“Vygotsky on Play – Part 1, Waiting, Imagination, and Rules”, by Dr. Benjamin Fife

Nick’s Notes: So sorry for the lack of posts lately! I went to MICE this weekend and was swamped by that both nights to feel like adding more to the site. On the plus side we’ve got (more or less) a full week of posts that should go up this week if all goes well! So stay tuned!

Lev Vygotsky

In 1978 a collection of writings by the Russian psychologist L.S. Vygotsky’s was published in English for the first time. Among these writings was a new translation of an important article he wrote on play and its relationship to development. The 1978 publication offered American psychologists and educators new ways of thinking about child development.

Partly due to the cold war, access to Vygotsky’s ideas had been very limited in the United States. Only one important article of his had been published in English up to that point, and that was in 1962, twenty eight years after his death. In the seventies, Alexander Luria, an influential neuropsychologist and a student of Vygotsky’s convinced a group of American academics to publish a collection of Vygotsky’s essays called Mind In Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes.  

It is remarkable reading his essays now to think about how well they have held up over time (They were written in the late 1920s and early 1930s). I find chapter 7 of his book, The role of play in development, very useful for thinking about how play relates to cognitive and socio-emotional development.

If there is something in my summary of Vygotsky’s work that you find useful or interesting, consider checking out his wonderful book.

Understanding play helps to understand children’s changing relationships to their own needs.

Vygotsky begins his chapter The Role of Play in Development reminding readers that if we see play only as something children are doing for enjoyment, then we miss an important aspect of play – its relationship to development.  At the same time we should keep in mind the parts of play that are about children’s needs and motivations – including the need for pleasure and fun. Vygotsky’s goal is to form a complete picture of play, what it makes play possible, and what play allows to happen later in life.

Vygotsky wants to make sure that children’s motivations are fully considered when thinking about play and development. He highlights a constant relationship between need, motivation and development in play. Specific needs that children are motivated to satisfy through play change as a child grows.

Play and development: Developing the capacity to wait.

Part of what changes in children as they grow older is how long they can wait before a need is satisfied.  Vygotsky writes “No one has met a child under three who wants to do something a few days in the future.”(p. 93)

When a very young child can’t have something she wants or can’t do something she wants to do she gets upset immediately. Maybe she even tantrums. She might be able to be distracted by a skilled and lucky caregiver, but that is not the same as being able to wait.

As a child gets older she starts to recognize that there are some needs that can’t be satisfied right away.  Vygotsky sees play as the first activity that allows a child to hold off on having a need satisfied. For Vygotsky, play is the activity in young children that in older children and adults becomes the experience of having an imagination. To Vygotsky imagination as experienced by older children, adolescents and adults is “play without action.”(p. 93)

What is play made of?

Vygotsky argues that two things – imagination and rules – are necessary components to play. Even play that seems to have no rules and seems very connected to reality, has both imagination and rules if you know where to look.

Take for example a pair of siblings playing a game they call “being siblings”. They hold hands, talk the same, dress the same, maybe the older one talks in authoritative ways to the younger one about things that belong to them, and things that belong to other people. It might not seem at first that there are a lot of rules or much imagination – but Vygotsky sees it differently. In this kind of play, the children are distilling rules about what it means to be siblings – they are taking the things that people don’t notice in day to day life, and making them the rules of play. They are also imagining what is different to adults and to others about the relationships siblings have with each other from the relationships they have with the rest of the world. The game allows them to figure out, through the use of imagination, the meaning of being sisters instead of just living the day to day experience of being sisters.

Any play with imagination has rules. Playing house involves rules of how members of the family behave. Whatever the imaginary game, be it cops and robbers, or space explorers or mom and baby, or monsters attacking the town, rules are there. Often these are not rules that the child comes up with ahead of time but rather rules that emerge from the imaginary situation the child presents – rules about who wins and how, rules of how monsters, babies, mommies, and townspeople act.

For Vygotsky games are activities where rules and imagination are always present and where each helps to make the other.  Even later games that seem to be all rules and no imagination – games like chess, actually contain both. Accepting the rules of the game, “here we are in a scenario where knights move like this and bishops move like this and the game ends when one of us captures the other’s king,” means entering into a shared imaginary situation.

For Vygotsky what defines something as an imaginary situation is the fact that a person accepts some rules and the rules limit the possibilities for action.  

According to this theory developmental progress in play goes from a child having games that look mostly like imaginary situations but have hidden rules to having games with clear rules and a less obvious imaginary situation.

In my next entry I’ll write a bit more about Vygotsky’s ideas about play and get into more specifics about when play in an imaginary situation starts, and how, according to Vygotsky it relates to later social and cognitive development.


Vygotsky, L.S. (1978).  Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes. (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, E. Souberman, Editors). Cambridge, Massachusets: Harvard University Press.

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2 thoughts on ““Vygotsky on Play – Part 1, Waiting, Imagination, and Rules”, by Dr. Benjamin Fife

  1. Pingback: “Vygotsky Part 2: Play and Development”, by Dr. Benjamin Fife | Abolish Work

  2. Pingback: More Information on the Benefits of Play | Abolish Work

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