Schemas, loose parts and the outdoors-an affordance of possibilities

The aims and objectives of this research were to explore the affordance of loose parts in the outdoors in supporting children’s schemas. The research took place in early years settings in South Wales with children aged between 3-5 years. Piaget (1953) stated that schemas are a key cognitive process through which children can construct their knowledge and understanding and become active meaning-makers.  Athey (2007) built upon Piaget’s original work on schemas, and this research has triangulated her categorisation of ‘Dynamic Schemas’, Forman’s (1994) ‘Affordance’ theory with Nicholson’s (1971) theory of ‘Loose parts’, as a framework to interpret the data gathered. Data were gathered using narrative observations and annotated photographs of children engaging in schematic play using a variety of loose parts in the outdoor environment. This led to a rich dialogue in the setting between the children, practitioners, and researchers about the what, the how, and the why of their play intentions. It facilitated a rethinking around loose parts and a reshaping of the outdoor environment to nurture and nourish children’s schemas. Whilst researchers and educators have long known the worth of supporting and facilitating children’s schemas, this research has presented new ways of thinking about and opportunities for, developing children’s schemas in the outdoors and, the significance of providing loose parts to support these schematic interests. Analysis and interpretation of the narrative observations and annotated photographs suggested that the outdoors afforded freedom of space and enabled children to use ‘loose parts’ in new ways that facilitated their schemas.  Examples included movable bricks used to construct beds, towers, and secret pathways, supporting a child’s vertical and horizontal trajectory schema, as well as their imagination and creativity.  Sand and water were used to envelop hands for a child with an enveloping schema, and water was transferred from one container to another for a child with a transporting schema. This supported Forman’s (1994) theory that some materials, such as bricks sand, and water, provide a greater affordance to be transformed and allowed new understandings of the child to emerge. Practitioners were able to have a window into the child’s thinking and to reconsider the provision of loose parts in the outdoors. This meant that provision and pedagogy became more authentic, engaging, and meaningful and supported the ethos of both the new curriculum for Wales and the new non-maintained curriculum in Wales (WG, 2020; WG, 2022).