Parents’ Scaffolding of Children’s Puzzle Solving (PSPS)

Vygotsky’s (1978) theory of development asserts that adult assistance is most beneficial to children when it is given in the Zone of Proximal Development, just above the level of what a child can achieve on his or her own. This adult assistance may be provided in multiple ways, such as the use of words and gestures about the task at hand. Gestures may serve to scaffold learning by allowing learners to gain more from lessons than they would from words alone. This study seeks to understand…

  1. the impact of parents’ gestures on young children’s learning,
  2. whether the impact of parents’ gestures varies by child age, and
  3. how parents change the strategies they provide to their children based on child age or ability.

In order to answer our questions… In collaboration with Maria Fusaro at the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute, Julia Hayden at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and the Museum of Science, Boston, we videotaped sessions in which children were asked to work on a challenging wooden block puzzle task in three phases. In the first phase, the child worked on the puzzle without any help.  In the second phase, the child’s parent could provide help. In the third phase, the child worked on the puzzle again without receiving help. For the parental help phase, dyads were randomly assigned to one of two conditions: in the one condition, the parent was free to use his or her hands but in the other condition, the parent was asked to sit on his or her hands.

We coded these videos for the child’s peak score (the highest number of pieces lying flat on the board) and the type of pieces the child used when starting to solve the puzzle. We also coded parents’ use of actions and gestures while helping their children solve the puzzle, including the actions they performed with the puzzle pieces, the number of gestures, types of gestures (e.g., embodied action, demonstration, index, representation), and proximity of the gesture to its referent.

What we learned is…. Although children whose parents were allowed to use their hands during the help phase were not more successful overall, children aged 3 to 4.5 years old in this condition were more successful (Figure 1). These results suggest a sensitive period in which children between 3 and 4.5 years old may be more sensitive than older or younger children to parents’ use of gestures, and more likely to use parents’ strategies when parents have used their hands for demonstration and explanation. Alternatively, it may be that the puzzle was within the zone of proximal development for children who were between 3 and 4.5 years old and gestures provided help that children needed. In addition, we found that parents of younger children produced more index gestures (e.g., pointing, showing; Figure 2) and produced gestures closer to the referent (the puzzle piece or board to which they were pointing) than parents of older children (Figure 3). Thus, parents seem to adapt their gestural scaffolding to child age or ability.

What we’ll do next… We are in the process of coding the language that the parents and children used during the puzzle-solving session, as well as children’s gestures and actions while solving the puzzle independently.


Gutowski, E., Vallotton, C.D., Fusaro, M., Hayden, J., & Decker, K. (April 8, 2011). How Adults’ Lend a Helping Hand Children’s Puzzle Solving. University Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI.

Vallotton, C.D., Fusaro, M., Hayden, J., Decker, K., & Gutowski, E. (March 31, 2011). Parents’ Gestures Make Strategies More Handy for Children’s Puzzle Solving. In C. Vallotton (Chair). How Adults’ Gestures Lend a Helping Hand (and Head) in Young Children’s Learning in Different Domains. Bienniel Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.