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Play Revisited: Lessons from Vygotsky

Natalia Gajdamaschko Faculty of Education Simon Fraser University Burnaby, B.C. Canada V5A 1S6


The Concept of Play • The concept of childhood play is understood differently by different scholars and educators. At times they hold opposite views on the nature of play. • In Vygotsky’s theory – the concept of play as the leading activity in childhood 1


Some History • El’konin and Vygotsky established their research group on play in 1931. Their research interests were not limited to the phenomenological aspects of play, but were intertwined with attempts to develop a cultural historical methodology. The theoretical challenge can be formulated as “to

show the place and role of play in the cultural development of the child.” Vygotsky’s participation in the program was brief, but nevertheless he established its theoretical direction. (Pentti Hakkarainen, 2005)

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Play and Imagination Development “Imagination begins to develop through play—you are absolutely right in that, …the idea is convincing and of central importance; before play there is no imagination.” (Vygotsky (1931), cited in El’konin, p.14)

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Play Revisited: Lessons from Vygotsky • “Imagination does not develop all at once, but very slowly and gradually evolves from more elementary and simpler forms into more complex ones. At each stage of development it has its own expression, each stage of childhood has its own characteristic form of creation. Furthermore, it does not occupy a separate place in human behavior, but depends directly on other forms of human activity, especially accrual of experience.”

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Play as the Leading Activity in Childhood • What is a leading activity? • What is an activity?

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Vygotsky and Piaget on Play • A popular view: Vygotsky and Piaget have a lot in common and share the same views on the nature of play. •

For example, Jeffrey Dansky wrote: Two seminal developmental theorists who proposed relationships between play and creativity were Lev Vygotsky and Jean Piaget. Although some of their beliefs about early cognitive development differed considerably, there is more than a little similarity in their views… Despite Piagetian emphasis on individual origins and Vygotskian emphasis on social origins of symbols, when the two theorists wrote about play and creativity, they both made the following important points: both emphasized that imaginativeness of children’s play is inextricably tied to their understanding (and misunderstanding) of daily events. Both maintained that play can itself be a source of creative imagination…” (p.395. Encyclopedia of Creativity, Academic Press. 1999)

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Vygotsky and Piaget • Saba Ayman-Nolley wrote: “The theories of Vygotsky and Piaget on the development of creativity converge and complement each other in several ways. Piaget provides the mechanism of the processes involved in the development of creative imagination and Vygotsky gives the general structure of the changes and evolution in the content and function of creative imagination” (p.108, Piaget and Vygotsky on Creativity, The Quarterly Newsletter of the LCHC, 1988) • And at the same time, she observed, “Although we see considerable convergence in Piaget’s and Vygotsky’s theories…they do differ in their explanation of the roles of language and unconscious thought in creative imagination” (p.110) .

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Some Doubts •

The role of language and unconscious thought was the main point of Vygotsky’s criticism of Piaget. Vygotsky disagreed with viewing imaginative thinking as the opposite of realistic thinking (the point of agreement between Piaget and Freud), and he disagreed with Piagetian characteristics as undirected, childish, egocentric thought that gradually is supposed to be replaced by adult logical, realistic thought.

Vygotsky considered imagination to be an active, conscious process of meaning-making, imagination that forms a special unity with thinking and language and emotions that helps the child to make sense about the world: " In the process of their development — imagination and thinking are opposites whose unity is inherent in the very first generalization, in the very first concept that people form." (Vygotsky, Vol.1, p.78).

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The Development of Imagination in Play Some Key points to consider: • The key role of language as a psychological tool in development of imagination: “From the perspectives of Freud and Piaget, an essential characteristic of primal child fantasy is the fact that this is a nonverbal and consequently noncommunicable form of thought.” (Vygotsky, p.345, V.1). •

“…development of imagination, like the development of other higher mental functions, is linked to the development of speech. The development of imagination is linked to the development of speech, to the development of child’s social interaction with those around him, to the basic forms of the collective social activity of the child’s consciousness.” (Vygotsky, V1. p.346.)

Our opinion: In the interpretation of play and the development of imagination through play, one needs to consider the logic of the Vygotskian theory of development and his idea of cognitive tools and mediation that he places at the center his theory.

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Imagination and Speech Develop Together Through Play “Speech frees the child from the immediate impression of an object. It gives the child the power to represent and think about an object that he has not seen” (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 346). “A divergence between the fields of meaning and vision first occurs at preschool age” (p.97) ----IN PLAY

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ZERO IMAGINATION • "We saw that the zero point of imagination ...appears in the following way—the individual is in a state where he is unable to abstract himself from a concrete situation, unable to change it creatively, to regroup signs to free one's self from its influence." • “Creative people are more adept at manipulating signs and psychological tools and, therefore, at adapting to their environments than are people who use their creative imagination less often.” (Vygotsky, 1997b). 11


Mastering cognitive tools Cognitive tools for imagination: Vygotskian perspectives: Vygotsky believed that imaginative activities are crystallized in culture. He wrote: “ All objects of common life appear …as crystallization of the imagination” (p.86.) 12


