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Summary table
Theoretical approach Principles of the theory Theorist


Growth and development occur in orderly stages and sequence. The individual genetic timetable affects rate of maturation.

Arnold Gesell


Behaviour is controlled by unconscious urges. Three components of the mind are id, ego and super ego.

Sigmund Freud


Personality develops in eight stages throughout a lifetime. Development is influenced through interactions with family, friends and culture.

Jean Piaget

Lev Vygotsky


Qualitative changes in the way children think. The child is considered an active learner going through stages.

Erik Erikson


Learning is gradual and continuous. Development is a sequence of specific conditional behaviours. Main emphasis is on the environment, not heredity. Observable behaviours are considered most important.

John Watson

BF Skinner

Albert Bandura


Balance between nature and nurture. Child is placed in the middle of concentric factors which all influence the child. Emphasis is placed both on environment and heredity.

Uri Bronfenbrenner

Information processing theory

We all have an innate learning ability. Children are born with specialised information processing abilities that enable them to figure out structure of development.

Noam Chomsky

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Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999)

Ainsworth supported Bowlby’s concept of a mother-baby attachment process and conducted further research in this area. Ainsworth, through her research looking at the attachment process in both African and American cultures, identified the characteristics of a secure and insecure attachment between mother and baby. In particular, Ainsworth studied the behaviours known as stranger and separation anxiety, which young children experience around eight to 15 months of age. During this time, children become distressed if they are left in the care of strangers or if they are approached by a stranger. In the 1960s, Ainsworth devised a procedure, called A Strange Situation, to observe attachment relationships between a caregiver and child. She developed an experiment to test the quality of the attachment relationship between mothers and their children. The ‘Strange Situation’ will determine whether the infant is securely attached, insecurely attached or avoidant of the parent (Berk 1996).

How do the theories of Bowlby and Ainsworth apply to the care of children?

The work done by Bowlby and Ainsworth on attachment has had a significant effect on the caregiving practices used for infants and toddlers in care. For example, the concept of a primary caregiver for a young child in care is based on the theory of attachment development.

Research in the area of contact between mother and baby immediately after birth had a significant influence on changing birth procedures in maternity hospitals. The introduction of birth centres and ‘rooming-in’ practices (ie the baby staying with the mother after birth instead of being located in a separate nursery) are based on Bowlby’s theories.

Video: Mary Ainsworth: Attachment and the growth of love

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Albert Bandura (1925- )

Albert Bandura, like Skinner and Watson before him, is a behaviourist. They believed that learning is gradual and continuous. Development is a sequence of specific conditional behaviours. The main emphasis is on the environment, not heredity. They considered observable behaviours to be most important. Bandura’s social learning theory focuses on the imitation of behaviours by children. They will imitate their caregivers and peers, thus learning much about our society and how it operates.


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John Bowlby (1907-1990)

John Bowlby was a theorist who examined the attachment relationship between parents and their children. He identified four phases in which attachment develops. He believed that children are born with a variety of behaviours that encourage parents and others to be near to them. These proximity-seeking behaviours include laughing, gurgling and crying. Attachment develops over a period of time and is mainly achieved by the routine caregiving tasks that parents and children are involved in (Berk 1996).

Bowlby was convinced of the importance of the mother-baby bond and he believed that this special bond had a biological basis. Bowlby believed that the baby is born with the need to form this bond and mothers instinctively need to form this bond with their baby.

Bowlby suggested that if mother and child are separated during the bonding process (without the baby receiving good substitute care), the baby-bonding process will be disturbed and there will be long-term negative effects on the child’s emotional development. Bowlby called the bond between mother and baby an attachment relationship.

