Scaffolding Learning in Early Childhood Environmental Education

"Exploring nature with your child is largely a matter of becoming receptive to what lies around you. It is learning again to use your eyes, ears, nostrils, and finger tips, opening up channels of sensory impression" - Rachel Carson.

It is the mission of the York Region Nature Collaborative (YRNC) to support adults to become learning partners with children in nature. Rachel Carson ( wrote about her adventures in nurturing children’s connection with nature in 1962 in an article entitled Help Your Child to Wonder.  Posthumously published in 1965 as The Sense of Wonder, her experiences with her very young great nephew reminds me of Ann Pelo’s Goodness of Rain: Developing an Ecological Identity in Young Children.  The YRNC is thrilled to be welcoming Ann to our sold out event, Walking in Place: Cultivating an Ecological Identity in Young Children and Ourselves on May 23rd. We are continually looking for more opportunities to support our mission and looking forward to a future filled with many more workshops and events.


We are thrilled to be welcoming participants from across the Canada, as well as from the great state of Michigan, to our first conference! Although we were born in York Region, we have an open membership policy and welcome all like-minded individuals.  While we were founded to represent early childhood education, we believe people of all ages should get outside to spend more time in and with nature. We will be blogging to support this cause and are excited that Sinead Rafferty has agreed to write a future blog post or two for the YRNC.

Sinead's Masters thesis, Ecological encounters in outdoor early childhood education programs: Pedagogies for childhood, nature and placeis a wonderful resource that has helped me learn more about nurturing children’s experiences in nature. In fact, her work has helped to scaffold my understanding of this important and complex topic. As my research focus and areas of interest have just recently expanded to include outdoor education, I have a lot to learn about what has now become a passion.  Recently I came upon a publication called Scaffolding as a Tool for Environmental Education in Early Childhood that has helped to connect my new passion to a long held interest in the concept of scaffolding.  

Scaffolding is a metaphor that refers to the ways in which adults or more sophisticated peers provide support for children as they learn.

Scaffolding is a term used often but I believe often misunderstood. Many attribute the origin of the term as it relates to learning to Lev Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist whose social constructive theories have guided my practice. Actually the term was never used by Vygotsky, it came from Jerome Bruner, who based his work on the work of Vygotsky. Vygotsky’s view of the way social and individual growth is intertwined gave rise to his idea of a creative area where learning happens most easily, terming it the zone of proximal development (ZPD). The term scaffolding (Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976) has been used to describe the transition from interpersonal to intrapersonal knowledge. Through scaffolding, learners are able to cross the zone of proximal development. “The distance between the actual developmental 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” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86).  I think many would define scaffolding as helping a child reach the next level but that is more fitting of a ladder metaphor than a scaffolding metaphor. The authors of the article explain scaffolding in a way that makes more sense to me.

Analogous to the way that scaffolding is built to just the needed level when constructing a building and then removed when the building is complete, educators engage in scaffolding by providing the necessary level and type of support that is well timed to the children’s needs.

Situated within the context of natural environments, the authors suggest that teachers can scaffold children’s environmental awareness and provide a case study featuring a preschool located within a 185-acre nature centre. In the discussion that follows the detailed description of the study, the authors determine that “although scaffolding, is of necessity, spontaneous, intentionality and preparation are necessary for effective scaffolding to occur” (p. 49). The following recommendations are from this study:

  • Provide an enriched physical learning context where children can easily access materials
  • Listen closely, to be aware of, and capitalize on, scaffolding opportunities
  • Facilitate children’s expression of ideas by inviting children to share a question with the larger group
  • Connect children’s current experiences with their past knowledge or experiences (“do you have a puddle in your backyard?”)
  • Draw children’s attention to relevant features of the environment, by pointing them out or giving hints
  • Name concepts that children are discussing “that’s the water cycle you are talking about”
  • Provide corrective feedback “I have never seen a flamingo here?”
  • Asked inferential questions “why do you think the mommy ducks are all brown”?

Scaffolding as a Tool for Environmental Education in Early Childhood is one of many articles in the International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education. See this website to obtain a copy or for other relevant and amazing resources!


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