“Vygotsky Part 2: Play and Development”, by Dr. Benjamin Fife

Nick’s Notes: You can find part one, here.)

Playing is nothing to play around about.

In my last entry I wrote about Vygotsky’s ideas about play in an imaginary situation. A key piece of his theory of play has to do with how rules and imagination help to form one another during games. In this entry I’ve written about where in typical development Vygotsky sees imaginary play beginning, and what play allows to happen in later development.

When does play in an imaginary situation start?

Play in an imaginary situation usually starts around 3 years old. This is about the time when a child goes from reacting mostly to the environment to being motivated by cognitive factors as well. Of course there is variation in the ages when children start to play – but a huge amount of brain development happens between 2 and 3 that allows for new kinds of thinking to emerge at about 3 years old.

A three year old can plan in a way that a 2 year old simply cannot yet. Vygotsky gives the example of a 2 year old who is facing at a stone. An adult asks him to sit on the stone and he has a very hard time following the directions.The task is difficult because planning the actions required to turn around first and then sit down is cognitively too complex. The stone is right there in front of him and he he’s committed to doing something with it. If he turns around he won’t be able to see it anymore and figuring out the interaction with the stone will be incredibly difficult. Where two year olds are generally motivated by what they see in front of them, three year olds can often begin to hold a plan in mind and figure out the steps needed to make that plan happen.

Objects and Motivation

For most children under about three years old objects in the environment contain their own inherent motivation. For an infant, everything is to be explored with every sense. For the toddler, objects in the environment are recognized and are associated with a concrete use. Doors are for opening, stairs are for climbing, bells are for ringing. Everything that the under three year old child perceives in her environment is in itself a motivation to do something; to approach or to avoid – to interact with in a concrete way.

It is usually only at about age three when something a child perceives can start to be used in an imaginary scenario – for example a stick can be ridden as if it were a pony. What is happening when a child starts to play this way is a giant cognitive step from early childhood. Unlike before, a child at play can now see an object in her environment and act based on what she is thinking about rather than based on what she is seeing. This allows children to start taking actions based on meaning rather than perception.

What is happening in preschool aged play

Vygotsky sees something special happening at preschool age – specifically thought and objects become separate allowing children’s actions to begin to come from their ideas instead of  their reactions to things.

Little by little objects in the world that have some similarities to things a child is thinking about can be used in play as if they were the things the child is thinking about. So a stick, because a child can swing a leg over it and pretend to ride it can become a play horse, and a piece of wood, because it is about the right size and shape, can become a baby doll.

This is a transitional stage – and it is important to remember that what the child is doing here is at times for the child hard work.  It is also important to remember that the object the child picks to stand for the thing she is thinking about has to have some of the same properties as that thing and it has to be able to be used as if it were the thing, not just any object in the environment will do.

The object to meaning ratio

Vygotsky has a math-like formula for understanding what is happening here. One of the things that is special about being human, he says, is that we can make meaning out of objects. We can look at a clock and where an animal might see a round thingy with two straight thingies in it, we can distinguish a clock, and know what the parts of it are and its specific uses. He proposes that for people there is an object to meaning ratio. Early in life, when we are infants and toddlers the object value in the ratio is higher and the meaning value is lower. Later in life the meaning value can be higher and the object value is lower. Play is the activity in development that allows for that change to start to happen. Meaning enters into how a child understands her enviornment when the child starts to use objects as if they were something else – when the stick, because of how it is used starts to mean “horse.”

The limits of play

Where an adult can take a match and put it on a table next to a postcard and say to another adult “OK, so imagine the horse is here and the  barn is here” and be understood, that kind of symbolic communication isn’t available to a preschool child. The stick isn’t a sign for horse the way the adult uses the match as a sign for horse. The stick’s meaning comes from the fact that it can be used as if it were a horse.   This difference for Vygostsky highlights how play is a transitional activity between the way very young children experience the world in terms of the situations they are in, and the way adults can have abstract thoughts that don’t have anything to do with real-life situations.

