Charlotte Montessori Blog

Montessori and the Zone of Proximal Development

For most of us traditional trained Montessori converts, we try to forget the majority of what we learned in our traditional training. We can’t forget all of it though, because those years formed us and molded us along the path to when we picked up the Montessori baton. There are some practices, theories, and philosophies that are true across the board of education. The Zone of Proximal Development, to me, is one of those theories that extends across all realms of education.

I’ve recently been mentoring and working with a first year toddler Montessori teacher. When discussing the works on her shelves I found it pertinent to explain to her about the Zone of Proximal Development and how to apply it to her environment to meet the needs of her multi-age class. While Maria Montessori did not develop this concept, it applies perfectly to the beautiful philosophy she gave us.
ZPD was developed by psychologist Lev Vygotsly. It’s a circular visual with the center being things the child can do independently. The next ring is things that are challenging for the the child but they can accomplish with adult or peer guidance. The third ring is things that are too difficult for the child.

I informed the teacher to keep this visual in mind when observing her classroom. For each work or lesson, observe where each child falls on this scale. Then, she can modify or change the materials accordingly.
In a Toddler Montessori environment, it is important to balance the works to meet the needs of the diverse ages and interests of the children. The older children (2-3 years) may be able to do the toddler knobbed cylinders unaided and with ease. Yet, an 18 month old may find it too challenging on their own. This is where the beauty of multi-age classrooms meets ZPD. The 2.5 year old can give a lesson to the 17 month old on the toddler knobbed cylinders and assist them in completing it. Here, we have a work that falls in one child’s center zone and another child’s second ring. Yet it works perfectly in the Montessori environment.
Another example is where ZPD meets the exploration factor of the toddler environment. In the toddler Montessori classroom, the children are free to explore the materials as long as they are not hurting themself, another child, or the materials. (These are what we call the “umbrella limits”) (#FLF) (Note: This is unlike the 3-6 environment where works need to be used for the intended purposes.) This means that there may be works which falls into different levels of the children’s ZPD but they are able to explore them to serve their own needs.
Here is an example:

Color shade matching puzzle:
Direct aim: Matching shades of colors.
Indirect aims: shape recognition, color recognition, pincer grip development, fine motor skill reinforcement, builds concentration, builds focus. 
My 2-3 years olds complete this puzzle for its intended purpose; to match the shades of colors. After they complete it a few times they may explore different aspects of the puzzle.

In this picture, J is using this work for its intended purpose but is also reaping the benefits of the indirect aims.
On the other hand, my younger friends, 15-20 months, are interested in taking the pieces out and putting them back in. They may not recognize the color matching aspect and that is totally okay.
In this picture, E is not interested in matching the colors however, he is getting the benefits of the indirect aims. This work is serving E’s needs. Eventually, he will begin recognize the colors and match them accordingly.
As you can see, this is how this type of material works to serve the purpose of children’s differing ZPD zones.
-Ms. Nikki