Video: John Bowlby: attachment theory across generations:

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Urie Bronfenbrenner (1917-2005)

Urie Bronfenbrenner developed the Ecological Systems Theory. He emphasised a balance between nature and nurture, otherwise known as heredity and environment. To illustrate his theory, the child is placed in the middle of concentric circles surrounded by a variety of different factors which all influence the child. The four sections are referred to as the:

  1. Microsystem – in this system are the child’s immediate family and surroundings

  2. Mesosystem – the broader surroundings and influences on the child’s development. This system includes the preschool, doctor's surgery and other influences on the child’s and family’s life.

  3. Exosystem – a broader circle of people who indirectly influence the child. Things in the exosystem include the parent’s workplace, the services available to the family and the support networks they are involved in.

  4. Macrosystem – this is an even broader system that includes the values, customs and attitudes of the cultural group the child belongs to (Berk 1996).

Brofenbrenner sees the world in which the child grows as having a major influence on development. He describes this as a two-way influence. The personality and behaviour of the child will influence the way people in the environment will interact with that child. He also believes that the interactions between environmental factors could affect the child’s development. For instance, it is not just the influence of the parents on the child or the childcare centre on the child but the way the parents and childcare centre staff get on. This process of interacting influences is known as reciprocal interaction.

Brofenbrenner recently modified his theory and acknowledged that the child’s biological hereditary make-up combines with environmental forces to mould development.

How does Brofenbrenner’s theory apply to the care of children?

Brofenbrenner’s theory helps us understand the importance of fostering positive relationships with children and their families. The way we interact with and support those families will affect their children’s development. It also heightens our awareness to ensure that we present programs within our service that reflect the needs and expectations of the society, culture and community in which our children live.

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Jerome Bruner (1915 - )

Jerome Bruner emphasised the connection between language and thought. He saw children as an active participant in making sense of their world. Like Vygotsky, he sees cognitive development to be a social process. Discovery learning where the environment provides the answers but the child makes the connections is promoted by Bruner. He, like Vygotsky, uses the term scaffolding to describe the role of others in fostering a child’s social development (Nixon and Aldwinckle, 2003).

Information processing theory sees the mind’s structure as similar to a computer, with information going in through the senses, being processed, and memory skills being used to decide if the material is retained or lost.

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Noam Chomsky (1928- )

Noam Chomsky developed the Nativist approach. Proponents of this approach believe that we have an inbuilt ‘language acquisition device’ (LAD) which is ‘wired’ to help us learn language. Once we begin to hear language around us, we are ‘programmed to understand the structure of that language’ (Nixon and Gould 1999). The link between human innate aptitude to language and heredity has been at the core of the debate opposing Noam Chomsky to Jean Piaget .

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John Dewey (1859–1952)

Dewey believed that change brings new opportunities and that we need to embrace these and think of new ways to help our children become socially responsible people rather than cling to the past and parent/educate using older methods. There is a need to move with the times – changes within our world are vast and rapid and we need to adapt our ways to meet them.

His theory saw education as child-centred, active and interactive and that it should involve the child’s social world and the community. He believed that children need to interact with other people, work both alone and cooperatively with their peers and adults. Education should also reflect the child’s interests and backgrounds and that their social and cultural worlds are important. Dewey saw learning as life long and that educators need to not only teach skills and knowledge but also help children to live and exist in our society.

Educators need to observe children to determine the experiences children are interested in and are ready for. Educators need to be able to guide children’s learning, engage their minds, and work collaboratively with children and not just instruct. Curriculum needs to be purposeful and assist children to make sense of the world.

It’s hard to believe that his theory and beliefs were written during the early to mid 1900’s, as they are so reflective of what’s happening in early childhood education today.


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Erik Erikson (1902–1994)

Erik Erikson built upon Freud’s work. He identified eight separate stages across the lifespan. He believed that in each stage we face a crisis that needs to be resolved in order for us to develop socially and emotionally. Each stage has a positive or negative outcome, though we tend not to be at either end of the spectrum. The outcome of the stage is determined by our environment and the caregiving strategies or experiences to which we are exposed.

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Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

Behaviour is controlled by unconscious urges. Three components of the miond are id, ego and super ego.

