How children learn is something that we are all interested in, some of us from a scientific perspective, others from a policy perspective, and most of us from the perspective of a parent. Watching my son figure out something new—like how to fit wooden blocks into a shape sorter or how to make his music box play—is both fascinating and exciting for both the mom and the researcher in me. At the ripe old age of two, every day offers him a new discovery, and I am more than happy to sit back and watch as he learns from the world around him. Some researchers have likened infants to “baby scientists”—experimenting with their environments on their own to learn new things. Like scientists, children do learn new things by experimenting with the world, but the truth is, very few actual scientists work alone. In fact, scientists often accomplish the most when they work in groups or in pairs, and it turns out that the same can be true for young children.
Consistent with this idea, a very famous psychologist from the early 1900’s named Lev Vygotsky proposed something quite revolutionary for his time. He suggested that children might accomplish the most when they work with someone smarter than them. He described the zone of proximal development, which is what a child can achieve with the help of an adult, often their moms. Within the zone, parents can scaffold behaviors for their children by providing instruction and guidance, much like the scaffolding on buildings provides those structures with support so that they can grow to reach their greatest height.
Luckily, scaffolding isn’t something that most parents have to work too hard at—they do it naturally just by talking to or playing with their kids. In fact, you can probably see examples of scaffolding any time you watch a mom talk to her baby. Babies love to see their moms smile at them, so a simple smile can act as a positive reinforcement or scaffold, encouraging the baby to repeat whatever it was that made her grin in the first place. Thus, by providing a loving smile, laugh, or pat on the back, moms can inadvertently help their babies learn. For example, researchers interested in how moms shape their babies’ language learning trained moms to reinforce their 8-month-olds whenever they babbled by simply smiling and moving closer to them. After just a short session in the lab, the babies who’s mothers reinforced their babbling babbled more, and they babbled better (using sounds that more closely align with English sounds) than babies who were not reinforced. Further, when mothers responded to their babies’ babbles by repeating similar sounds, babies modified their babbles to match the sounds that their mothers made, also resulting in more mature babbling. I see the very same thing happening every day in my own home: My son says a word, I smile and repeat it, he then repeats the word again to me, only this time better and more clear than the first time.
Importantly, parents can also scaffold behaviors during playtime that might help their children learn new and important problem-solving skills. For example, researchers who studied how parents might help their 2-year-olds during problem solving tasks presented parent-child pairs with a set of blocks and asked them to build a tower by stacking the blocks according to their sizes. During the interactions, parents were really good at knowing when to give their children hints and instructions in order to boost the child’s ability to successfully create a tower. In fact, moms were especially good at both leading their children through the task while at the same time, allowing the child to spend some time off task exploring freely.
Based on this work, it appears that parents are already pretty good at guiding children’s learning during play without going out of their way or doing anything special. But, if you’re feeling like you want to do a little more, there is also research demonstrating additional learning benefits when children are engaged in guided play, or play that involves the explicit guidance of a parent. Parents don’t have to do much here either, as asking simple questions during playtime can often promote learning. For example, research has shown that children learn more about engineering when parents asked simple open-ended questions about skyscrapers while children tried to build one with blocks. Similar research suggests that children learn more about the function of a new toy if parents ask the child to provide explanations for how it might work. The key here is to provide hints and ask questions to encourage children to explore, without providing too much direct instruction. Indeed, children learn more by exploring themselves than by watching an adult do something for them, and they explore more if parents don’t provide explicit instructions about how to use a new toy.
The point of all of this is that children learn by playing, and most importantly, although they can learn by playing on their own, they can often learn more when playing with someone who’s smarter than them, someone like mom or dad. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be thinking about teaching your child during playtime; again, you will likely scaffold behaviors for your child without even thinking about it. But by providing helpful hints and asking simple questions, parents can give children the support they need to reach their full potential: Much like the scaffolding on a building, playing with parents gives children just enough support to help them stand on their own.