Have you heard of the term scaffolding - scaffolding skills, scaffolding learning, Montessori scaffolding, or Vygotsky scaffolding?
Initially, I thought it was as simple as building one skill on the other, building the child's skills gradually one step at a time, but there really is more to it.
Scaffolding in Montessori is also about providing the child just as much support as they need. The right support at the right time. Just like in building or construction, the scaffolding is a temporary structure used to support the workers to build the next level, when the structure is strong the scaffolding is removed.
"When using scaffolding with young children, we will provide them with support and guidance while the children are learning something new and age-appropriate or just slightly above what the child can do themselves. As the children learn the skill, the support is lessened as their abilities develop and until they can do the new skill all on their own." - Highgate Montessori.
How can we apply scaffolding at home?
- Observe our children and know their current knowledge level and skill level. This is critical so we understand what they are capable of, how much help they need.
- Encourage group work - where appropriate with siblings, friends, or peers. This is the beauty of the Montessori mixed-age environment, where children naturally work and observe children of various age groups and skill levels, often with children whose skill level is just above or not far from their own.
- Don't offer too much help - and don't jump in too soon. Rather than jumping in at the first sign of a struggle, we can observe the child to pinpoint where exactly the child needs the help. Only help a little, we want our help to provide just one step or one level of support. If the child needs more support, this may not be a developmentally appropriate activity for the child and we can reassess the work.
The help or 'scaffolding' we give to the child can include:
- Verbal prompts - verbal advice, suggestions, or hints.
- Modeling or further demonstrations - physically show the child how to complete the task.
- Offer the child choices
- Physical support - make physical interventions including providing tools and materials.
- Ask the child probing or open-ended questions - to identify what level of support they need, to allow the child self-identify the problem and/or solutions, and to extend their thought processes.
As my three-year-old was chopping food for dinner, I was considering the scaffolding we provide to a child learning to use a knife. It's good to check in with ourselves sometimes and ask ourselves 'am I giving the child the right amount of support, not too much, not too little?'.
To provide support or scaffolding to a child learning to use a knife we can:
- provide child size and safe tools - there are many knives available for different stages in development, see our list of knives here.
- hold the food while the child cuts it
- provide soft food for cutting - like banana, watermelon, melon, cheese (like a soft cheddar), cucumber, zucchini
- pre-cut the food into thin strips - so the child only has a thin strip to cut through and has a long part of the food to hold onto
- cut the food so that it sits flat on the chopping board - this makes the food more stable and steady and less likely to roll while the child is cutting it and reduced the amount of work the child has to do to hold the food in place.
We also need to provide food that makes sense for the child to cut. We provide food the child likes to eat for snack or to add to a soup, salad, stew or other baked foods or family meal.
For the young child, we provide soft food, that won't roll and sits flat on the chopping board, an easy-to-use cutter and we demonstrate how to cut the food. This apple is easy for the child to cut through and it is stable, it doesn't need holding. Using the Norpro Crinkle Cutter.
Here the thin, long strips make it easy for the child to hold onto and cut through. The KiddiKutter cutting thin slices of cucumber.
Here the zucchini has been pre-cut so that it sits flat on the chopping board. This is also a long food that has lots of length for the child to hold onto.
This child is now super confident and is cutting odd-shaped foods...
into small pieces.
For soft foods, I give verbal prompts that a serrated knife is needed. He can't cut through the tomato with his straight blade knife.
But with the serrated knife, it's not a problem.
I'm also observing how long work lasts. When I observe my child working at something for a long time (approx 30-40 minutes), I try to see what attracts him to this work, what need is it filling. The fine motor skills being used during this work is 👌.
Although this child is now capable of cutting hard foods, I am pre-cutting the foods like potatoes in half, so they sit flat on the chopping board. Today I observed him trying to cut through a whole potato and it just kept on sliding around.
I want for him to practice by cutting more hard foods, so here he is chopping hard pumpkin but it's pre-cut into strips. The strips sitting flat on the board and are easy to grip, and we are still providing a child-safe knife to use.
The support we offer the child is also the environment we create, the child feels safe doing the activity, he knows he is being supervised and can ask for help at any time. I am also working next to him and modeling how to cut the different foods.
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