Play and later development

Play also paves the way for later, more complex, relationships children will have to meaning through activities like writing.  In play a child makes a thing stand for something else without knowing that is what she is doing. Later activities like reading and writing will be based on doing that same thing with awareness; making one thing (for example the word “tree” written in pencil) call up an idea about another thing (the tree outside my window) with the full knowledge that is what you are doing.

Play allows creative things to happen. It gives young children their first opportunity to take the meaning of something they know about  from one environment and put it in a new reality. For example it allows a child to ride her pony in her classroom, even if the pony is a stick, or to be a nurse in her bedroom taking her teddy-bear’s temperature with a crayon. Play also allows a child to both have pleasurable experiences and to delay pleasurable experiences at the same time.  

Take for example the child who really wants a pony but can’t have one for the usual reasons of space, money, and everything else that stops us from buying every child a pony. Imaginary play allows her to have the experiences she imagines having if she did have a pony, and to tolerate the fact that she has to operate within a certain set of external rules that doesn’t allow her to have a real pony. She also gets to come up with the rules of play herself that are involved in the experience of having a pony. Where in a lot of childhood experiences following a rule feels like giving up on pleasure, in play coming up with the rules of play and then following them becomes the source of pleasure in itself. Vygotsky sees here the seeds of both self restraint and self determination.

What changes in play look like

A preschool child’s relationship to her own actions changes through play. In the play of a young preschool age child all of the actions the child takes will more or less mirror the activities she is imagining. When she is pretending to eat toy food from toy plates she will usually do all of the things that she would do when eating from real food from real plates.  As play progresses, her actions will take on more diversity and things she with her body will start to stand for actions instead of just mimicking them.

Let’s return to the example of the older preschool child playing at riding a pony using a stick.  Maybe stomping her feet quickly while standing in place becomes the way she rides the pony very very fast.  She isn’t imitating the action here so much as doing something that has elements of how she thinks about “riding a pony” (the loudness of the stomping, the speed of moving her feet).  Action in play also has a ratio type relationship to meaning.  For the younger child action determined meaning, for the older child meanings were assigned to actions.

Play as a preview

Vygostky sees play as a place where children can experiment with what comes next developmentally. For him play represents a “zone of proximal development,” a time when a child can experience being developmentally older than she is in other parts of her life. In that way play is probably the single most important activity that prepares children for future developmental progress.  Actions children take in the imaginative realms of play give them opportunities to set goals, develop plans, and see activities through.  Outside of play a child might not be ready to do some of the things she can do inside of play, but once she does them in play she is well on the road to doing them in other areas of her life.

For example, a child with anxiety about sleeping in her own bed may be able to participate in a game where a caregiver plays at putting her to sleep in her own bed and she plays at falling asleep. While intending this as a game, the child may really be able to fall asleep.  In such a game she might be able to have her first sense of being able to do something she could not do before.  Over time this play skill could transition into becoming a day to day skill she can use.

In another instance a child who cannot yet read may play at reading a book to a friend or stuffed animal. The play may include explaining the pictures, turning pages, checking to make sure the stuffed animal or friend is paying attention, and telling a story in a way that links specific moments with specific feelings. Each of these may be things that the child cannot yet do outside of the play scenario. Play, by the way it provides an imaginary scenario in which a child performs real actions frees a child from some of the constraints of everyday life and allows her to do things she can’t do elsewhere.

Ultimately Vygotsky sees two very important developmental skills emerging from play

  • abstract thought – which he sees as developing from play in imaginary situations
  • and the ability to differentiate work from play and to work creatively within sets of rules – which he sees coming from the development of rules and experimentation with relationships to rules within imaginary scenarios.

In this way it is play that for preschool age children sets the fundamental groundwork for later complex thought and motivated action.

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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