Not a Subconscious Activity As a cultural function, imagination is active and it is a part of the child’s cultural experience. Vygotsky wrote: “…consider the domain of artistic creativity in this connection. This domain of activity is accessible to the child at a young age. If we consider the products of this creativity in drawing or story telling, it quickly becomes apparent that this imagination has a directed nature. It is not a subconscious activity” (Vygotsky, Vol.1, p.346)

AND “…consider the child’s constructive imagination, the creative activity of consciousness associated with technical-constructive of building activity, we see consistently that real inventive imagination is among the basic functions underlying this activity. In this type of activity, fantasy is highly directed. From beginning to the end, it is directed toward a goal that the individual is pursuing.” (Vygotsky, Vol.1, p.347)

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Mastering Imagination

in Play

At the start of imagination’s development, the person “is able to imagine much less than the adult, but he trusts the products of his imagination more and has less control over them.� (Vygotsky) Thus: a) an ability to control imagination develops in play b) the mastering of emotions (perezhivanie) occurs in play 14


Mechanisms of Play Development • Condensing and shortening play actions (El’konin believes that condensing and shortening play actions is a clear indication that the child has observed human relations and has an emotional experience of their sense.) 15


Mastering Initial Social Relationships The abbreviated and generalized nature of playing is the most important precondition for the child’s initial mastery of social relationships, their unique modeling in the form of play (El’konin, p. 14)

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Symbolic Function Develops • When a stick stands for a horse (The ability to transfer the function from one object onto another) . In play the child creates the structure meaning/object, in which the semantic aspect – the meaning of the word, the meaning of the thing – dominates and determines his behavior. To a certain extent, meaning is freed from the object with which it was directly fused before. I would say that in play a child concentrates on meaning severed from objects, but that it is not severed in real action with real objects. Separating words from things requires a pivot in the form of other things. But the moment the stick – i.e., the thing – becomes the pivot for severing the meaning of “horse” from a real horse, the child makes one thing influence another in the semantic sphere

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Self Control Develops • In play, a child’s “greatest self-control occurs” (Vygotsky, 1978. P.99) • Play continually creates demands on the child to act against immediate impulse. Because of that, play is the leading activity for development of self-control. The ability of a child to comply with the rules of play develops. • In play a situation is created in which a dual affective plan occurs. Vygotsky said that a child simultaneously weeps in play as a patient, but is happy as a player. Flickering emotions between reality and the imaginatory plane helps the child to learn how to control emotions. 18


Mastering Mechanisms • Exaggeration. Karl Buhler, with complete justification, suggests that this process of alteration, and especially exaggeration, provides the child with practice dealing with quantities of which he has no direct experience. We see that exaggeration, like imagination in general, is essential in art and science alike. If this capacity, which is so amusingly expressed in the story made up by the five-and-a-half-year-old girl, did not exist, humanity would not have been able to create astronomy, geology, or physics.

• Absurdities.

Only recently was it noticed that certain absurdities or

amusing nonsense which can be found in nursery rhymes by inverting the most commonplace events play a tremendously important role in child development.

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Mastering Mechanisms • Association: The next component of the processes of imagination is association, that is, unification of the dissociated and altered elements. As was shown above, this association can be based on various qualities and take various forms, from the purely subjective association of images to objective, scientific association corresponding, for example, to geographical concepts. And, finally, the last aspect of the preliminary work of the imagination is the combination of individual images, their unification into a system, the construction of a complex picture.

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Mastering Mechanisms • Embodiment. But creative imagination does not stop here. As we have already noted, the full cycle of this process will be completed only when imagination is embodied or crystallized in external images.

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Tools of Play • To understand play we need to analyze those cognitive, psychological tools that mediate imaginative activities: Didactic games, reading and telling children stories, introducing them to aspects of their environment, and other lessons influence the occurrence and development of role play only if they introduce children to the activities of adults and their interactions and relationships.

“The results of the research … show that role play is especially sensitive to human activities, work, and the interactions among people, and thus that the major content of roles that children take on involves the Reproduction of precisely this aspect of reality.” (El’konin) 22


Cognitive Tools • To warn against a mechanical understanding of the role of “cognitive” or “psychological tools” in the child’s activity, Vygotsky explained that not everything could be “a tool”: if something ”did not have the capacity to influence behavior, it could not be a tool.” (Vygotsky, Vol. 3, p.87). • In the process of the development of imagination in the child, Vygotsky suggested that the child “arms and re-arms himself with widely varying tools.” 23


Conclusion Vygotsky’s mechanism of play explains how imagination develops through mechanisms like the transformation of objects, switching the meaning between the objects, exaggerating, abstracting, condensing, shortening, inversions, absurdities — all of those attempt to create new meanings and new kinds of understanding about the world. 24


Developmental Potential of Play El’konin (1999) indicated four broad domains in which the developmental potential of play is essential: (1) needs and motivation; (2) overcoming cognitive egocentrism; (3) internal actions; and (4) volitional features of the child’s actions.( p.7) 25


Play and Imagination revisited - Lessons from Vygotsky