Zone of Proximal Development

Zone of Proximal Development

The zone of proximal development is a concept 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.1

Vygotsky opposed the use of standardized tests as a measure of a child’s intelligence. He suggested it is better to compare the child’s ability to solve problems independently with his ability to solve problems with the assistance of someone who has already mastered the concepts being learned. Vygotsky’s view was that social interaction is the basis of cognitive growth. As a child communicates in a social setting with more knowledgeable people, he is assisted in building an understanding of the concepts to be learned.2

The aid given by a more knowledgeable person is called scaffolding. This can come from a number of sources, including direct instruction, encouragement, and observation of others.3 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.4

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.5 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.6

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.7 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. Zhai, Zilong and Rob Kim. “Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development.” University of British Columbia ETEC 510. < > 28 Oct. 2010.
  • 2. Coffey, Heather. “Zone of proximal development.” Learn NC. < > 28 Oct. 2010.
  • 3. 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.
  • 4. Frost, Joe L., Sue Wortham, Stuart Reifel. Play and Child Development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001. p. 326.
  • 5. Op. cit., Frost, Wortham, Reifel. p. 51.
  • 6. Op. cit., Frost, Brown, Sutterby, Thornton. p. 92.
  • 7. Op. cit., Frost, Brown, Sutterby, Thornton. p. 133.