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Howard Gardner (1943 - )

Howard Gardner proposed a theory of multiple intelligences that suggests there is more than one intelligence – in fact there are 8 and possibly 9 as he is currently exploring Existentialist Intelligence.

He considers children and adults to be individuals who all have skills and areas that we enjoy and excel at and that these fit into our major intelligence. For example, a child who is a capable sportsman and able to problem solve how to fit his/her body into small spaces to complete an obstacle course but struggles to complete other problem solving experiences, is more likely to fit into the Bodily-Kinaesthetic intelligence. This doesn’t mean the child is unable to solve problems but is more likely to be successful when the problem or challenge relates or the solution relates to using the body.

When you are good at a task, you enjoy completing that task or similar tasks and so are more likely to continue to develop and build on your skills in that area and become even better. A child, who has reasonable skills playing video games and really enjoys playing them, will continue to spend time playing these games. With practice the child’s skills will continue to improve, the child will move onto more complex games and while enjoying these games and continuing to experience success at completing them and moving to new levels the child’s confidence and competence continues to grow.

Early childhood education should not be ‘one-size fits all’. Not all children are academic but all children have the ability to learn, be successful and to teach others in their area of intelligence. As educators we need to provide learning opportunities for children that reflect their ‘intelligence’ and learning style. Knowledgeable and skilled educators should be able to assist children to transfer skills they have learn and developed into other areas.

Gardner saw the arts and creativity as playing major roles in children’s learning. Children are able to explore many cognitive concepts through their play and creative explorations.

Gardner believed that children themselves were powerful teachers and that learning occurs in social settings and contexts. Instead of educators being the sole facilitator of learning, he saw children as ‘peer mentors’ assisting each other to learn and develop skills.

Services that follow Gardner’s beliefs would provide children with a wide range of learning opportunities, the skills educators are assisting children to develop would be presented in a range of ways to reflect the varying intelligences and learning styles of the children, children would be encouraged to assist and show their peers how to complete tasks, children would be encouraged to be creative and learning would take place in small groups.

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Arnold Gesell (1880-1961)

Arnold Gesell was an early American child development theorist who gathered normative data on a range of children and made this information accessible to the general public. Gesell firmly believed that each child’s development unfolded according to a genetic timetable. He developed a timetable of developmental events which we still use today.

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Lawrence Kohlberg (1927– 987)

Kohlberg is best known for his influential work in moral development. He based much of his work on the theories of Jean Piaget studies on the cognitive development of children. He proposed three levels of moral reasoning:

  • Level 1 — pre-conventional: children’s decisions are based on avoiding punishment and receiving rewards

  • Level 2 — convention: upholding the rules of society

  • Level 3 — post-conventional: individuals follow universal moral principles that may be more important and a particular group or country

W.C. Crain (1985) Theories of Development. Prentice-Hall. pp. 118-136. Chapter 7: Kohlberg’s stages of moral development

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Mildred Parten (1916–2009)

An early theorist who focused on social play and its development is Mildred Parten, who observed children in the first half of the 20th century.

The ability to join groups of other children and the desire to do so begins at an early age and progresses through a developmental sequence. Parten focused on the different types of social play. In her research she discovered that children of different ages actually played together differently. They were capable of different levels or categories of social play. Her categories of social play are still a useful tool to help focus us on how social play changes and develops at different stages of our lives.

Remember that the stages identified by Parten are not always followed in a linear fashion by all children—in other words, a child may not progress directly from one stage to another. You might also find that a child will often engage in different stages of social play depending on factors such as the child’s familiarity with either the situation or their ‘playmates’ or the child’s temperament.

