When did you last go to the edge of your comfort zone?

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?

11 responses to “When did you last go to the edge of your comfort zone?

  1. Very interesting and the topic of right along my personal interests regarding education and development. I will repost.

  2. Reblogged this on The Mind's Havoc and commented:
    I thought this post was really interesting and matched with many of my thoughts last night regarding the intersection of fear and learning. According to Lev Vygotsky, the “adventure stage” for children is the point of their proximal development. That is, where children challenge their own limits through adventure and play.
    In last night’s graduate seminar, one colleague mentioned that the school slowly begins a process of building boundaries for children by imposing arbitrary rules (don’t play with the pencil, keep your notebook on the left side of the desk, etc.) that stifle their creative impulses.
    Does stifling creativity (that is, their natural stage of adventure and play) in children interfere with their cognitive development? If so, are the schools doing something harmful to intellectual growth?

  3. I loved this…great to share this lived experience and see theory in the moment.

  4. The sproggen (8 & 10) loved this. I did point out before I pressed Play that they wouldn’t be expected to try anything quite this hard on their first (immediately upcoming) ski trip!

  5. Thanks for the comments. Peter – my teenage daughter was also taken with it. Her first school skiing trip starts on Friday. Gulp. Though as a family, we went skiing a few years ago in Norway – where apparently children learn to ski before they can walk.

  6. In Norway they’re out ski-touring before they can ski, with their parents pulling them along in “pulka” (cargo sledges) on tours, very well wrapped against the cold. That attitude of “there’s snow, ice and cold, we can deal with it” seems to be in stark contrast to the UK… A couple of winters back, along with the snow there was a burst pipe at my children’s school so it was shut for a few days beyond the holidays. Of course, all the affected pupils spent the extra time off trying to break speed and distance records on sledges nearby, but when they went back to school nobody was allowed out at break time because it was allegedly too cold and too dangerous.

    On a hut-to-hut walk in Norway in 2007 we shared a hut with three generations of a family, the youngest I’d guess being around 5 or 6 and looking very pleased to be carrying his own rucksack. It’s completely normal there to be looking after yourself in the back of beyond (http://www.personal.dundee.ac.uk/~pjclinch/hmn3.htm shows where we met them), while here quite a few of my daughter’s classmates don’t quite believe she goes wild camping in Scotland with her parents and some of those that do believe her seem to think it’s all a bit mad!

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  10. This is an old post, but its stuck in my mind. I think the second child’s voice – a peer who sounds more empathetic than the coach – seems instrumental in allowing the skier to finally make the jump. ‘Scaffolding’ is a new terms for me but I want to add the observation that the skier seems to need both the coach AND the empathy (in this case peer support).

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