Scaffolding! 10 Ways to Stimulate Learning Through Play


The children in your class are content and engaged in their play. They are happily building with blocks and creating an intricate roadway that has captured their interest most of the week. Or perhaps, they continuously use their outdoor time in the nearby forest area to build stick and stone infused forts. Whatever the activity is, whether preschool or elementary aged, what you are looking for as the educator is what the children are captivated[1] by and where they are CAPABLE of going further with their play! It is these moments of play that hold endless possibilities for learning.

When you feel the nudge that your intervention can take their play to higher levels of learning, it is a prime opportunity to enter the play as a co-creator and help provoke a framework for the children to go from “what they know” to “what else they could know”!  

This is where scaffolding[2] enters the picture. Scaffolding has become a key concept in education. It is a framework to describe an adults’ supportive role in children’s learning. Scaffolding enables a child to solve a problem, carry out a task or achieve a goal which is just beyond his or her abilities. During play, where foundational social and emotional skills are developed[3], scaffolding is a bridge to new skill levels using three key ingredients; modeling the skill, giving clues and asking questions while the child is trying out a new skill, and then as the child approaches mastery, withdrawing the support.

To provoke additional layers of learning, ask some of these powerful “scaffolding” inspired questions:

1. What are you thinking?

Listen for the places that you, as the teacher, can take the child’s existing or prior knowledge and add some new layers to it.

2. What else is possible here?

This question takes the child into full discovery mode and allows the teacher to be co-player by staying open to possibilities. This takes the child from where they are, “the known” area, into the potential of a new place or layer of the learning.

3. What do you need in order to learn more about _____?

Take the topic or interest area and help the child to expand on what they are learning. This is the type of question that could lead to a shared brainstorm. Toss in your ideas, too!

4. Where is your energy focused?

Helping the child to notice where they are having successes and challenges in their play will allow the teacher to help chunk up anything complex into manageable pieces. Additionally, this question can help to maintain the child’s interest on the task where they are having success.

5. When you do _________, what are you noticing? That means you are learning about _________.

Directly communicate what is taking place by pointing out the learning that you see. For example in the photo above, the teacher may ask, "When you added the top block, what did you notice?" The boy might comment on the number of blocks stacked or how he feels about his creation or what sort of vision he might have for his next move.

6. What does that remind you of?

Pause while a child gives you an example. Once you know what the child relates to, you can add in other relevant pieces to their play. For example, if the child says “shopping” you can add in additional elements to the “shopping” that might not be in their regular experience.

7. What happens when we add or do this __________?

This is  a helpful question for the teacher to introduce a prop or a demonstration to extend the play. The purpose of the prop is to open the conversation up for the child to make interpretations and connections.

8. What is different in your thinking now? What do you now know about _____.  

A prompt that moves children into mastery solidifies their learning.

9. Who would you like to share this with?

Encourage social interaction and peer learning[2]. You can help to suggest a friend or family member.

10.   How will you share it?  

Encourage drawing, documentation, writing, or photographing of the play to make the learning visible. This can also be a tool to help the child revisit their learning process and the ability to return to this topic with or without the teacher!

The beauty of questions is that they can encourage and provoke children’s thinking and take their capabilities to the next level!  Genuine curiosity and scaffolding allows the teacher to assist in deliberate and co-created discovery. Ask just one of these questions to see what impact it has on children’s learning.

For children to optimally learn and grow, they need to be able to have a variety of experiences in which they can really ‘be in the moment’. 

While the term traditionally refers to a one-to-one relationship, researchers have extended the concept of child-adult scaffolding to a teacher with an entire class. 

Research provides evidence of the positive effects that play has on child development including social skills, early literacy concepts and self-regulation. These are key foundations in solving problems peacefully.

We learn by teaching. Two studies (2007) concluded that first-born children are more intelligent as a result of the time they spend showing their younger brothers and sisters "the ropes". Further studies look at the positive effects on learning when middle school and college students teach others.

  • Secure and Calm

    Secure and calm describes the ability to take part in daily activities and approach new situations without being overwhelmed with worries, sadness or anxiety. To be secure and calm also means being able to cope with stress and pressure, and to bounce back from difficulties.
  • Gets Along with Others

    Getting along with others is the ability to form positive and healthy relationships with peers and adults. Children with better abilities to regulate their emotions and behaviours have more friends and experience more positive playtime with their peers.
  • Alert and Engaged

    Being alert and engaged is the ability to manage and direct one's own feelings, thoughts and emotions. In general, the ability to be 'present' and to exercise self-control.
  • Compassionate and Kind

    Being compassionate and kind is closely related to empathy. While empathy refers more generally to the ability to take the perspective of and to feel the emotions of another person, compassion goes one step further.
  • Solves Problems Peacefully

    Managing conflict effectively is about creating an atmosphere where violence and aggression are not likely. To resolve conflict means using empathy, problem-solving skills, understanding other points of view and coming up with ways to make things right in a fair way.