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Some people think that kids develop their cognitive development all on their own. The brain magically figures out that as the child matures, the cognitive aspect will follow and they become successful human beings. And that this is done all on their own.

Vygotsky is here to tell you that this is entirely false.

I thought it would be cool to talk about him this month since February is all about Valentine’s Day and how the people in our lives love us so much that they have contributed to our well-being and development.

So brief history lesson: Vygotsky was a Russian Psychologist who began developing his own theory of how people learned from others in order to enhance their development. Sadly, he died at the age of 37 from tuberculosis in 1934. Not to mention, much of his work was condemned by the Russian Government and was not uncovered until after the Cold War (Gallagher, 1999).

Fortunately, his work is still relevant today.

His work is acknowledged by teachers, child developmental specialists, psychologists, and of course, Child Life.

Here is a couple of key notes to understand what work he contributed for the purpose of child development:

  1. Sociocultural Theory:

“Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals.” (Cherry, 2016)

What does this mean? Adults, including parents, teachers, mentors, as well as older siblings, and peers, all contribute to how the child develops their skills, knowledge, and culture. Individuals involved in the child’s life are significant to their learning process and cognitive development to build how the child can achieve tasks and interpret beliefs independently as a result.

  1. Zone of Proximal Development:

Vygotsky’s definition of this was: “the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.” (Cherry, 2016).

This is a fancy term for basically creating a range between what a child is capable of achieving and where they will probably need guidance in order to meet the next level.

So how does this theorist benefit the Child Life Specialist?

In Child Life, we are not only assessing children where they are at, but where they need to be and where they need to go. We examine what the child is capable of and we determine how interventions are designed to help them meet their developmental goals, regardless of their treatment and care. We are the scaffolding to help the child reach their potential.

How do we achieve this?

We can do this in a variety of ways. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Medical Play and Preparation: We acknowledge what the child and family understand, but also use developmentally appropriate tools to educate them on what they do not know or understand and allow them to explore how different medical concepts work and impact their experience.
  • Developing Skills through Play: Often when working with patients, we help them learn about their development, as well as how they can appropriately respond in the healthcare environment. One example of this is how to design interventions to help a child master their care, such as physical therapy. If a child had treatment on their dominant hand and it has been assessed that the child is ready to being moving their fingers, it is up to the Child Life Specialist to design an activity that encourages the child to advance the fine motor skill development of using their fingers such as through music, art, sensory, or movement therapy so that they can return to their previous mastery of skills that require the use of their fingers and reduce the fear of inability to use their fingers during post-treatment.
  • Helping parents and families actively participate in the child’s learning and healing: Parents and other adult family members still have a significant role of reminding the child what they are capable of following a particular form of care. This can also include helping them continue to learn about their culture, beliefs, and values. For example, Child Life Specialists can help parents explain how to discuss with their child what they are going to be experiencing and how parents can provide emotional support for their child to help them cope and support them beyond discharge.

Vygotsky is still significant for child development and for the Child Life Specialist. Think about all the people who have helped you grow to be the successful person you are. That is Sociocultural Theory right there!

Sources Cited:

Cherry, K. (2016, October, 3). What is sociocultural theory? Retrieved from:

Gallagher, C. (1999). Lee semyonovich vygotsky. Retrieved from: