Scaffolding is an instructional technique that provides support to a learner to build on his prior knowledge helping him internalize new concepts or perform more difficult tasks.1 The process is much like a scaffolding used as a temporary support system for a building until the task is completed and it can stand on its own. The assistance provided by a more knowledgeable person to help another learn to perform a task is a temporary framework that is gradually removed as the learner masters the task.2

Inherent in the technique of scaffolding is the concept of the zone of proximal development, which was developed by social cognitive theorist and psychologist Lev Vygotsky. His famous definition is “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers.” In other words, the zone of proximal development is the area where the child cannot solve a problem alone, but can solve it successfully under the guidance or collaboration with an adult or more advanced peer, which is called scaffolding.3

Scaffolding can come from a number of sources, including direct instruction, encouragement, and observation of others.4 Often, children can solve problems on their own with a little assistance from an adult. In a classroom setting a teacher can offer hints and leading questions to assist children in solving problems independently without solving the problem for them.5 Guiding them to understand how to link old information or familiar situations with new knowledge, a teacher can use verbal and nonverbal communication as well as model the desired behavior.6 The teacher might also use cooperative learning, which promotes teamwork as children work together to complete the task.7

Play is a source of cognitive and social development for children and also creates a zone of proximal development. A child will attempt to perform activities above his usual behavior as he is encouraged by social interactions with adults and more competent peers. As situations are created that challenge him to think or perform beyond his independent level, he is helped to achieve ever higher levels of performance and problem solving by the scaffolding of others.8 To help a young child develop competence on an overhead ladder, an adult might support the child by the waist as he masters the skills necessary to grasp the bars and hold his own weight as he crosses the bars.9 The support is decreased as the child learns to master the task.

Scaffolding can also occur through observation. As children see other children perform physical tasks, they have the opportunity to learn through the experience of others. A task that seems difficult at first to a child can be performed after seeing how another child has mastered it.10 Watching how a more competent child navigates a rock wall or climbs a tree gives the learning child insight into how to solve the problem for himself.

  • 1. Coffey, Heather. “Scaffolding.” Learn NC. < > 28 Oct. 2010.
  • 2. Lipscomb, Lindsay, Janet Swanson, and Anne West. “Scaffolding. Emerging Perspectives on Learning, Teaching andTechnology.” The University of Georgia. College of Education. < > 29 Oct. 2010.
  • 3. Zhai, Zilong and Rob Kim. “Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development.” University of British Columbia ETEC 510. < > 28 Oct. 2010.
  • 4. Frost, Joe L., Pei-San Brown, John A. Sutterby, Candra D. Thornton. The Developmental Benefits of Playgrounds. Olney, MD: Association for Childhood Education International, 2004. p. 91.
  • 5. Frost, Joe L., Sue Wortham, Stuart Reifel. Play and Child Development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001. p. 326.
  • 6. Op. cit., Coffey.
  • 7. Op. cit.,Lipscomb, Swanson, West.
  • 8. Op. cit., Frost, Wortham, Reifel. p. 51.
  • 9. Op. cit., Frost, Brown, Sutterby, Thornton. p. 92.
  • 10. Op. cit., Frost, Brown, Sutterby, Thronton. p. 133.