Baby's Brain in Week 38
Have you found yourself in this scenario? Your crawling baby is determined to go up and down that one step that leads from the dining room to the living room, but she's struggling with it—it's quite a hurdle for her little body! After observing her frustration, you decide to sit on the step yourself to position her so that she can more easily accomplish her goal.
If that's you, realize that in doing these sort of helping tasks, you're providing just the right amount of support so that your child will eventually master the skill for herself. When parents—like you—provide support that assists their children in accomplishing certain tasks that they will later come to accomplish independently, this creates what researcher Lev Vygotsky classically referred to as a "zone of proximal development."
This zone is the gap between what children can accomplish independently and what they can accomplish when interacting with others—parents or older siblings or peers—who are more competent. The term "proximal" (meaning nearby) indicates that the assistance provided goes just slightly beyond the child's current competence, complementing and building on the child's existing abilities. The adult must know what the child is trying to do and be sensitive to the child's ability and signals.
And with respect to this zone of proximal development, it's not just physical support that parents offer, but also assistance when their children are learning language, as this next piece of research explains.
What the Research Shows
Researchers asked mothers to give their babies nonsense words as names of two puppets: "chi" and "gow." They also asked the moms to teach their children two action words: "pru" for leaping and "flo" for shaking.
As it turned out, the mothers were successful—and systematic—in their instructions to their children. For instance, they would say, "The chi is pruing," and demonstrate leaping using one of the puppets. Then they would use the other puppet to demonstrate shaking while saying, "the gow is floing." No one had instructed the moms to teach their children the new words in this manner; they just assumed that this sort of discussion would demonstrate the objects and actions best.
How does this relate to the zone of proximal development? Well, when the mothers of 5- to 8-month-olds taught their kids the new words, they moved the puppet and used the appropriate accompanying motion most of the time. The moms of slightly older kids, 9- to 17-month-olds, did so in just over half of the trials. And for the mothers with 21- to 30-month-old toddlers, that amount dropped down to about a third.
And so why did the mothers of older children explain and demonstrate less than the moms of younger babies? Because they inherently realized that the older their children were, the more easily they could learn the words without such detailed explanations: These astute moms anticipated how much help their older toddlers would need, and adjusted their teachings appropriately. Likely, you do the same thing every day!