Updated 2017-10-12

Playing in the zone of proximal development

A qualitative study of self-directed age mixing between adolescents (ages 12–19) and young children (ages 4–11) at a democratic school.
Peter Gray & Jay Feldman authors
Gray, P. & Feldman, J. (2004). Playing in the zone of proximal development: Qualities of self-directed age mixing between adolescents and young children at a democratic school. American Journal of Education, 110(2), 108-145.


At an ungraded, democratically structured school, we documented 196 naturally occurring interaction sequences between adolescents (ages 12–19) and children (ages 4–11) who were at least four years younger than the adolescent. Children and adolescents appeared to be drawn together by common interests and play styles, personal attraction, and complementary desires to nurture and be nurtured. Further analyses identified apparent contributions of such interactions to both parties’ physical, intellectual, and social/moral education. Adolescents led children to act within the latter’s zones of proximal development (Vygotsky’s term), and children stimulated adolescents to make implicit knowledge explicit, be creative, and practice nurturance and leadership.

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