Scaffolding: From Candy Land to Calculus

Roel Wijnants' picture of a wooden playground with scaffolding

I’m currently teaching my 4-year old daughter, Evie, to play board games. Before we get to chess or Scrabble or even Sorry, we’re starting off with some really simple games that can demonstrate for her how games work.

Candy Land is mind-numbingly simple and a great starting point for her. Players race down a string of colored squares to see who can get to King Candy fastest. Each turn you draw a card (or in some editions pin a wheel) to see what color square you can advance to. Occasionally, you get a card that allows you to move to the second square whatever color. That’s it. That’s the whole game mechanic. There are winners and losers and graciously accepting victory and defeat. Evie loves it: “There are lots of castles, but I don’t like that guy that gets you stuck.”

Box and board for the Candy Land game

Having established these basic game mechanics, we’ve advanced on to Chutes and Ladders. Players race along a linear path, similar to the one in Candy Land, but instead of advancing based on colors, you use a die or numerical spinner. For a four year old, counting presents the dual challenge of accuracy and honesty. The game is further complicated by the ladders, which accelerate your progress and the chutes that reverse it. The first couple of times we played we ignored the chutes, only integrating them once we were somewhat confidant Evie wouldn’t burst into tears when faced with adversity.

Proficiency with the game mechanics of racing, dice rolling, and random jumps and falls will allow Evie entrance into a world of more interesting games from Sorry to Monopoly.

Games built for adults also have use demonstration and complication of game mechanics. The decidedly adult Assassin’s Creed video games tell a complex story of power, politics, corruption, and betrayal through a game mechanic of repeated complex assassination simulations. The game starts out literally teaching the gamer to walk and then run (and then punch, stab, and shoot) within the game world. In the current iteration of the game, “Syndicate”, the first two missions function as a tutorial teaching the game mechanics in a region completely separated from the rest of the game world (1860s London). As the game unfolds and the gamer develops their skill with the various game mechanics, new and increasingly complex missions simultaneously train and challenge the player.

Game cover art for Assassin's Creed Syndicate. A hooded assassin sits in a chair while surrounded by nefarious looking game characters.

Like many games, Assassin’s Creed employs a leveling model. When you start the game you are a level one character. As you play, you move up in level unlocking new game mechanics along the way. The foes that you face in the game also progress from level one to level ten. Rather than frustrating the player with either impossibly hard or boringly easy foes, the game creates a banded range of difficulty in which each challenge can be slightly easier or harder. As you gain proficiency in the game mechanics, you are asked to employ appropriate sills in a timely way. The game thus increases in difficulty but always within the band of possibility created by the leveling system. The graph of difficulty over time would look approximately like this. The increasing difficulty and variation keeps the player challenged and engaged but also allows her to succeed enough to enjoy the experience. This difficulty curve is a ubiquitous concept of game design. Like modeling/scaffolding, the difficulty curve encourages gamers to learn new game mechanics and then challenges them to hone their skills, combine them, and apply them with discretion to increasingly complex challenges.

Keegan Long-Wheeler and I are leading a faculty learning community,, demonstrating the applicability of gaming concepts to higher education. Scaffolding, critical synthesis, and application of skills have obvious parallels for education in any field. Whether we’re teaching calculus, brush techniques in the visual arts, or research methods in the humanities, we use this same basic approach. The next step for instructors is to apply the concept to course design more broadly. How can we scaffold skills throughout our courses? How can we then allow students to experiment and play with those skills within a banded curve of difficulty that allows for failure to encourage experimentation, synthesis, and critical application?


  1. Thony C

    When did ‘Snakes & Ladders’ a game which has a fascinating history on the Indian sub-continent become “Chutes & Ladders”?

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