Parten’s stages

photo of baby sitting and staring

Unoccupied play

Generally the very young infant will engage in this type of play. They tend to be looking at their hands or other body parts or cooing to themselves. They do not seek contact with others or appear to have a purpose.

photo baby playing by itself

Solitary play

Usually seen during infancy. Infants tend to play by themselves totally unaware of others around them. They will move quite quickly from one activity to another. Children under two years of age may show only fleeting interest in those around them. However children will engage in solitary play at all ages. The main characteristic of this form of play is its intense egocentricity (children are unaware of others around, but will be intensely engrossed in their own play). Again, you are likely to see toddlers involved in solitary play.

photo of small boy watching others as they play witha carer

Onlooker play

This can occur across many stages of development, but is most commonly associated with infants and toddlers who lack the skills to physically or socially join in. Evidence of onlooker play is seen when children are near a group of other children and are often following the actions or copying what is happening in the play. The children, however, do not usually want to participate or are waiting for someone to aid their participation.

photo of children playing in a sandpit

Parallel play

Parallel play: This type of play is also common in the toddler years and into the early preschool years. Children will now tolerate other children standing near them when playing and using the same equipment. However, they are only concerned with what they are doing and have few meaningful interactions.

photo of children playing dressups

Associative play

This is first seen usually in the early preschool years. Children will begin to play and talk with each other in dramatic play situations where roles may be taken on. However, these roles are usually not sustained for any length of time. There doesn’t seem to be a common purpose to the play.

photo of children holding handsa and running

Cooperative play

Cooperative play occurs in the later preschool years. Children are able to take on roles and sustain them for the duration of the play. The group of children have agreed upon goals and roles for the play. In this stage of play, leaders and followers emerge within groups. Roles are delegated and tasks distributed within the group. There is a common goal and children will play together in a more complex way.

photo of young boy playing football

Competitive play

This stage usually emerges in the school-aged group when achievement, completing tasks and producing an ‘end-product’ becomes more meaningful. Competitive lay is inevitable but should be played down by carers as too much emphasis on competition can be destructive to peer relationships and children’s self-esteem. Instead there should be an emphasis on collaboration.

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Maria Montessori

Maria Montessori has had a huge influence on early childhood practices over the last century and educators still use methods and tools developed by her.

Montessori was the first female physician in Italy and spent the early part of her career working with children who were mentally handicapped where she realized that the children needed stimulation and activity. She then worked with children from Italy’s working class in Rome around 1907, whilst their parents were at work. While working in this setting she expanded the idea of learning and education coming from careful observation and experimentation. Many of the discoveries she made during this time have influenced early childhood practices and education.

Montessori also developed some specific materials for developing basic concepts to do with colour, size, texture, temperature and weight. Many stacking, sorting and nesting toys found in centres reflect her apparatus.

If you find Montessori fascinating there are many sites and articles to be found using a variety of search engines or online encyclopedias, such as Wikipedia -

Services that follow the beliefs of Montessori will ensure that there are blocks of uninterrupted time for playing, exploring and using materials and equipment, hands on learning opportunities, the program and environment will be ordered and children will have the opportunity to be involved in the routine life of the service including meal preparation and cleaning.

The Montessori Method:

The Montessori Foundation: – go to questions and answers

Montessori Connections:

Association Montessori Internationale:

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Jean Piaget (1896-1980)

A Swiss theorist who has had a great influence on the way we understand children.

Piaget believed that children’s thinking passed through four separate stages and changed qualitatively in each of these stages. He emphasised the importance of maturation and the provision of a stimulating environment for children to explore. He believed children were active learners. Piaget’s stages are:

  • Sensori-motor stage – Birth to two years. This stage consists of six substages that also show significant gains in the child’s thinking as they progress through infancy. Children are using their physical or motor skills and their senses to explore their world and develop their cognitive understandings.

  • Pre-operational stage – Two to seven years. In this stage children are less reliant upon senses and physical exploration and according to Piaget are ‘illogical’ thinkers. During this stage even though someone has shown them that two balls of dough exactly the same size and got them to agree that the balls are the same size, when one is flattened, children will usually tell you that one of them is now bigger. This inability to conserve is a feature of the preoperational stage.

