Review: Vygotsky Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes

Vygotskij, L. S., & Cole, M. (1981). Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes (Nachdr.). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Book synopsis: The great Russian psychologist L. S. Vygotsky has long been recognized as a pioneer in developmental psychology. But somewhat ironically, his theory of development has never been well understood in the West. Mind in Societyshould correct much of this misunderstanding. Carefully edited by a group of outstanding Vygotsky scholars, the book presents a unique selection of Vygotsky’s important essays, most of which have previously been unavailable in English.

The Vygotsky who emerges from these pages can no longer be glibly included among the neobehaviorists. In these essays he outlines a dialectical-materialist theory of cognitive development that anticipates much recent work in American social science. The mind, Vygotsky argues, cannot be understood in isolation from the surrounding society. Man is the only animal who uses tools to alter his own inner world as well as the world around him. From the handkerchief knotted as a simple mnemonic device to the complexities of symbolic language, society provides the individual with technology that can be used to shape the private processes of mind. In Mind in Society Vygotsky applies this theoretical framework to the development of perception, attention, memory, language, and play, and he examines its implications for education. The result is a remarkably interesting book that is bound to renew Vygotsky’s relevance to modem psychological thought.

For my purposes, I focus here on Chapter 7: The Role of Play in Development.

Although much here seems centered around small children and toddlers, I believe much applies to older children, teens, and even adults - and as a lifelong gamer and role-player, it all makes sense. Vygotsky views play as central in a child's development and important in his or her internal, cognitive changes. He views play as a sort of prototype for real life. People imagine themselves in different situations or as different people to prepare for future encounters or future roles. For example, three children decide to play "house". One will play the baby, one, the sister, and the last will play the mother. In order for this play to occur, each must act within the boundaries of her character; this form of imaginative play is not without rules.  The girl playing the sister must behave as she believes the sister would. The girl playing the mother may behave as her own mother would or her ideal version of a mother would. This is all for preparation for the real thing. In theory, imaginative play helps us out later on in life. 

Interestingly enough, Vygotsky suggests that play creates demands on the child to act against his or her own impulses. They help a child understand the importance of self-control because he or she is operating within the boundaries of the rules (or the character) and to act outside of or contradictory to those boundaries, kind of, ruins the games. So, instead of doing everything he or she wants to do, they constrain themselves to operate within the game rules. 

Play also means there is some sort of purpose with some goal in mind. However, the more rigid the rules and the greater the demands on the child's application may result in tension or/and anxiety. Vygotsky discusses athletes who play a game, but as they become more of an expert, the demands increase; therefore, the anxiety of the player may increase. Take the game Pac-Man for instance. It is very possible to play this game without thinking about patterns or time-limits, but if you want to be an expert, you will. Pac-Man can be a very tense game when you know the rules and are motivated to excel or keep some spot on a leaderboard. Rules can be rigid in all types of play. I have witnessed my daughters play "school" with some seriously rigid rules. Even though they were using their imaginations, I am not sure any of them were having fun. 

Even play with seemingly limitless boundaries and free choice is an illusion. Take Minecraft, for instance. This game may seem boundless and without rules, but the player can only act within the set parameters pre-determined by the designers. A player cannot take a block and turn it into whatever he or she wants; blocks are meant to be stacked. 

Lastly, and, maybe, most importantly, even though imaginary play is part of our development, the play rarely resembles the real-life tasks in which they are meant to resemble. Kids may play doctor or imagine themselves as "daddy", but those real roles are so complex that a child could never fully imagine what it means to be one without actually being one. This rings true for me regarding simulation games that I have played and the ones my wife, a nurse anesthetist, has told me about. No virtual or simulated game can match really being there. Yes, many can be very close to the real thing. I know pilots encounter some true-to-life simulations, but the majority of the population does not have access to those simulations. What did the pilot imagine before those simulations growing up? Did they play pilot? Did it help? Interesting thought. 

BookHyle Daleybook, psychology, play