Child development: Vygotsky
Psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) wrote many papers and books about child development. His work focused on three main areas – language and its influence on thought, the zone of proximal development and the social context in which learning takes place. Vygotsky was a constructivist; he believed that a learner builds their knowledge and understanding directly from what they experience.
Vygotsky encouraged people to talk to children and to label what was happening to help them understand abstract concepts. He felt that language was developed through social interaction and saw the effect that adults talking about everyday experiences had not only on a child’s language (their grammar and vocabulary) but also on the formation of ways of thinking and interpreting experiences. He noted that children observed conversations between others and that they use what is said, what is done (both body language and actions) and what is felt to interpret the social situations they observe. Finally Vygotsky observed how children talk to themselves when carrying out tasks to unify action and language, and that this disappears around the age of 7, however it can reappear for difficult tasks. Even adults talk to themselves when faced with something difficult!
His zone of proximal development explained how children extend their skills with the help of others. Each child is capable of carrying out actions by him or herself but in order to progress they need help from somebody more experienced. This person may be an adult or another child, but by doing the task together the child progresses. If it is another child who helps the learner through the experience they also benefit because they need to show or explain what needs to be done, which solidifies their understanding.
Language and this zone of proximal development combine to form the third part of the theory, the idea that learning is a social activity and the context in which it takes place is important. He felt that families and communities were important to support children’s learning and that children could be seen as apprentice adults. He also observed that language and leading by example transmitted the cultural context, and that a child’s learning experience could not be separated from the social context.
How can we apply Vygotsky today?
The idea of a ‘zone of proximal development’ has influenced the way practitioners interact with and support children’s learning. Observation informs the practioner about what the child can do, and the practitioner can then use his or her knowledge to plan activities which allow the child to progress. The social approach to learning, exchanging ideas and playing together, encourages us to enter into exchanges with children and share knowledge and experience through play by modelling.