3 tips for scaffolding children’s play with materials

Children’s play with materials is important as it allows them to think and learn in different ways. As a child’s creativity is always limited by what they do and do not know, scaffolding can open up new opportunities for more complex learning over time.

Scaffolding is a term that was first coined by Vygotsky (1978) who described the process as something that allows children to move their current level of understandings to a more advanced one. This process helps children to undertake activities that they usually would not be able to without the help of others.

Teachers and parents often do a lot of scaffolding in children’s lives. They teach children how to brush their teeth, share with others and read. Children’s peers, technology and information resource like a YouTube video can also scaffold children’s learning in different ways.

Scaffolding is important in children’s play with materials as it allows them to learn new knowledge that then opens new opportunities for further experimentation and learning.

Below are three tips for educators and artists that are planning a children’s material play activity.

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3 tips for scaffolding children’s play with materials

Tip #1: Brainstorm what techniques can be connected to the material

Teaching children new artistic techniques such as cutting, weaving and glueing can open up new opportunities for more complex learning and experimentation. Examples of techniques relating to materials may include:

  • Cardboard: How to cut, fold and stick the cardboard;
  • Clay: How to score and slip the clay;
  • String: How to tie, weave and plait the string;

Techniques can be introduced to children through the process of demonstrating. To scaffold children’s play with materials using techniques, try brainstorming a list of all techniques related to a material. If you get stuck, think about different artists, designers and scientists who have explored that material and write down the different ways that they have experimented with it. What techniques have they used?

When thinking about these techniques, remember to select ones that are within the physical abilities of the children doing the activity. If you are unsure of the children’s abilities, try thinking of a few variations of the technique (a simple version, a kind of difficult version and a tricky one). Once you have a clearer idea of the children’s current level of understanding, you can then draw on these different versions if and when appropriate.

Hot tip: Try and not stifle children’s creative experimentation when introducing these techniques. Some children may be interested in learning these new skills and others not. You could begin the activity by letting the children explore the material by themselves then add in the techniques over time when it feels right.

Tip #2: Make a list of the tools children could use with the material

Tools can also scaffold children’s play with materials. Tools can include paint brushes, paint rollers, pencils, sticky tape and even the human body. To think about what different tools can be used with a particular material, try brainstorming a list. A fun way to do this is to make a first list that includes all of the traditional tools that are used with a material. So for clay, this may include wooden modelling tools and soft wire. Then get creative and make a second list with a slightly more crazy list. So for clay, this could include cooking utensils and hair curlers.

Tip #3: Consider what vocabulary could be introduced 

Words can also help to extend children’s learning through play with materials. Different pieces of vocabulary may help children to verbally share their ideas and thinking with others. Returning to the clay example, vocabulary connected to this material could include hard, soft, slippery, squishy, rolling, stacking and smooth. These words can be introduced to children while they are playing with the clay, if and when appropriate. If you are an early childhood educator, perhaps you could link in vocabulary connected to the materials in other literacy-based activities and then extend on these further in the material play activity.

What other tips do you have for scaffolding children’s play with materials?

References and links

Vygotsky, V (1978). Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass.

This short YouTube video by Alberta Education is a wonderful introduction to the idea of scaffolding.

Related posts

Demonstrating as a way of supporting children’s learning

Children’s creative learning through the art of Sheila Hicks 

Vygotsky on collective creativity

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