Some children enter pre-schools at two or three years of age and despite settling in well, seem unable to persist at any activity. The child, who has no obvious developmental concerns, moves from one activity to another, remaining at each for no longer than a few minutes. They appear happy and content and are often labelled immature and it is assumed their powers of concentration will increase as they become older. This may, however, be an inaccurate conclusion. Another possibility is that the child is investigating a schema, a single chain of thought, maintained through all the short activities in which they engage. The child is not flitting at all, but building up knowledge in a particular area. If the second scenario is correct, is it possible that the child would remain longer at an activity than usual if it fitted with the schema they were investigating?
Does tailoring activities to an identifiable schema enable a normally flitty child to engage in an activity for longer periods of time?
2. Investigation through the literature
Schema research was first developed by Chris Athey during his five year early education project carried out at the Froebel Institute during the 1970’s. Building on constructivist theory and the work of Piaget, Athey (1990) investigated the development of knowledge. Piaget (1969) cited by Athey(1990:32-33) states that at every stage, a child assimilates perceived content to cognitive structures, learning through active participation. These cognitive structures acquire content from further experiences that allow accommodation or modification of the original hypothesis and a step forward in knowledge. Athey defined these cognitive structures or schemas as:
A pattern of repeatable behaviour into which experiences are assimilated and than gradually coordinated.(Athey 1990:37)
In order to investigate these patterns of repeatable behaviour, Athey instigated the Froebel project the main aim of which was to search for the commonalities and continuities (cognitive constants) in spontaneous thought and development. Athey observed twenty children, aged 3 to 5, daily, for two years. From the 5,333 observations taken, three sequences of repeatable behaviours were found. The first was based on ten graphic schemas, the second involved eleven space schemas and the third consisted of nine dynamic schemas:
Dynamic back and forth
Going over and under
Going around a boundary
Enveloping and containing
Going through a boundary
From her research Athey maintained that children would notice elements in their surroundings, depending on their interests at the time, and that they had their own intrinsic motivation to investigate these interests. Given this insight, Athey went on to consider the issue of concentration and persistence in young children. Athey looked at the child that flits i.e. the movement of a child from one activity to the next in a short space of time with no obvious links between the content e.g. playing in the home corner, moving to the sand, painting a picture. Athey believed that a child’s strong desire to search for meaning and commonalities resulted in them being prepared to use whatever they could find to extend their schematic interest. If that meant moving from one activity to the next to test out their hypothesis, then so be it. Content was not the issue, it was the pattern of thought that mattered.
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Focusing on content at the expense of form can lead to the conclusion that young children ‘flit’ from one theme to another and that they are unsystematic or even idiosyncratic. One of the uncharted areas of early cognitive functioning is children’s own search for commonalities. While it is true that children often name a drawing as one thing and then change it to another, it is also true that, more often than not, there is a common form underlying differences in content.(Athey 1990:83).
This issue has been developed further by Cathy Nutbrown (2006) who talks about children working on a pattern of behaviour with a consistent thread of thought. Nutbrown, during her small scale study of forty, three to five year olds in a nursery class identified a number of children who flitted. One example was Jeanette. Nutbrown compares the different conclusions that can be drawn when focusing on the content of Jeanette’s play compared to the form of her play. The content shows a child that moved from one activity to another: house play, drawing, water, clay etc., not remaining at any for extended periods of time. The form, however, showed Jeanette systematically fitting together relevant experiences which matched the schema of containment e.g. wrapping pieces of clay in brown paper and putting them in a box; filling bottles with water; filling a bowl with pebbles and sand; making crackers. Nutbrown concludes that, like Jeanette, some children create continuities which may be identified as threads of thinking which connect different areas of content. Their explorations are systematic, fitting together a cohesive well planned whole, with apparently unconnected activities having important cognitive links. Nutbrown states:
Without observation or reflection on the part of a professional educator, these fine threads may appear invisible and children’s chosen activities may appear to lack continuity either in content or of thought. The chance for the adult to extend and build on the child’s schema is lost and the child might be said to be ‘inconsistent’ or to ‘lack concentration’ and to be ‘unable to choose for themselves’, let alone take responsibility for their own learning. (Nutbrown 2006:34-35).
The potential for an educator without schema knowledge to miss a learning opportunity is further backed up by Nutbrown’s observations on Frances whose dominant schema was the dynamic circular schema with a particular interest in rotation. Frances’ teacher was aware of schemas and on recognising Frances’ made pumpkin soup using a can opener, pepper and salt mills and a liquidizer. Frances was fascinated and investigated the equipment, the cause and effect functions and language connected with rotation. Frances stayed with her teacher for the whole hour it took to make the soup, remaining actively involved in the process even when other children came and went. Nutbrown believes that the prolonged concentration was linked to a match between the child’s schema and the task at hand (Nutbrown 2006:62-63).
