Academic journal article American Journal of Play

Vygotskian and Post-Vygotskian Views on Children's Play

Academic journal article American Journal of Play

Vygotskian and Post-Vygotskian Views on Children's Play

Article excerpt

The authors argue that childhood played a special role in the cultural-historical theory of human culture and biosocial development made famous by Soviet psychologist Lev S. Vygotsky and his circle. They discuss how this school of thought has, in turn, influenced contemporary play studies. Vygotsky used early childhood to test and refine his basic principles. He considered the make-believe play of preschoolers and kindergartners the means by which they overcame the impulsiveness of toddlers to develop the intentional behavior essential to higher mental functions. The authors explore the theory of play developed by Vygotsky's colleague Daniel Elkonin based on these basic principlies, as well as the implications for play in the work of such Vygotskians as Alexei Leontiv, Alexander Luria, and others, and how their work has been extended by more recent research. The authors also discuss the role of play in creating the Vygotsky school's "zone of proximal development." Like these researchers, old and new, the authors point to the need to teach young children how to play, but they caution teachers to allow play to remain a childhood activity instead of making it a lesson plan. Key words: childhood devlopment; cultural-historical psychology; Lev S. Vygotsky; preschool play; zone of proximal development

A well-known, often-quoted passage from Russian psychiatrist Lev S. Vygotsky states: "In play a child is always above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself. As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form; in play it is as though the child were trying to jump above the level of his normal behavior" (1967, 16).

These lines, which come from a 1933 lecture on play, have recently regained the attention of scholars and practitioners. Interestingly, the interpretations of this paragraph can differ dramatically depending on the philosophical orientation of the interpreter. For example, some present it as an injunction for adults not to interfere in children's play, because-more than any other activity-play seems to allow a young child to "jump above the level of his normal behavior." Others find in these very same words from Vygotsky a call to use play as an eficient vehicle to deliver academic concepts and skills to preschoolers and kindergartners. Both interpretations, however, are inconsistent with the way Vygotsky and his students regard play, which is known as the cultural-historical approach. Our purpose in this article is to help the reader understand when and how Vygotsky's theory of play was developed and later built upon by his students and what this theory may mean for the contemporary study of play.

Vygotsky on Play: The Blueprint of a Theory

To understand fully Vygotsky's views on play, we need to place them in the larger context of Vygotsky's theory of human development and learning as well as in the broader cultural and historical context in which he and his students developed their approach to play. Vygotsky's scientific biography covers a short span of ten years from 1924 to1934, during which he produced a number of works now considered definitive in fields ranging from special education to art studies to psycholinguistics. The field of child development, however, occupies a special place in Vygotsky's scientific legacy. It was in the context of child development that Vygotsky discussed many of his well-known ideas, such as the zone of proximal development (the law of the development of higher mental functions) and the notion of instruction preceding and shaping development. Indeed, his theory of children's play cannot be separated from these broader theoretical constructs.

Vygotsky's interest in play appeared evident from his early works published in the 1920s, such as The Psychology of Art (1971) and "The Prehistory of the Development of Written Language" (1997b), but he expressed his main ideas about play in the 1933 lecture from which we have already quoted, "Play and Its Role in the Mental Development of the Child" (1967). …

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