Posts tagged ‘psychology’

April 16, 2012

Vygotsky on Play


Less known is Vygotsky’s research on play, or children’s games, as a psychological phenomenon and its role in the child’s development. Through play the child develops abstract meaning separate from the objects in the world, which is a critical feature in the development of higher mental functions.

The famous example Vygotsky gives is of a child who wants to ride a horse but cannot. If the child were under three, he would perhaps cry and be angry, but around the age of three the child’s relationship with the world changes: “Henceforth play is such that the explanation for it must always be that it is the imaginary, illusory realization of unrealizable desires. Imagination is a new formation that is not present in the consciousness of the very raw young child, is totally absent in animals, and represents a specifically human form of conscious activity. Like all functions of consciousness, it originally arises from action.” (Vygotsky, 1978)

The child wishes to ride a horse but cannot, so he picks up a stick and stands astride of it, thus pretending he is riding a horse. The stick is a pivot. “Action according to rules begins to be determined by ideas, not by objects…. It is terribly difficult for a child to sever thought (the meaning of a word) from object. Play is a transitional stage in this direction. At that critical moment when a stick – i.e., an object – becomes a pivot for severing the meaning of horse from a real horse, one of the basic psychological structures determining the child’s relationship to reality is radically altered”.

As children get older, their reliance on pivots such as sticks, dolls and other toys diminishes. They have internalized these pivots as imagination and abstract concepts through which they can understand the world. “The old adage that ‘children’s play is imagination in action’ can be reversed: we can say that imagination in adolescents and schoolchildren is play without action” (Vygotsky, 1978).

Another aspect of play that Vygotsky referred to was the development of social rules that develop, for example, when children play house and adopt the roles of different family members. Vygotsky cites an example of two sisters playing at being sisters. The rules of behavior between them that go unnoticed in daily life are consciously acquired through play. As well as social rules, the child acquires what we now refer to as self-regulation. For example, when a child stands at the starting line of a running race, she may well desire to run immediately so as to reach the finish line first, but her knowledge of the social rules surrounding the game and her desire to enjoy the game enable her to regulate her initial impulse and wait for the start signal. 

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