  • Concrete operations – Seven to twelve years. In this stage which aligns with middle childhood, children are beginning to be able to demonstrate much more logical thinking. They do though need concrete materials to help them reach the correct conclusions. Thus in this stage you will see children working on mathematical problems but using blocks or counters or even their fingers to help them work out the answer.

  • Formal operation – 12 years on. This final stage encompasses the rest of our lives. Piaget believed that once we reached twelve we were capable of much more abstract thinking and able to solve problems in our ‘heads’. We can deal with much more complex issues.

Piaget explained children’s development in terms of their cognitive development. Piaget believed that children think differently from adults. According to Piaget, their development is largely due to maturation of the brain and nervous system and active exploration of the environment.

Piaget proposed that the following principles underpin all cognitive development.

  • The child is an active learner.

  • The child must be given opportunities to explore, discover and experiment.

Children don’t think the same way as adults. This is not because children know less than adults but because their thinking processes are different. That is, infants, toddlers, preschoolers and school-aged children have different thinking strategies and have quite different ways of problem-solving and exploring the environment.

All children pass through the same stages of cognitive development and in the same order. The rate of progression through the stages is different for each child.

Children’s cognitive development is influenced by heredity, the experiences the child has, and the quality of adult guidance they have.

However, Piaget believed that children’s cognitive processes can only advance as they mature. It simply isn’t possible for children to perform complex, abstract thought at an early age. Brain research and the success of approaches such as Reggio Emilia, emergent curriculum and the project approach are showing that this isn’t always the case. Young children can perform complex, cognitive processes and their approaches support this understanding and foster opportunities for this to happen.

How does Piaget’s theory apply to the care of children?

If we understand how children think and learn, we can provide a stimulating environment that will support their learning. This will involve a good range of experiences and a free-choice approach so that each child will be able to follow their own interests at the level they are ready for. Using Piaget’s theory, the carer’s role is to provide stimulation and to observe carefully to see when to step in and interact or change experiences.

Piaget has been, and continues to be, an important influence on how we think about children's thinking skills. He was important because he saw children as active participants in their own learning. Lev Vygotsky also saw children's thinking developing in stages, but he emphasised the social and cultural influences on a child's learning.

Jean Piaget categories of play

Sensori motor play

Here an infant up to two years of age will use various senses and motor skills to explore objects and their environment.

Symbolic play

In this type of play, symbols are much more evident. Children can pretend that one object is another, the cubby house becomes a rocket. This type of play is usually seen during Piaget’s preoperational stage.

Games with rules

In this stage, children are able to follow rules of games, changing their understanding of the purpose of rules as they get older. Children in the concrete operations stage are usually also in this play stage (Nixon and Gould 1999).

Note that Piaget did not tend to see play as learning through the accommodation of new information, but rather the assimilation of new materials into existing cognitive structures. It is relaxed practice time rather than the challenging learning time for taking in completely new information.

Piaget, along with socio-emotional theorists such as Erikson, believed that children could use play to act out unpleasant experiences or experiences where they had very little power.

This explains why children entering school play teachers over and over again with younger children, acting out teachers who are ferocious in their ability to order and command. The child can imagine themselves in the position of power and this helps them to deal with being powerless. This is also common with children witnessing or involved in violent households.

Piaget believed that children learn through play and hands on, concrete experiences. Emergent curriculum, developmentally appropriate practice, the project approach and even the Reggio Emilia approach all have this need for children to play, touch and learn through real experiences within the foundations of the program.

Jean Piaget has been a significant influence on early childhood education and care. Think back to your earlier child development topics where you will have explored his theories in detail. He believed that children learn through play and that development, skills and knowledge occur in a particular pre-ordained manner. Children move through the developmental stages at a set rate and cannot skip stages.

Piaget also saw children as theorists – continually taking on board information, applying it to their situation and then adapting it in light of new information they had gained. This was his process of assimilation and accommodation.