This issue has been looked at further by other researchers for example Arnold(2003) and Mitchell et al. (2004) cited by Meade and Cubey(2008:45) both of whom have demonstrated that children show increased persistence or interest as they encode new instances of schemas. Meade(1994) cited by Meade and Cubey(2008: 44) uses the term ‘re-cognition’ to describe a child’s fascination with particular forms of thought. Re-cognition is the clustering of new information, experiences or insights in a child’s mind to feed existing cognitive structures. Each time a child perceives a schema a little differently, she is re-cogniting. This process is very motivational for children, they actively hunt for a variety of resources to extend their schemas and enjoy teacher attention and parental involvement.
Although these insights are interesting, the question that must be asked is, ‘are they important?’ The answer to this was first muted by Athey (1990) when his research at the Froebel Institute showed that standardised test scores of the experimental group using a schema enriched program made highly significant gains in test scores that were sustained during the first two years of primary education. More recent work, undertaken in New Zealand as part of an ongoing longitudinal study ‘the 1993 Competent Children Action Study’, (Meade and Cubey 2008) confirms Athey’s work. The study looked at the effects of heightening adult awareness, in both teachers and parents, of schema development and its affect on children’s learning. The results showed that with few exceptions, the outcomes were more positive for children in schema centres than in comparison centres.
The research took place in two parts at ……….. pre-school during April 2009. Three children were selected whose daily activities suggested a pre-disposal to flitting i.e. a tendency to remain at individual activities for no longer than four minutes.
Child 1: female aged 3 years 3 months
Child 2: female aged 3 years 9 months
Child 3: male aged 3 years 9 months
Part 1-schema identification
Using naturalistic observations, the three children were studied in their own settings during a normal session. The children’s activities were recorded with hand written notes. The notes and observations were analysed for schema identification.
This qualitative case study method was chosen to:
Build knowledge of the individual children.
Reduce the possibility of participant reactivity. Observations were taken in the manner normal to the setting by staff known to the children.
Potential weaknesses of this research were:
Lack of validation by a third party. Triangulation through the use of video recording or the presence of another researcher would have led to more robust results. This, however, would have required time to normalise them in the setting prior to the research commencing.
Inexperience of schema identification by the researcher.
Part 2 – tailored schematic activities
In order to test the hypotheses that children will concentrate for longer if an activity fits with their dominant schema, a field experiment using structured observations was utilised. Using the dominant schemas identified in part 1 two activities that fitted and extended those schemas were set up, drawing from different parts of the curriculum, as well as two control activities that investigate a different schema. The children were introduced to one activity each day within their normal setting by an adult they were used to working with. The length of time they remained at the activity was recorded and hand written notes of their conversations and actions were taken.
This type of research was chosen because:
The scientific method is capable of being replicated by other researchers, showing the affect of changing the independent variable i.e. the different schematic activities, on the dependent variable i.e. the time spent at the activity by the child.
A field experiment was used to ensure that the research conditions were as normal as possible for the children and participant reactivity was minimised. By undertaking the research in their own setting and not a laboratory, by a person known to them, and staggering the activities over a number of days, the children remained in the normal flow of the pre-school day. This minimised changes in routine or attention that may have affected the results.
The use of two different areas of the curriculum ensured greater reliability of the results by reducing the chances that if a child was particularly interested in an area e.g. craft, they would stay longer.
The use of a control reduced the possibilities of a false result, giving a direct comparison within a curriculum area between a schematic activity and a non schematic activity.
There are a number of weaknesses in the research style chosen including:
The dependency on one individual’s recording and interpretations of the observations.
The limited number of children involved and the lack of statistical validity to the data.
Before commencing this research there were a number of ethical considerations to be taken into account.
Informed consent – Parents of the children were given a consent form outlining the aims of the research and its format. They were assured the research would be confidential and they would be debriefed on the results.
Optional – Parents were told that the research was not obligatory and their child did not have to take part if they did not wish them too.
Non harmful – The children wishes were respected. They were not removed from their setting and the research was woven into their normal day to ensure they did not feel they were being singled out or missing out on other activities.
Extended – If the research proved positive planning for dominant schemas should be extended to other children within the setting
Results for part 1:
-Placed the figures in the dolls house
-Used the shape sorter
-Filled a bag in the home corner
-Refilled the shape sorter again
-Filled funnels in the sandpit and made castles.
-Painted circles and lines, with an arch over the top.
-Covered a large soft cat with a tea towel, a shower cap, a bobble round its ears and beads over it.
– Painted a picture and then covered it completely with paint.
– Poured water into a jug letting it over flow.
-Places a crown over a dolls head.
-Puts a dress on a doll and wraps her in a towel.
-Watched the sand timers.
-Placed pegs in a line on a board.
-Poured water into a water trough.
-Danced to the tidy up music.
-Scrapped sand with a spoon.
No dominant schema.
