Zone Theory of Child Development


Understanding and manipulating learning environments to channel learner development

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … a territory/area/domain/field (typically involving challenge)
  • Knowing is … attaining a goal
  • Learner is … agent on a trajectory (in a social setting)
  • Learning is … development
  • Teaching is … promoter (of action)




Zone Theory of Child Development claims to build on Socio-Cultural Theory – specifically the notion of zone of proximal development (ZPD), which is based on the realization that a learner in the presence of an expert is often able to do more than a learner working unaided. One’s ZPD encompasses those developmental possibilities that are within reach, with guidance. Zone Theory of Child Development adds two additional zones. The zone of free movement (ZFM) signals what the learning environment allows, and it encompasses environmental conditions that enable or constrain actions and access. The zone of promoted action (ZPA) signals what the teacher promotes, and it encompasses teacher-intended actions and interactions to encourage specific types of learning. The entwining of the ZFM and ZPA is seen to channel learner development.


While proponents assert that Zone Theory of Child Development is based on and aligned with Socio-Cultural Theory, in fact references to learning within the theory are almost entirely articulated in terms of the Attainment Metaphor. In other words, the theory is a formalization of a commonsense metaphor, not an elaboration of a well-researched theory of learning. A result is a mishmash of incompatible metaphors for knowledge, learning, and teaching.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Jean Valsiner

Status as a Theory of Learning

Zone Theory of Child Development is not a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Zone Theory of Child Development represents an attempt to translate Socio-Cultural Theory into a model that informs teaching, by combining two “zones” over which educators can have direct control to a zone over which they can have only indirect influence.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Because of the manner in which it uncritically blends Folk Theories with Socio-Cultural Theory, Zone Theory of Child Development does not meet our criteria for a scientific theory. The perspective is associated with some empirical evidence – but, arguably, that evidence is better interpreted using Socio-Cultural Theory alone.

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2019). “Zone Theory of Child Development” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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