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.

“Every time one teaches a child something, one keeps him from inventing it himself.”

Jean Piaget

Few people revered the way children think with such devotion as the Swiss researcher Jean Piaget. His captivation with how children constructed knowledge led to one of the first theories on the subject. It is known as the Constructionist Theory. RIE and Piaget hold deep respect for the competency of young children and the way they create knowledge. Piaget believed that children are born to learn; an idea shared by RIE. He saw infancy as the “threshold of intelligence” (Piaget & Inhelder, 1972).

Piaget studied the way children construct knowledge from infancy through adolescence. The first two years of life consist of what he referred to as the “sensorimotor” stage. This stage begins with the innate reflexes of the newborn and through repetition and experience, the infant develops meaningful and purposeful actions (Piaget & Inhelder, 1972). Infants and toddlers construct their knowledge through the full range of their senses. Tasting, mouthing, grasping, banging, and dropping all support their quest for information.

Piaget believed frameworks, or “schemas,” are developed to organize and interpret information as it is acquired. Schemas are the building blocks of thinking. Schemas start specifically and then expand and modify through the joined processes of assimilation and accommodation (Piaget & Inhelder, 1972). Piaget saw intelligence beginning when physical reflexes move from unconscious to purposeful (Mooney, 2013).

Piaget used the newborn suckling reflex to explain how understanding is built through a process of assimilation and accommodation in his book Origins of Intelligence. The sucking reflex compels the infant to search for the nipple and latch. Each feeding provides the opportunity to take in – or “assimilate” – new information: how to move the head, how much pressure to use, speed, etc. A more sophisticated feeding pattern develops through repetition, experience, and motor recognition. Over time the infant begins to utilize this skill for more than feeding. A desire to learn initiates additional exploration (Piaget, 1952).

For example, the drive to discover may soon result in an infant finding their hand. They begin to suck on this rather than a nipple creating an accommodation of their previous knowledge – “I can suck on this too. A nipple is not the only thing I can suck on.” – (Piaget, 1952). This process of using new information to adapt one’s understanding of what is already known is called “accommodation” (Bringuier, 1980).

Both RIE and Piaget believe that even the youngest children are scientists compelled to investigate the world around them. Thus, both RIE and Piaget see the role of the educator as supporting the innate drive children possess to create and innovate new ideas (Gerber 1998; Geneser, 2022). RIE and Piaget advocate for an enriching (and safe) environment where adults allow free exploration and can come to trust their child’s abilities and intrinsic appetite for insight. (Gerber 1998; Geneser, 2022). When that is the case, we understand the role of the adult is to support and appreciate the young child’s natural ability to initiate their learning. This is one of the hallmarks of the RIE approach and is a practical application of Piaget’s theories.

“Are we forming children who are only capable of learning what is already known? Or should we try to develop creative and innovative minds capable of discovery?” — Elkind, 1989


Bringuier, Jean-Claude (1960). Conversations with Jean Piaget, University of Chicago Press.

Elkind, David (1989) Piaget’s Developmental Theory: An Overview [Film].

Geneser, V. L. (Ed.). (2022). Scholarly Snapshots : The importance of child play as a human right. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Gerber, M. (1998b). Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect (J. Weaver, Ed.). Resources for Infant Educarers.

Mooney, Carol Garhart (2013) Theories of Childhood: An Introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget & Vygotsky, Redleaf Professional Library.

Piaget, Jean (1952) The Origins of Intelligence in Children, International Universities Press.

Piaget, J., & Wolff , P. H. (1972). Some Aspects of Operations. In M. W. Piers (Ed.), Play and development: A symposium with contributions by Jean Piaget (pp. 15–27). essay, W. W. Norton & Company.

Piaget, J. & Inhelder, B. (1972). The Psychology of the Child. Basic Books.

Two felt balls on white sheet. One ball is white and light blue and the other is white and red used during RIE® Parent Infant Guidance™ Classes

While caring for my 10-month-old nephew, I was sitting nearby observing him play.  He was manipulating a ball and it fell out of his hands and rolled under a chair with several rungs underneath.  He looked at the ball which was resting on the back rung underneath the chair and tried to reach through and grab the ball but his arm was too short and he could not reach it.  He looked over at me and I simply commented that his ball had rolled under the chair.  He then turned back to the chair and tried reaching for it again from different angles but still no luck.  After sitting there and looking at the ball for about 4-5 minutes, he then put his hand on one of the rungs underneath the chair and pulled the chair.  This motion caused the ball to roll forward and bring it just close enough for him to reach in again and grab it!  The look on his face of pride and achievement was priceless. I just smiled. He grabbed his ball, crawled away from the chair and continued to play. 

Principle: Trust in the Infant’s Competence