Pedagogy at the early childhood level is generally based on the understanding that young children construct their knowledge through cognitive structures called schemas. Children develop schemas through repeated actions and behaviors on objects and materials in their environment. This case study explored children's use of schemas to construct knowledge within the outdoor learning environment. The study also examined how loose parts and their affordance can nurture the development of schemas.
This research was conducted in Wales over a period of two school terms with four- and five-year-old children. Researchers observed and photographed the children as they used resources in the outdoor environment. Many of the resources consisted of loose parts or materials which the children were free to manipulate or move about on their own. Some of the loose parts, like sand and water, were natural materials; others, like bricks and tubing were manufactured materials. The researchers and practitioners worked together in analyzing and interpreting the information obtained from the observations and photographs. They also considered children's speech in analyzing how use of the loose parts and other resources helped children develop new understandings.
Findings indicated that the children chose to engage with loose parts as a significant part of their play and that the diverse ways in which they used the loose parts promoted their cognitive, creative, and physical development. The children's actions and words indicated that they were developing a variety of schema, including circular or rotational, enveloping, trajectory, and positioning schema.
This research highlights the importance of attention to schemas and how they are developed by young children. The findings also highlight the value of outdoor learning and the contribution that loose parts make to an outdoor learning environment. The findings are consistent with the understanding that young children construct their own knowledge when given the opportunity to become actively engaged with objects and materials in their environment. “Practitioners do not need to teach children how to play with loose parts, but just need to step out of the way, enabling children's imaginations to nurture their schemas.”