure that the Early Years Foundation Stage is being implemented and that provision and practice is of a high quality. She does this by supporting her own Children's Centre and attached Nursery and also by visiting settings in the catchment of the Children's Centre. She has 3 children of her own. her eldest so is 6 1/2 years old, her daughter is 5 years old and her youngest son is 2 1/2 years old. The following project was completed after observing her youngest son at play.

I started with assumptions I have made from my knowledge of my child as his mother

The assumption is that he is exhibiting schema behaviours in line with trajectory, rotation, connection and enclosure
  • He loves playing with balls (trajectory)
  • He loves playing with vehicles;specifically cars, trains, helicopters and tractors (trajectory)
  • He likes joining tracks for his trains (although he prefers this to be done for him) (connecting)
  • He is obsessed with shutting doors (enclosure, trajectory)
  • He likes throwing away rubbish (enclosure, trajectory)
  • He loves bubbles and balloons (trajectory)
  • He loves spinning when dancing (rotation)
I decided to test my assumption through observation over a few days
We went to preschool together and I observed him freely engaging in many self chosen activities.
He played with trains
Pushed a Lego car he had built
Pushed a car on the track
I also observed him playing with other toys which seemed to support a trajectory schema he where he was able to observe objects dropping i.e he threaded, watched the egg timer sand drop down, played with the marble run. Also enjoyed pushing objects.
He enjoyed pushing objects horizontally in addition to vertically. he experimented using pieces from the marble run to push along toy cars and trains. Then he discovered he could use the pieces to push the marbles which he greatly enjoyed.

I began to question whether my original assumptions were distorting my observations
Could I be seeing what I wanted to see?
And then something happened....................................
His reaction was instant and unmistakable
A girl walked past pushing a toy vacuum cleaner up and down the floor, he stared and said:
"I want to do that"
The Trajectory schema definition: "An interest in how objects and people move, and how children can effect that movement. This schema can be seen in children's actions when they drop objects, jump, swing and climb up and down repeatedly" (Again !Again S Fetherstone)
After these observations I took another look at my original assumptions. The assumption is that my son is exhibiting schema behaviours in line with trajectory, rotation, connection and enclosure
  • He loves playing with balls (trajectory)
  • He loves playing with vehicles;specifically cares, trains, helicopters and tractors (trajectory)
  • He likes joining tracks for his trains (although he prefers it when someone else does this for him) (connecting)
  • He is obsessed with shutting doors (enclosure, trajectory)
  • He likes throwing away rubbish (enclosure, trajectory)
  • He loves bubbles and balloons (trajectory)
  • He loves spinning when dancing (rotation)
My conclusion: He has as dominant interest in the movement of objects in a horizontal or vertical trajectory.
How can these schema's be supported in order to extend his learning and thinking across the 6 areas of the Early Years Foundation Stage?

Communication, Language and Literacy:
Use his interest to develop his vocabulary e.g. words that describe the movement of the objects he is using
Share books, songs and rhymes with him that reflect the context as well as the thread of thinking e.g. books and songs etc about cars and trains etc
Creative Development
Provide opportunities for him to use cars, balls and other objects that move vertically to push through paint, gloop, sand etc, creating patterns and lines

Problem Solving, Reasoning and Numeracy
Count with him as he pushes cars, blows bubbles etc
Race trains, cars to See who comes 1st, 2nd etc
Have number labels e. in parking spaces for cars and bikes

Play skittles with him to enable him to develop his understanding of number, addition and subtraction

Encourage sharing and turn taking e.g. when on the large cars and bikes
Knowledge and Understanding of the World
Provide opportunities for him to predict, explore, investigate and experience e.g. ramps for his cars, bubbles etc
Let him use a camera to record his interests
This project is from just one student who explored this work and integrated her new knowledge into her practice....I'd love to hear from more of you about your own work on nourishing children's schema's. Please do comment if you feel that you would like to share something
Thanks Charlotte for letting me share your work


  1. A very thought provoking blog entry. I agree that this valuable pedagigical theory is not utilised enough by early years practitioners to assess and plan for, children's needs and interests. Once you get hooked by schema's it truly changes the way you think and work with children! Thanks Tracy for sharing your work in Hampshire and giving an insight into how important schematic behaviour is to children.

  2. Brilliant, if all teachers considered the schemas boys would have a more positive experience of school and would search their environment and allowing expansion of knowlege along EYFS lines.

    Thanks for sharing!