What is the Zone of Proximal Development?

Support young children in learning new skills with Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development

What is the Zone of Proximal Development?

child building a tower with colorful blocks

Preschool teachers have the incredible privilege of guiding children through many growth and development stages. With the support of their teachers, children learn new skills alongside their peers and strengthen their abilities.

The zone of proximal development (ZPD) is a theory that helps teachers recognize where a child is in their development and guide them toward their next steps. In this article, you’ll learn what the zone of proximal development is and how to use it best when teaching preschoolers.

“What the child is able to do in collaboration today, he will be able to do independently tomorrow.”

–Lev Vygotsky

What is the zone of proximal development?

The zone of proximal development (ZPD) was created in the 1920s by Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist. His definition of ZPD is “the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.”

According to Vygotsky, each child has a set of skills they can accomplish by themselves and skills they can accomplish with the help of a more experienced partner or teacher. The space between these two stages of development is where preschool teachers can step in and use ZPD to assist children in moving from one developmental stage to the next.

child building tower with colorful blocks Source

Leading children through the zone of proximal development

Once a teacher has identified that a child needs support mastering a skill or completing a task, they can effectively move them through their zone of proximal development until they have reached independence in completing the task or have mastered a skill without assistance. Here are the stages of ZPD

  1. 1. Assistance provided by others

When a skill is in a child’s zone of proximal development, they need support from someone more knowledgeable and experienced (such as a teacher, parent, or peer) to accomplish the task.

  1. 2. Assistance provided by self

In this stage, a child has developed a greater understanding of the skill and can “self-assist” by reflecting on what they’ve been taught and how they previously practiced it. They may still need some support at this stage, but they’re beginning to take more control and are getting closer to doing it on their own.

  1. 3. Automatization through practice

By the automatization stage, the child no longer needs assistance with the task. They have fully developed and internalized the skill.

Why is the ZPD important in early childhood education?

In early childhood, the brain is undergoing remarkable and rapid changes. A high-quality early education is key for optimal development across all domains and plays a significant role in kindergarten readiness and future academic success. 

Zone of proximal development allows teachers to tailor lesson plans and learning experiences by taking advantage of the classroom social dynamics and the array of children’s skills present. This is especially true in a mixed-age classroom where an older peer may act as a mentor, teaching or modeling a new skill to a younger peer.  

The ZPD also directs teachers to approach a child’s development through the lens of their potential. Developmental psychologist Mary Gauvain, Ph.D., described the ZPD approach this way: “to examine children's intellectual potential under optimal conditions, that is, conditions that are tailored to the child's specific learning needs and that build on the child's present capabilities.”

Young girl holding up her picture with mermaids Source

Using ZPD in the classroom 

The term “scaffolding” commonly appears alongside the ZPD in teaching materials. When referencing education, Merriam-Webster defines scaffolding as “a system or framework of support provided by an instructor to help a student reach the next level of learning.”

Preschool teachers can use scaffolding techniques to help children learn new skills in their zone of proximal development. Examples of scaffolding techniques include:

  • Modeling: Demonstrating the skill so children can see how it’s done.
  • Visual aids: Using photos, graphic organizers, videos, charts, etc. to help children visualize and grasp the concept.
  • Offer hints: Assist children through verbal processing and helpful sentence starters.
  • Prior knowledge: Reference what the child already knows as examples to help them connect with what they’re trying to learn.
  • Ask questions: Challenge children with guiding questions such as, “What do you think will happen if we _______?”

The zone of proximal development gives teachers a whole new perspective to interact with children and help them reach their fullest potential. To support children’s development teachers should focus on:

  • Children building meaningful relationships with each other to promote social learning 
  • Creating opportunities for peer mentorship and small group work.
  • Breaking down difficult tasks into actionable steps that children can follow and incorporate.

The Ohio State University (2019) offers a helpful video explaining of the ZPD’s role in the classroom.

Partnering with families 

You can meaningfully engage families by bringing visibility to what the children are learning daily. Sharing the activities of the day with families is a great way to partner together to build a strong home-to-school connection.

Final thoughts

The ZPD process is a great way for preschool teachers to give their students learning tools that can help them grow. By challenging their critical thinking skills and helping them build their own relationship with learning, teachers will see how children reach a new level of confidence. This will help them develop a healthy approach to learning and turn challenges into learning opportunities. 


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