Piaget believed that children needed to have hands on, concrete experiences before they could progress to higher level or abstract thinking and that children learnt about the world and their place in it by exploring and acting on their environment. The phrase ‘play is a child’s work’ is often attributed to him.

For more information on Piaget try these websites:

Jean Piaget video:


Jean Piaget Society:

Interesting experiment with children: Piaget also on Youtube:

Comments on Vygotsky by Jean Piaget:

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Kenneth H. Rubin

Kenneth H. Rubin and his associates have been working since the mid-1970’s studying the development of children’s social, dramatic and cognitive play. Their studies have been successful in combining both the Parten and Smilansky categories in observing the relationship between social and cognitive play.

The results of Rubin’s and his associates studies have done much to clarify the developmental levels of children’s play in light of our knowledge about children. They also have identified ‘how’ children play and how it correlates with Parten’s Stages of Social Play. The stages of the theory are briefly outlined in the following table:

Rubin’s stages of dramatic and imaginative play

Solitary Play Parallel Play Group Play
Functional Play

Child plays by self with or without objects

Child plays parallel to others with or without objects

Child plays with a group with or without objects

Constructive Play

Child plays by self constructing or creating something

Child plays parallel to others constructing or creating something

Child plays with a group constructing or creating something

Dramatic Play

Child plays by self in pretending-type activity

Child plays parallel to others in pretending-type activity

Child plays with a group in pretending-type activity

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Jerome Singer (1924 - )

This theory highlights the importance of children’s imagination and curiosity can be developed through dramatic and socio dramatic play.

“…describe the ability to engage in make-believe play as essential to children’s developing ability for internal imagery, stimulating curiosity, and experimenting with alternative responses to different situations. This capacity, practiced in play settings, enhances children’s ability to engage successfully in new situations” (Isenberg & Jalongo, 2001, p. 68).

Singer also found that the development and demonstration of a young child’s imagination can also be influenced by a range of environmental facets. These include:

  • the development of a child’s language development

  • the young child’s family situation

  • exposure to stressful situations

  • opportunity to role play and immerse themselves in make believe and dramatic play

  • the development of a child’s cognitive skills

  • the development of the physical skills

  • the development of the social, emotional and moral skills

  • the play environment

  • opportunities for different types of play and play experiences

  • the human environment such as: the adults

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Sara Smilansky (1922 - )

Smilansky developed three stages of play. She initially based her work on Piaget’s work but expanded and developed these theories to:

  • functional play

  • constructive play

  • dramatic play

Smilansky’s stages of play

baby sucking plastic rings

Functional play – This occurs in the first two years of life. Infants are involved in exploring objects using their body (sucking and touching) and progressing to other physical activities such as throwing.

E:\Documents and Settings\rfourikis\Desktop\theorists\graphics\2004_183_342.jpg

Constructive play – This occurs when children begin to manipulate materials to create objects and patterns. They may not be representational initially but are the child’s attempts at working with the materials to produce an effect.

photo of children playing in a Japanese restaurant set up

Dramatic play – Here children are imitating the world around them through their role play. This leads to cooperative dramatic play around agreed-upon themes (Nixon and Gould 1999).

Look at the description of Smilansky's functional play. When babies throw their toys over the side of the cot time after time, or bang their spoon on the table for hours, would you normally recognise this as play? Older children and adults also use functional play when faced with new or different objects to explore. Once the new objects are mastered, such as the workings of a new music machine, the 'real' play can begin. Symbolic play is when the child can use objects to symbolise other objects, and follows on from the earlier functional play. This stage goes together with the beginnings of speech, another important use of symbols in the development of thinking. The emergence of imagination and speech in the toddler years heralds an important time of growth in children's thinking skills.

