Child Life Theory: Scaffolding

Today I came across an interesting article about scaffolding in early childhood education. It talks about how scaffolding is something people use every day without always realizing it, as well as giving some specific examples of why it’s important to use the appropriate level of scaffolding for each child. You can read the article in full here.


Seattle Center Artists at Play Playground Unveiling


For those looking for a quick rundown on what scaffolding is, first consider the role of scaffolding in construction. Scaffolding is a temporary structure placed next to the structure being worked on that allows you to be at the height necessary to where you are currently building or making changes. If you are wanting to work on the part of a statue that is 20 feet off the ground, you would use scaffolding to reach that height. Once you’ve completed the work, you would either remove the scaffolding or make the scaffolding higher to continue building the statue.

The same idea is applied to educating children. The difference is the adult is a living scaffolding that the child uses to stand on in order to grow their development. Of course the child can develop on his or her own without the adult’s assistance, just like you can climb the statue yourself to work on the level you need. But it is much easier when you use scaffolding.

So how do you use scaffolding with a child? First you must have a strong foundation in development yourself. Then you have to assess where the child is developmentally. Then you provide the scaffolding that allows the child to work at the developmental level that the child is currently at. When the child changes developmentally you adjust the scaffolding so it is at the right “height” for the child’s new developmental level.

As a side note I’ve sometimes struggled with how to explain scaffolding. I know that we all use scaffolding in our daily practice, but having to verbalize it can sometimes be difficult. The misunderstanding I used to have was that I visualized scaffolding as a ladder that the child climbs. While that’s not necessarily wrong, (because the goal is for the child to “climb the developmental ladder” if I might say), it’s not really what the act of scaffolding is. Instead it’s important to visualize scaffolding as an access point for the child to work at his or her current developmental level.

Let’s look at some child life examples. To illustrate scaffolding in child life, I will use the situation of a child who is struggling with daily injections. If I provide scaffolding that is too short for the child, the child is being forced to work at a lower developmental level. Imagine I have a 14 year old boy who is having trouble allowing his parents to give him daily insulin injections. The boy is developmentally appropriate, enjoys science, and is able to explain how his body uses the insulin and why it is so important. If I walk into the room with a plastic pretend doctor’s kit with the pretend syringe and encourage him to give pretend injections to a cloth doll, I’m providing scaffolding that is much shorter than what he needs. On the other hand, if I sit and ask him questions about why he is struggling with the injections and offer him some coping techniques that he can choose from and practice with me, I am providing scaffolding at the appropriate height.

You can also provide scaffolding that is too high for a child. Taking again the example of the struggle of daily injections, imagine now a 3 year old girl who is newly diagnosed with diabetes and must also have daily insulin injections. She is developmentally appropriate, loves playing with her baby doll, and can verbalize that she gets lots of “owies” but cannot say why. If I walked into her room with a real needle and syringe to teach her how to give insulin injections to an orange, I would be using a scaffolding way too high for her development. Instead a scaffolding more at her height would be to provide the plastic medical kit and allow her to engage in free play with all the items in the kit, including the play syringe. Using a cloth doll I might encourage her to practice giving injections to the doll and having demonstrating the difference between holding still and moving during an injection.

I should note that this is only the tip of what you can do with a child who is struggling with injections, but for the sake of the topic today I won’t go into all the different techniques.

Now that I’ve given some scaffolding examples, what about you? Share examples of when you you’ve scaffolding to support a child build at their own developmental level in the comments below!

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