Last week on Facebook, a friend posted a link to this youtube clip, of a nine- or ten-year-old girl doing her first proper ski jump. The clip, filmed from her point of view, is remarkable to watch.
You feel her visceral fear almost overcome her. You inhabit her doubt. You make the leap with her. And you are overwhelmed by her euphoria. The film – viewed over a million times in less than two weeks – is a pitch-perfect rendition of someone going right to the edge of her comfort zone.
Educators would say the girl is in her zone of proximal development. This is the point where, according to the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, her learning is maximised. You hear her father (or perhaps her coach) reassuring her, and reminding her of the achievements that have taken her to this point. He in turn is ‘scaffolding’ her learning. (The term is from another educational theorist, Jerome Bruner, whose work helped to bring Vygotsky to a wider audience.)
Outdoor educators are familiar with this idea. The educational adventure writer Colin Mortlock describes a spectrum of ‘adventure states’ of increasing intensity. It starts with play that is well below a participant’s capacity, ranges through adventure and what Mortlock calls ‘frontier adventure’ – where participants are experiencing challenges close to their limits. (Before anyone follows the link and comments, I should say that Mortlock gets it wrong when he characterises play as “relatively easy participation in activities which are below the person’s skill level” – just watch a skateboarder practicing a new trick. Vygotsky himself emphasised that in their play, children often construct their own zone of proximal development.) At the end of this spectrum is misadventure, when participants are overstretched, with possibly serious consequences.
When thinking about powerful, challenging learning experiences, we are often drawn towards adventurous activities like this. I am reminded of the first time I pulled off a somersault on a trampoline, a few years ago. Though it also reminds me of when, after weeks of effort, I finally ‘got’ topology, as a mathematics undergraduate.
It seems to me that we can find ourselves inching towards the edge of our comfort zones in many different contexts, at different points in our lives. What does the clip remind you of – in your own life, or in the life of a child or young person you know?