Schemas in Forest School and Outdoor Play
Let's geek out on Piaget!
In a previous post I wrote about our workshop at the Forest School conference which explored how understanding play theory would help parents and caregivers foster stronger attachments with their children. I touched on Play Schemas and how we can facilitate their development at Forest School. In this post I will look further into this, how it applies at Forest School and other types of outdoor, play based learning.
In order to start thinking about Schemas we need to know a little bit about Jean Piaget, a psychologist who specialised in child theory from the 1920s onwards. The core of his theory is that children explore and interact with the world, they do this naturally, without the need of adults to show them what to do. When we look at schemas we are focusing on what Piaget called the Sensorimotor and Preoperational stages which take us from birth up to age 7. In many theories of childhood 7 is considered the 'golden age' at which children start to develop in a more formal way and move away from the need for all learning to be play based, it is one of the reasons why many countries do not start formal education until age 7.
Piaget was the first psychologist who developed the concept of schema into a theory of cognitive development. Schemas are repeated patterns of behaviour which, over time and with lots of repetition and exposure develop into ideas and concepts. Schemas are essentially building blocks of knowledge. For example, a schema about tomatoes. A child tries a tomato a few times and knows that they are sweet, red and juicy. The next time they try the a tomato it is slightly squishy and overripe, it doesn't taste nice. So a new piece of knowledge is added to the schema, that sometimes tomatoes can taste yucky. As children grow older and have more experiences the schema grows and, through experience and experiment, gain more understanding about the world.
You can read more about Piaget's theory here.
Piaget describes a schema as “a cohesive, repeatable action sequence possessing component actions that are tightly interconnected and governed by a core meaning”. The origins of the intelligence of children, 1952
We can describe these as repeated patterns of behaviour, they are natural, happen without adult intervention and are often described as 'urges'. The often seem uncontrollable.
The concept of schemas has been explored and written about by many childhood theorists and psychologists over the years. For wider reading on the topic we recommend looking at the work of Chris Athey who described a schema as 'a pattern of repeatable behaviour into which experiences are assimilated and that are gradually coordinated. Co-ordinations lead to higher-level and more powerful schemas.' (2007)
So, how does this apply in a Forest School setting?
One of the core principles of Forest School is "Forest School uses a range of learner-centred processes to create a community for development and learning." (Forest School Association) Play is at the focus of all of our sessions in Forest School and we aim to facilitate and allow the children to explore and experiment at their own pace. By doing so we allow the learners to have the time, space and materials needed to explore schemas and to find things out for themselves.
The schemas we most commonly see children developing through play are;
Let's look at each of these in turn, how we may see them represented in Forest School and what materials we or nature can provide to facilitate and support them. Whilst looking at each schema ask yourself the question 'What can we / does the woodland provide in Forest School to support this schema?'
When children are working in this schema we see them lining up leaves end to end, placing items from the woods neatly arranged into patterns, making lines with sticks, pegging feather in a line on string and sorting our hot chocolate cups into colour order.
This can also involve putting natural materials end to end but with a focus on the connection between each item. This is also knot tying, taking a ball of string or wool all the way through the woods connecting each tree together and making toy (and real) zip wires between trees.
This is the one which often has parents and caregivers trying to stop them! This schema explores how things move through the air, so throwing acorns and mud balls. It is also climbing and jumping which are big things in Forest School - jumping in a puddle not only moves the child's body but also creates movement of the water itself, no wonder it brings so much joy to children who are exploring the trajectory schema. Not only that, it is also the exploration of things that are already moving, like interrupting running water and pouring water down gutters.
One of our favourite Forest School activities, den building is part of the enclosure schema which is an urge to put yourself or something inside something else. We also see children closing themselves inside hammock for what sometimes feels like the entire session, or drawing big circles in the fallen leaves and placing all of the leaves inside.
Physicality at Forest School is important for this schema. We often find children hanging upside down from branches we have placed between trees, leaning off the side of a tree whilst climbing, going up, under, over and around objects in the woods. Climbing on the cargo net, going under the net, being above someone, below them.
I always seem to have a pocket full of conkers in the autumn and this urge to collect things together and take them elsewhere is part of the transporting schema. We see children fill their pockets and buckets with acorns and then place them elsewhere in the site. They also love a child sized wheelbarrow for collecting leaves, moving them elsewhere and creating a new pile under another tree. Better still a sledge where the can move other children around!
This is the one I love to hate as it takes me a long time to unwrap a tree which has been wrapped completely with wool or lengths of fabric.
In a playground this schema sees children going around and around and around on the roundabout, in Forest School we see them doing this in hammocks that are hung in trees like hanging chairs. They also turn over wheelbarrows and repeatedly spin the wheels.
Making potions and mud pies is all part of the transformation schema which involves taking something and turning it into something else. Children exploring this schema spend a lot of time in the mud and with the water creating all kinds of tasty mud pies for their caregivers. Yum.
By allowing young children to explore these schemas in a natural and uninterrupted way we help them to start develop building blocks of knowledge. We see this go develop from simple urges to repeat the behaviour into firstly symbolic representation, then functional dependency and finally abstract thought.
This is where children use something in place of something else. For example, they understand that you can have lots of acorns and you can have lots of coins so they use acorns to represent money.
This is when children can draw on previous knowledge to extend their play. For example, a child is playing with water and wants to collect it so they can use it again, so they go to the storage barn and collect a bucket and some guttering to collect the water with, bring it out and use it.
This is when children use previous knowledge that they have developed and apply it in different circumstances without any visual clues. It is being able to use their imagination to think of new ideas using experience of other things.
Without the early building blocks of schemas to be developed through free play children will find it harder to move through later stages of cognitive development and, as older children and adults, find it more difficult to develop new and interesting ideas. Allowing time and space for schemas in the early years helps children develop as learners who can think for themselves.
Schematic play allows children to take risks, make mistakes and learn for themselves. We can redirect schema behaviours to make them more appropriate to a setting for others safety (for example a child throwing stones near other children could be given acorns and a better target!) but it is vital that we support children to explore these very natural urges.
Schemas are just one of the many childhood developmental theories that we explore during our Level 2 and Level 3 Forest School Leader training and is something we particularly enjoy exploring in the woods.