In the Zone

In the Zone

Children’s interests change over time. Toys and books become worn out with love, and then almost overnight become forgotten. Similarly, adults’ interests change, although perhaps not quite at the same rate. In the past couple of months, I have gotten very much into reading books about child development. Before I write more, I will provide three recommendations:

The Philosophical Baby, Alison Gopnik (2009)
The Scientist in the Crib, Alison Gopnik, Andrew N. Metzoff & Patricia K. Kuhl (2000)
Einstein Never Used Flash Cards, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek & Roberta Michnick Golinkoff (2003)

These books present interesting research and concise narrations about how children’s language and cognition develop, and how parents/caregivers can best support their children’s learning. Moreover, the information within these books is presented in very non-technical language. Irrespective of our academic and professional background, or our interest and experience with child development, we can call appreciate the art of transforming something complex and involved to an idea that is easily parsed.

Within the general (and vast) field of ‘child development’, I have been thinking more specifically about a term that is attributed to Lev Vygotsky (a psychologist who, in the early 20th century, studied child development). The zone of proximal development is the knowledge and skills that a child is approximating. Without the support (‘’scaffolding’’---a term used by Jerome Bruner of New York University) provided by caregivers, the child is not able to perform successfully or demonstrate her understanding. However, with the support of a caregiver, she is within range to be successful.

Clearly, the zone of proximal development is a more theoretical construct than a concrete strategy for providing meaningful and appropriate learning supports for a child. However, I think this idea is important to consider because it reminds us that we constantly have opportunities to provide support for a child to develop skills and learn new information. Perhaps it is analogous to opening a cupboard and getting down a phone book such that the child is at the ‘right’ height to see what is on the table. (May I just say, are phone books becoming an antiquated reference? Do our young children know what a phone book is?) Once the child is at the right height, she is in a better position to learn. In essence, she is better able to create reinforcing learning opportunities for herself once she is in a certain place, and it is as a result of the adult’s scaffolding that the child is at the right place.

Continuing this analogy, within the context of the busy-ness of life, it is probably and frequently easier to just give the child whatever it is they are reaching for on the table. That is, it requires more energy and thoughtfulness to apply an appropriate support for a child that allows them to be more in control of their learning (e.g. allows them to be at the right height at the table) than it does to just give them the answer and move on. However, I believe that allowing learning opportunities to unfold naturally (and allowing the child to be in control of their learning is arguably natural) perhaps is more beneficial for the child’s cognitive development (in the long run). It seems to me that intrinsic to the zone of proximal development is the development of problem solving skills and higher order thinking (e.g. planning, implementing strategies, and assessing performance)—highly valued cognitive and linguistically based processes.

Our children’s interests will change. I like thinking that it is in their best interest to meet them in their zone of proximal development. In fact, as adults we could probably do a better job of meeting one another in a zone of proximal development. Think of what we could learn. . . HJ

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