Children's Emotions and Scaffolding Play

Our Blog: Word on the Sidewalk

Children's Emotions and Scaffolding Play

June 16, 2020
posted by Justin Triemstra


Over the past few months, many children have either been directly or indirectly exposed to a variety of abrupt changes to their daily rhythm and/or significant life stressors. In this period of rapid changes and life altering events, it is essential for parental figures and adult caregivers to understand the importance of speaking with their children about the recent events in a developmentally appropriate manner.

Adults should be watching for any changes in behavior in children and ensuring that a child understands that any emotions they are experiencing are validated. As Danielle Rothman discussed in her recent Word on the Sidewalk blog, monitoring and discussing a child’s emotion’s through play allows for children to express themselves in a safe place with their caregiver.

Play is a child’s safe zone and parents can help facilitate this area of developmental growth through active engagement. In all play, adults can expand and enhance a child’s play by scaffolding their play. Scaffolding is defined by the American Academy of Pediatrics as “when new skills are built on previous skills in a supportive environment”. When a child’s play is scaffolded by an adult, the child is experiencing and learning about positive social interactions, active engagement, adaptability, and joy.

The emotion of joy motivates individuals to continue in an experience or interaction that they are currently participating in and children react no differently when it comes to joy. When a human is experiencing “joy”, a neurotransmitter called dopamine is regulating this emotion and our response to this experience. Research has shown that when dopamine is released, our ability to process and retain information is improved. Therefore, during joyful play, a child’s ability to learn and process is being activated and enhanced.

In addition to joy, research has shown that other key aspects of play can lead a child’s brain to be more adaptable later in life through increased neuronal connections. When a child experiences guided play with an adult, the child learns new skills and the child’s play experience is expanded. The child learns new tasks and skills that they can build upon or reimagine.

The adult’s engagement provides the child with a new way of playing with the same object or involving the object in a new style of play. This type of scaffolded play can begin at the earliest of ages: a social smile is responded to by an adult and it slowly becomes smiles and laughter of joy in toddlers; toddlers reenact adult actions through word games and songs to build their vocabulary; a walk around the neighborhood is turned into a scavenger hunt, creating a learning experience about nature.

All of these are examples of how adults can expand a child’s imagination and guide the child’s play through adult interaction, engagement, or with a specific learning goal in mind. According to early childhood experts, play is the most efficient way a child can learn. As we continue to live in these uncertain times, as adults, let’s all strive to engage the children in our lives in meaningful play.

Justin D. Triemstra, MD, FAAP

Spectrum Health, Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital

The views in this article are my own and are for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice.