Lev Vygotsky: How Relationships Shape Learning

“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.”

Lev Vygotsky

How children construct knowledge continues to intrigue researchers today. In the early part of the last century, a Belarus-born psychologist named Lev Vygotsky created a theory, known as Sociocultural Theory, which still shapes our understanding of cognitive development.

Vygotsky saw human development as a social affair. Building on the belief that humans are intrinsically motivated to learn, Vygotsky believed that interactions with more competent peers and elders was a primary method of knowledge acquisition (Vygotsky, 1997). The interactions adults share with children bolster the knowledge children create through their explorations. RIE shares this bilateral view of cognitive development.

Children’s knowledge develops first through their interactions with their world. An infant notices an object makes a sound when shaken and this discovery begins to shape their understanding of the world around them. Vygotsky believed that a child’s potential for understanding expands through collaboration with more capable peers or adults. Vygotsky saw learning as an apprenticeship where children learn alongside and directly from more experienced peers and trusted adults (Vygotsky, 1997). The same infant, who discovers that objects rattle, has their knowledge base widened when an adult or peer notices this as well and comments on this discovery. “I noticed the sound as well. It makes a soft shushing sound when you shake it.”

Vygotsky saw cognition, not as static, but as a broadening range of knowledge (Barrs, 2022). There was the knowledge the child currently held and the knowledge the child could gain through selective collaborations with another. This range of possible competency he called the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1997). Jerome Bruner later referred to this process as “scaffolding”: temporary support put in place until a child can complete the task themselves. These interventions provide a rich opportunity for growth (Smidt, 2009).

Parents with their babies in a RIE classroom observe scaffolding when the RIE Associates facilitate. “I see you are trying to get your leg over the triangle. I wonder if you raised it a bit higher…” These moments of selective intervention or sportscasting offer opportunities for understanding and accomplishment. Opportunities for problem solving come from interactions with peers. RIE Associates offer a scaffolded approach to problem solving by sportscasting. For a common conundrum between small children, we might say, “Both of you want that blue ball. You are both holding on tightly.” Rather than simply dictate a solution, the RIE Associate stays nearby supporting the children in finding for themselves the best solution. “I see you offered him a red ball. He’s still holding on tight to the blue one.” Providing toddlers with language, time, and opportunities to solve their own problems increases their range of competency, growing their ability.

Barrs, M. (2022). Vygotsky the Teacher: A Companion to his Psychology for Teachers and Other Practitioners. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Smidt, S. (2009). Introducing Vygotsky: A Guide for Practitioners and Students in Early Years Education. Taylor & Francis Group.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1997).Educational Psychology Trans. R. Silverman. Davydov, V.V.(ed. and intro.). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.