The first part of the research, in line with work by Athey(1990) and Nutbrown(2006), shows some children who flit from content to content are in fact following a schema. Their thought process is systematic and far from lacking concentration, they are persistent in finding activities within different content to extend their schemas.
The inability to identify a dominant schema in Child 3 may be due either to there not being one, or that the researcher was inexperienced in the area of identification. This is an issue raised by Athey(1990) who notes that more schemas were recognised by the teachers making observations in the Froebel project as their skills in identifying them increased (Athey 1990: 51).
Results for part 2
Child 1 – containing schema
Description of activity
Filling numbered boxes
with the correct number of buttons. Matching the boxes to correct number column.
Continued until all 16 boxes were filled.
Returned later and asked to repeat the task.
– ‘When I’ve filled these I’ll need some more.’
– Half way through the repeated activity music time started. AKC said, ‘Would you like to stop?’ Child 1 replied, ‘I haven’t finished yet.’ Child 1 continued the task.
Non Schema Activity
Matching magnetic numbers and creating rows containing the right number of numerals
– After 3 mins Child 1 looked up and asked is Zoe in today.
– After 5 mins Child 1 said, ‘Do you like my boots?’ and began playing with the zips.
– After 6 mins Child 1 left the activity.
Making sock puppets using stuffing and different sized socks.
-‘ It’s not full, we need more stuffing.’
– ‘Have you any more socks?
Non schema activity
– After painting 2 eggs Child 1 put down her paint brush. AKC said, ‘Do you want to paint another one?’ Child 1 replied, ‘No, you can paint them now.’
Child 2 – enveloping schema
Description of Activity
Key Comments/ Insights
Filling numbered envelopes with counters and hiding them under numbered tea towels.
– Child 2 smiled as she selected her envelopes and counted the fingers of AKC to help her identify the right number.
Matching magnetic numbers and creating rows containing the right number of numerals.
– After 2 mins Child 2 said, ‘Can I go and play?’ AKC said, ‘Shall we find the missing numbers first?’
– Child 2 shuffled on the carpet, making growling noises and pawing the carpet, dragging over a number 2.
– Child 2 covered the whole of the egg in paint, continuing until the whole tray of eggs was complete.
– Child 2 used her fingers for 2 mins then smeared the paint across with her hands, continuing until all the card was covered with paint.
Looking back at the original question posed at the start of the research, ‘Does tailoring activities to an identifiable schema enable a normally flitty child to engage in an activity for longer periods of time?’, the answer from this small sample is ‘yes.’ The time spent on the schematic activities shown in the tables above is significantly higher than for the non schematic activities. In addition the comments and actions made by the children show their level of engagement. Although I have not located any research where a specific timed comparison is made, these results do appear to be in line with Nutbrown(2006) observations of Frances’ soup making activity discussed in the review of literature section; and those of Arnold (2003) and Mitchell et al.(2004) cited by Meade and Cubey(2008: 45).
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These finding are obviously only based on two children and two activities, therefore the sample size is too small to draw any real quantitative conclusions. To make any statistically valid statements an expanded quantitative study would be required. Further validity may have resulted from the use of the control activity being the other child’s schema activity i.e. if the maths control activity had been the enveloping schema activity for Child 1 and the containment activity for Child 2. However, a number of researchers classify containment and enveloping together (Athey 1990; Nutbrown 2006) and for this example it was felt the two schematic areas may be too similar to give sufficiently contrasting results.
Full Scale Research Study
This small scale pilot study could be expanded into a full scale research project through:
Increasing the sample size to a level which would give statistically valid results. This could be achieved through extending the research to other settings, preferably involving other interested researchers. More than one setting is required in order to ensure the sample is of children who flit.
To introduce video recording in the settings in order to allow triangulation of results, particularly in the initial identification of the dominant schema.
To use more than one schematic activity and non schematic activity in each area to ensure consistency of results.
Implications for Early Childhood Education
The results from this research indicate there is a distinct possibility that young children who flit do so in order to follow their dominant schema and not because they have an inability to persist at an activity. To label them as immature or unable to concentrate is to do them a disservice. It could even be that a lack of schema understanding and observation has meant that the setting environment has no activities specifically designed to extend their schema based learning and the child has to flit to feed their quest for knowledge. Given this, in order to capitalise on a child’s natural desire to explore different schemas at different times and to maximise the chances to extend a child’s learning in a way that is both positive and engaging the following should be considered:
1) Specific training on schema awareness, identification and how schemas develop into future concepts needs to be available for all Early Years workers.
2) Settings should provide a diverse array of materials and objects to explore, with few adult restrictions as for choice.
3) Once identified, the key person should plan to extend the schema by using vocabulary connected to the schema, introducing materials that will extend an area of play and creating specific activities that link to the child’s schema.
4) Early Years practitioners should share schema knowledge with parents. This will enable parents to better understand their child’s natural impulses so that they can find acceptable ways for them to follow their schemas.
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