Theory and practice

9 ideas for better scaffolding in the Early Years

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A practitioner and a child illustrating how to develop better scaffolding in the Early Years
March 31, 2021
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If you don’t already know about the potential of scaffolding in early years, then this article is for you. But before you get out your trusty toolbox, it’s got nothing to do with renovating your entire early years setting!

Scaffolding in the Early Years is a teaching strategy that could make all the difference to your children’s development, and it's actually very simple.

It’s all about offering a supportive role, as opposed to a more spoon-fed role. And with it, you can really help your children achieve and succeed!

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What is scaffolding and why is it useful?

Scaffolding is a term often associated with older children, so it may or may not have crossed your radar yet. That being said, your natural interactions with the children at your setting are scaffolding their learning all the time.

But by understanding the process properly, you can be even more intentional in your interactions with your children, and make use of all the opportunities to scaffold that come up every day.

To sum it up, it’s about supporting children’s development and learning during their early years by offering the right help, at the right time, in the right way.

Sound easy enough?

There is always a difference between what a child can do independently and what they can then do with some support (known as Vygotsky’s ‘zone of proximal development’). This is where scaffolding comes in, as it allows children to solve a problem or carry out a task that is beyond their current abilities.

Practitioners are there to build a bridge between a child’s existing knowledge and their new knowledge. That way, children can build upon the skills they already have. With the right amount of assistance from you, as well as their previously mastered skills, children can perform new activities and start gaining new skills.

The Educator’s role (that’s you!)

By providing children with the right level of support, they will achieve much more than they would without your help.

In the scaffolding framework, the practitioner plays a supportive role in the child’s learning. Your role is also to observe the children, recognise the stage of learning they are at and then provide support to help them to reach the next stage.

You should work to provide activities just slightly above the children’s ability. When children are given the support they need while learning something new or attempting a new activity, they will stand a better chance of using that knowledge independently.

Traditionally, supporting children was all about telling a child how to do something until they got the knack of it. And of course, scaffolding may still require specific instructions from time to time. But in general, we now know that there are better ways to transfer your knowledge down to the little ones. With that in mind, let’s go through a few ideas that might help you on your way.

1. Hints

Providing hints is one way to scaffold effectively. You’re helping advance the children’s performance, but without giving away the entire solution. Hints could be verbal, pictures, or gestures to aid a child in reaching the answer or completing the task.

2. Suggestions

Offering a range of answers to a question, or a range of ways to complete an activity is another technique that can be used. If you can see that a child is struggling with the task at hand, provide suggestions to build that bridge between what they already know and what they are trying to grasp.

3. Resources

Make the most out of additional resources in your setting. For example, if a child is finding it hard to draw a picture of a cat, ask them where they can find a cat somewhere else. This could be in a book that you have read recently, a drawing that another child has done, or a cuddly toy.

4. Prompts

Using prompts is a great way to extend children’s thinking. They can be used in lots of ways, for example:

  • Asking about a relevant topic – “Why do you think we use that…?”
  • Asking for alternatives – “That‘s a good way of doing that, but is there another way we could try?”
  • Providing support and working together – “Let’s have a think about this together.”

5. Model and demonstrate

Help show your children what to do, or how to solve a problem, through modelling or demonstrating - not by outrightly telling them.

You then take a step back and only offer support when it’s needed. Modelling language can help children learn vital social skills like sharing, for example. An instance of this could be “Ellie, why don’t you tell Harry that you’d like a turn with the keyboard when he is finished.”

6. Feedback

Provide just the right amount of support and feedback, at the same time as giving plenty of encouragement. You can positively respond to both right and wrong answers, as this will encourage participation. Make sure to give praise to children, not only for succeeding but for attempting the task in the first place.

Are your practitioners struggling to give the right level of feedback? Why not make it a focus area during your peer observations and your practitioners can get useful feedback on their feedback!

7. Questioning

Asking open-ended questions is a way to get children to use their imagination a little. Here are a few examples:

  • What do you think will happen if…?
  • Tell me about a time when…
  • List everything you think you might find in…
  • Do you have any other ideas?

For more ideas, you can find a longer list here:

8. Step-by-step

Breaking the tasks into smaller steps can help children that are stuck.

It’s a good idea to make sure that the first step involves something that children can already do, helping their confidence. Guide them through the following steps until they can eventually complete the whole task on their own.

9. Group work

Lastly, don’t think that scaffolding has to be a one-to-one activity.

In fact, in a lot of cases activities are best to do with a group of children, as they can then learn a lot from one another. Also, try not to create your groups of children only based on their abilities, as this will limit the scaffolding that can take place.

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Scaffolding for practitioners

All in, scaffolding in the early years is really just about observing and providing suitable activities, whilst giving instructions, guidance, and feedback throughout.

Scaffolding is how you can provide support for children’s learning in a way that is well-timed and well-matched to the situation and child. Do make sure to watch out to make sure your children aren't really struggling or becoming frustrated, as these may be signs that the task is too hard and you need to move onto something different.

Your setting matters, too

You may have got your early years supportive role down to a T, but your setting can be a powerful tool to help you out, too. Ensuring that it's organised in a way that will allow scaffolding to happen will make everything easier for everyone.

The aim is to promote student success by supporting children's independent functioning. We want children to be interacting with their environment and the materials you provide, giving them opportunities to meet their own needs, solve their own problems, and make their own choices.

By exploring their surroundings in their early years, children develop new knowledge and connect it with their previous understanding.

As a practitioner, you will know that being and feeling prepared can make the world of difference. To make sure you’re ready for a day of supporting, you can ask yourself questions like:

  • Have I created an inviting and appealing environment for children to learn in?
  • Is there multiple ways a child can complete each activity? Take painting, for example. You could consider providing not only brushes but larger utensils for the children that may struggle to hold a paintbrush.
  • Are there enough reading books, jigsaws, toys, and other materials to interest all the children in your class and encourage self-directed learning?

Outdoor scaffolding

Just because your classroom is a suitable environment, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the learning elsewhere. Having a change of scenery is not only fun, but very beneficial in terms of scaffolding.

So take it outdoors! Nature provides lots of opportunities for children to develop new concepts in their early years. Your children will start to understand that the sun comes out in the day, and the moon at night. Or that it will rain until it gets too cold, and then it will snow.

What’s more, children will pick up on any insects, birds and animals you may see outside, eventually learning about their individual features and behaviours. Using the tips given above, in a situation like this, children will start asking questions, understanding new things and gaining new skills.

The big ideas

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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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