Last reviewed 4 July 2022

Chris Athey (1924–2011) was a principal lecturer in education at Roehampton University and is best known for her work on the development of schema theory in the UK. Rachel Dearnley, Early Years Consultant and Trainer, looks at Athey’s influence on early years practice and particularly her theory on how young children come to know things.

What are schemas?

Athey explains schemas as “patterns of behaviour and thinking in children that exist underneath the surface features of various contents, contexts and specific experiences” (Athey 2007). They come about from the emotional and cognitive functions of the brain. Cognitively, children explore patterns, possibilities and predict outcomes from repetitive play. The emotional brain places “a value on the events, outcomes and memories” of their play. When children find an underlying interest/fascination in repeated patterns of play (trajectory, rotating, enclosing, enveloping, connecting, transporting, orienting and more), they come to find joy, awe and wonder, frustration and perseverance, whilst formulating ideas and hypotheses which drive and motivate them to investigate more. “It is the feeling that does the motivating” (Eillis and Solms 2018). Children are learning as they repeat things such as stacking bricks, transporting objects from one area to another, finding and hiding objects, etc. While they are doing this, they make connections, develop skills and solve problems.


Born in North East England in 1924, Athey studied philosophy, psychology and economics at Hillcroft College, Surbiton. Following this, she completed her teacher training at Wall Hall, Hertfordshire. It was during this time that she experienced some challenging teaching and concluded that she would not become a “bully of a teacher”. Her theories began to emerge as she deduced that “to start with the learner” and where they are at was the most logical way to build on what they know and can do. Akin to Frobelian principles before she knew of him, Athey later taught eight-year-old children at the Froebel Institute prep school. It was here that she became familiar with the work of Piaget and was struck by his theory that “intelligence is not fixed and unchanging, it can be created”. She described herself as a “constructivist teacher”, one who creates situations in which children will explore, investigate, discover and challenge their ideas, building upon their own learning. Knowledge itself is constructed, rather than being innate or passively absorbed, and learners make meaning by actively engaging with the world and finding out what they can do.

Having gained a distinction in her Masters degree at Leicester University, she became a Lecturer at the Froebel Institute and Director of the Froebel Early Education Project (1973–8), working with Tina Bruce on the study of 20 children. They involved parents in their theories around schemas and asked them to observe their children’s explorations at home. It was at this point that they surmised that parent’s involvement was key to children’s progress.

Froebel Early Education Project (1973–8)

The project involved a group of children from a socio-economically disadvantaged background, and a control group from an advantaged background. The children had a nursery education, during which time extensive observations were made. It was the aim of the project to identify and document children’s thinking and analyse the sequence of children’s behaviour. This helps to identify the best content for the curriculum and experiences in nursery provision that benefit children’s thinking.

Athey and her team’s biggest challenge to traditional theories was that children “fitted not flitted”. Their close observations of children’s play behaviours led to the belief that rather than children only being able to “flit” between one activity and another and having to learn to concentrate, children instead formulated ideas as they investigated and explored the environment around them. This was the key to developing concentration and focus, contradicting the theory that children have to learn to concentrate.

The research highlighted a sequence in the way children explore and used schemas.

  1. Repeated physical actions.

  2. The schema symbolises something.

  3. Relationships and connections are made between events and objects.

  4. The schema supports thought. At this point the child internalises and integrates the elements of an idea/concept and this is then extended.

The full research findings are documented in Athey’s book Extending Thought in Young Children: A Parent-Teacher Partnership (1990/2007). It highlights how observing schemas in young children informs the planning of the provision, the experiences and opportunities for children. Professor Cathy Nutbrown, who worked with Athey, is also respected for her extended work on schemas. Their research continues to have a marked influence on how early years education is shaped today.

Key influences from Chris Athey

  • Child-centred learning and rich and varied learning environments, along with supportive learning relationships with others, enable children to construct their own learning.

  • Athey’s constructivist approach to children’s learning and development is key to children’s development in our practice today. Careful observations of children’s schemas help practitioners to plan and extend children’s learning both in the moment and over time. This helps children follow their interests and develop their thinking skills.

  • Schemas can be seen in children through their actions, language and symbolic play. Their repetitive behaviours show a pattern, reflecting their interest in a concept or the nature of the objects or materials they are playing with.

  • Several schemas may develop at the same time and connections are made between them as thinking develops.

  • Practitioners who observe and analyse behaviours and recognise emerging schema can support their interests, motivations and thinking. It is important to provide opportunities for children to practice and master their actions. Meaningful activities support the development of children’s thinking and learning.

Points for good practice

  • Practitioners who understand how emotions affect intellect and thinking are better placed to provide rich learning opportunities.

  • The quality of observations made about children is also key to providing a rich and varied environment that appeals to their curiosity and current interests.

  • Observations should provide key information on what the child knows and can do now and should reflect “how” children are playing with resources (schemas) and not be narrowly confined to “what” they are playing with.

  • Children explore their environment in ways that may suggest one or more schemas, such as rotation, trajectory, enveloping, connecting and transforming and more.

  • Ensure the continuous provision has plenty of resources that match the current schemas of your children inside and outside, eg balls and cars with guttering at different heights to run them down for trajectory schema; blankets, sheets, scarves, and cosy places to hide away for an enveloping schema; Sellotape, string/wool, pegs, for a connecting schema; boxes, bags, baskets, buckets for a transporting schema.

  • Involving parents, carers and grandparents in children’s learning is crucial. Share knowledge with parents of how children use schemas to explore their ideas, feelings, relationships and thoughts. When parents understand the repeated behaviours of their children and appreciate that they are meaningful, they are better placed to support or redirect it.

Further reading

  • Extending Thought in Young Children. A Parent-Teacher Partnership, 2nd edition, Athey C, 2007

  • Understanding Schemas in Young children: Again! Again, Featherstone S (Ed), 2012

  • Threads of Thinking: Schemas and Young Children’s Learning, Nutbrown C, 2011

  • Understanding Schemas and Young Children, Nutbrown C, 2013

  • Schemas, Pen Green Centre