Inside: Read on to discover what is the 'just right' learning zone for your children and when they are ready to learn.
When I was working in a preschool classroom, being able to apply a concept known as the Zone of Proximal Development to the early childhood curriculum I implemented saved me and my students from enormous amounts of unnecessary stress and anxiety. Knowing and understanding how this zone operates for your developing child will likely do the same for you at home.
Zone of Proximal Development - The “Just Right” Learning Zone
First, a little background on the Zone of Proximal Development. The idea was originally presented by a Soviet psychologist named Lev Vygotsky in the early 1900s. He theorized that children were best taught material and skills that fell within a specific “just right” learning zone.
The “just right” learning zone fell between two other zones that were not well suited for engaged, sustained, and successful learning. One was a zone of learning that contained material the child already knew and understood, and would therefore be bored and unchallenged to learn about. The other contained material that was too complicated and difficult for them to understand, even with the help of another, and would therefore lead to anxiety and frustration.
The “sweet spot” (my words, not his) for engaged and developmentally appropriate learning could be found in the in between space, or the Zone of Proximal Development.
This zone contained the material that the child was ready and able to learn about with the help of what Vygotsky called the More Knowledgable Other, frequently referred to in his work as the MKO. The MKO could then provide the scaffolding, or guidance, through the learning of new material that the child’s brain is developmentally ready for and their body is eager to assimilate.
Related: Tips on how to choose learning activities for your child.
Applying the Theory of Zone of Proximal Development
Now, how did this theory apply to our time in classroom or at home? Let’s take the example of putting together a puzzle.
If I put a 500 piece puzzle in the middle of a classroom of neurotypical 3-5 year old students, the likelihood of it being completed by them would be very low. Most students would probably end up feeling discouraged and frustrated and their sense of confidence and competence would plummet.
A puzzle with this degree of difficulty is out of their zone of proximal development. It’s simply too hard for them, even with support and guidance from a grown-up. The 500 pieces would likely end up strewn about my classroom like confetti.
If, on the other hand, I laid out a 4 piece puzzle, the kind with the grooves already etched out for its pieces in the wooden board, my students would likely be bored, as this puzzle is one they were likely able to complete a year or two ago.
If forced to sit still and work a puzzle with this level of ease, below their zone of proximal development, they might ignore it and look for something else more challenging, or complete it but experience boredom with the process.
If I laid out some 24, 50, or even 100 piece puzzles, I could observe the childrens’ varied responses to the puzzle and discover where each child’s zone of proximal development was situated. If a child was interested and engaged with a puzzle, but struggling to complete it, I could lower myself down to the carpet and begin the process of scaffolding to support their learning and evaluate if the puzzle was too easy, too difficult, or just right.
How to tell that your child is working within their Zone of Proximal Development
What successful scaffolding specifically looks like will vary from student to student and depends on the relationship they have with their MKO, the environment they are in, their mood on a particular day, and plenty of other individual factors.
Still, practice with scaffolding can help you, as your child’s MKO, discover their zone of proximal development for any activity or skill you are interested in working with them on. Successful scaffolding, which helps to indicate that your child is working within their Zone of Proximal Development, generally contains three key elements:
- the child is receptive to and interested in guidance from you or another MKO.
- the MKO is able to offer support, suggestions, and encouragement to the child, but can allow them the time and space they need to perform the required tasks of their own accord.
- the MKO can move between offering guidance/support and stepping away from the activity without the child losing interest or giving up.
When all of these elements are present, you can be confident that your child is operating in their learning “sweet spot.” This will lead to them assimilating and understanding the material more comprehensively, and increased confidence and competence.
If these elements are not present when you attempt to scaffold their learning, the activity may be too easy or too difficult and should be modified or put away for a later time.
Related: Here's how you can create a lifelong love for learning.
Knowing When Your Child is Ready to Learn
One of the most powerful aspects of working with this concept of the Zone of Proximal Development is that it means you won’t have to bang your head against a wall trying to teach your child something that they are simply not ready to learn yet. Instead of struggling for weeks or months to “get” your child to read, you can relax and trust that when your child demonstrates interest and readiness to learn to read, you can scaffold their learning with ease.
In the meantime, you can expose your child to various books, make developmentally appropriate literacy activities fun and available, and talk, sing, draw, and play with your child.
Related: Check out the best books for 2-year-olds.
Then, when they move into the Zone of Proximal Development for this skill, you can offer supportive scaffolding. When learning a new skill is navigated this way, a child is capable of learning in hours or days what previously could have taken weeks or months, and may never happen as fluently because they have developed a negative association with the learning process. Not only this, but the entire process becomes more enjoyable and your relationship with your child is better preserved.
I’d love to know, how does understanding and working within the Zone of Proximal Development impact your child’s learning experiences? Let me know in the comments below!
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