No, it isn’t short for “zipped!” The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is an elegant idea with an awkward name. Brilliant psychologist Lev Vygotsky coined the term in the 1930’s to talk about the difference between where a child can easily operate on a cognitive level and a higher level where he can operate with a little help. Unfortunately, many educators have interpreted this to mean that a teacher/parent should just provide a child with experiences that are a little above his level of competence. This is a simple interpretation for what is a much more sophisticated idea. Vygotsky was speaking of circumstances that could be used to encourage the child’s development to a higher level. Some of the most prominent circumstances are these:
Imaginative play. Vygotsky says that when a child plays it is as if he is “a head taller than himself.” Vygotsky believed that play was the child’s work and that through play he could exercise and grow both his social-emotional and cognitive capabilities. In the psychological literature, imaginative play seems to be especially powerful. Encourage children to play alone and with others with different kinds of props and toys: a cardboard box, a tree, action figures, dress-up clothes, toy vehicles and so on.
Group work/play. When with a partner or group the child must share her ideas, feelings and opinions—making them more transparent to herself and others. As she plays, she becomes “writer,” “director,” and “actor,” and engages in what I have called a “metacognitive dialogue:” P’like you’re the dad and I’m the daughter and we went to look for tigers in the jungle.” The exchanges and negotiations build social and cognitive abilities in a way that is engaging and fun. The players make up their own rules and have to stick by them—literally practicing democracy in action!
Self talk. Instead of discouraging a child from talking to herself when playing, let her be. Self talk can be another form of metacognitive dialogue in which the “boss” of the self is talking to the “worker” of the self. Or self talk can be a verbalization of an imaginative scenario with the child playing all the parts.
Adult help. If you ask a child to draw a picture of a person, a four-year-old might make a circle with a line coming out of it. However, if you ask the child to tell you how to draw a person (and if you make “on-purpose” mistakes), you will find they have a rich understanding of what people look like that they cannot yet convey with their own fingers maneuvering a pencil. We have sometimes given a young child an adult to be his “scribe” and discovered lovely stories that he could not yet write for himself. Offer to be your child’s assistant or student and see what happens.
Changing media. David Olson wrote an entire book about what happens when a child is asked to express a diagonal line (/) in different media. My colleagues and I know that a child who seems to lag in one medium may be brilliant in another. Try giving your child experiences with these and other media: 2D media, like drawing; 3D media, like clay; movement; sound, music or rhythm; oral or written words; technology that lets them express their ideas, and so on.
Studying subjects of personal significance. When a child has a passion, even a curiosity, for a subject, they will be able to operate on a higher level. One of my nephews never said much when he was a little guy until I mentioned dinosaurs. Lo and behold, he know dozens of dinosaurs by sight and name—and some of the names can be challenging for an adult! (Try “Protarchaeopteryx”!)
Try creating a ZPD at home or school and watch your children surprise you!