Simlansky’s characteristics of dramatic and sociodramatic play
Play Behaviour Characteristics Examples Levels/Ages

Imitative Role Play

Child assumes a make-believe role of a person or object and expresses it in imitation and/or verbalisation

Child places doll over shoulder and pats the back (burbing)

Beginning: Role relates to the familiar world (e.g. mommy, daddy, bubba)

Advanced: role relates to world outsode the family (e.g. doctor, teacher)

Make-believe with regard to objects

Child substitutes movements, verbal declarations, and/or materials or toys that are not replicas of the object itself or real objects

Uses spoon as a phone. Places plastic plates and cups in swing and pushes it back and forth.

Beginning: Real objects or replicas used (e.g. real toy car)

Advanced: uses prop as part of play scenario (e.g. uses tea towel as wrap for the doll)

Verbal make believe with regard to actions and situations

Child substitutes descriptions or declarations for actions and situations

Uses blocks to build a house and says “this is where Mummy and Bubba live”

Beginning: imitates simple actions of adult (e.g. grabs a kitchen sponge from the cupboard and begins to wipe the furniture)

Advanced: child’s actions are integral to the play episode (e.g. “I’m cleaning so sissy can play”

Persistence in role play

Child stays within a role of play theme for at least 10 minutes

Plays role of mother, father and daughter within a family play theme for 10 minutes

Beginning: short, sporadic involvement (e.g. chid enters area, picks up the doll and leaves)

Advanced: child stays involved in area and the theme for more than 10 minutes


At least 2 players interact within the context of a play episode

Preschoolers building a castle from blocks and wooden people. Sharing the equipment and discussing where specific people should be situated.

Beginning: plays alone with no obvious awareness of others nearby

Advanced: Cooperative effort to work together around a common theme

Verbal Communication

There is some verbal interaction related to the play episode

Older preschoolers playing in the dramatic play area, discussing how to redesign the bed and dolls cot to accommodate the arrival of “Nanny and Poppy”.

Beginning: Simple dialogue around the use of toys (e.g. “there, there sissy”)

Advanced: Dialogue about the roles, props, plot of play scenario

This table is adapted from Smilansky (1968) & Dodge and Colker (1992) citied in Isenberg and Jalongo (2001, p.75)

These categories are generally viewed as age-related with functional play appearing first in infancy and games with rules appearing last around age six or seven. Smilansky’s work highlights the importance of considering cognitive development (particularly the inspirational work of Jean Piaget) when we look at the levels of play.

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Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934)

We have only learnt much about Vygotsky (1896-1934), a Russian theorist who died in 1934, since the 1990’s. Vygotsky developed his theories around the same time as Jean Piaget but the main difference was that Vygotsky emphasised the importance of relationships and interactions between children and more knowledgable peers and adults. He believed that children’s cognitive understandings were enriched and deepened when they were ‘scaffolded’ by parent, teachers or peers (Berk 1996).

Unlike Piaget, Vygotsky did not see the child as a solitary discoverer of knowledge, but saw the child learning within social interactions with others. Social interactions involve communicating, so Vygotsky also emphasised the role of language in the development of the child's thinking processes.

Like Piaget, Vygotsky saw children as active partners in their own learning, with this participation growing as their ability to interact with others develops. Vygotsky therefore emphasised the importance of language development, learning and teaching to the child's cognitive development.

Vygotsky believed that thinking in concepts was not possible without verbal thinking. While thinking and language initially develop independently, they are merged once language is developed to create verbal thought. Speech and thought changes over time and becomes more internalised.

Vygotsky sees the adult as vital to the process of 'scaffolding' the child's behaviour. When you scaffold a building you support it structurally while internal developments occur. It is a common sight on building sites. We scaffold children's development almost without thinking. Consider this example:

Bonnie is completing a three-piece puzzle with knobs on top. She has the last piece over the space, but it is upside down. She pushes harder. Her caregiver says 'Try turning it, Bonnie', but Bonnie looks confused. The caregiver puts her hand over Bonnie's, and turns the piece slightly, saying 'See, Bonnie? Turn it'.

Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development

Vygotsky also sees the child's ability to think logically as developing in stages. He has outline four different stages of conceptual development. They are:

Vygotsky’s four different stages of conceptual development
Stage Characteristics

1. Thinking in unordered heaps

Preschool stage of development

Beginnings of conceptual thought

Children use trial and error

Children use problems solving techniques

Three subphases

2. Thinking in complex stage

Children begin to make connections between objects, but not in a consistent manner·

Five subphases

3. Thinking in concepts stage

Children are able to think in more abstract concepts and make associations

Cannot see two associations simulatiously

4. Thinking in true concepts stage

Mature thinking

Manipulate a number of abstract concepts

Adapted from Nixon and Aldwinckle (2003)

While Piaget did not feel there was any use in presenting materials and problems to children which were beyond their developmental capacity, Vygotsky saw an important role for adults in extending children's learning beyond what they were capable of independently. Vygotsky used the term 'Zone of Proximal Development' to describe the extension of skills a child is capable of with adult help.

Picture a toddler who has a large knob puzzle with a simple bear shape. The toddler tries to put the teddy in the hole, but has it upside down. He tries to get it in, cannot and moves away. This child, operating independently is unable to complete the puzzle. Along comes a caregiver, who reengages the toddler with the puzzle and says, ‘look, here is his ears, see here is the space for the ears.’ The caregiver then puts the teddy bear right way up and just to the side of the hole. The toddler slips the puzzle into place. Now the toddler is capable of doing the puzzle. By careful scaffolding the child’s zone of proximal development has been expanded.

Vygotsky saw play as much more significant than Piaget. He saw it as crucial to learning in the preschool period, particularly imaginative play. Vygotsky saw play as a major contributor to the development of the zone of proximal development—if children can imagine themselves doing something, they are closer to doing it.

How does Vygotsky’s theory apply to the care of children?

Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development means that children learn with the guidance and assistance of those in their environment. Sensitive carers in the child’s world will know that children will need assistance and will know when to step in and guide the child to support them in the learning process. Children need interactions on a one-to-one basis and these conversations will assist their learning.

Socio-cultural theory of cognitive development

Vygotsky’s theory is called a socio-cultural theory of cognitive development. He believed that children, in different cultures, learn ways of thinking that are necessary to live in their own culture and community. Children in different cultures develop unique cognitive strengths. He saw that social interaction and language had a major influence on the development of children’s thinking.

In his theory, Vygotsky placed great importance on the role of significant adults, teachers and peers, and talked about the importance of the influences of a given culture in supporting children in their development. In other words, the people in the child’s world support and extend the child’s thinking as he or she works through a problem.

Think of one child helping another child to complete a new puzzle or a mother teaching her child how to cross the road. Through these social interactions, there is discussion, instruction and demonstration from those in their environment to help the child learn a new skill.

He believed that children only learnt through themselves and needed the adult and other children to further develop their skills and acquire their knowledge. The environment plays an important role in the child’s development, particularly in terms of the social aspects. He focused on the notion that children internalised feelings, emotions and ideas and language was a ‘key factor in the development of concepts’.

Vygotsky saw language as an integral part of the development of cognitive skills. As the child acquires language, she or he is able to talk through a particular problem. We sometimes do this as adults when confronted with a new task (the most recent one for me was setting up my computer: ‘This plug goes there, so where does this one go…’, etc, until finally all the connections meant that my computer was up and running).

Vygotsky on language

Vygotsky identified four different stages of speech development.

  1. Primitive speech stage is demonstrated through the first two years of life. During this stage the child is beginning to learn to speak, mainly imitating words and naming objects or responding emotionally (crying) or socially (laughing).

  2. Naive psychological stage is the next stage which usually lasts until four years of age. During this stage the child is beginning to realise that words are symbols for objects. They have a great curiousity as to what objects are called.

  3. Egocentric or private speech stage is seen between the ages of four and seven. During this stage we often see children talking aloud to themselves as they perform tasks or solve problems. This ‘private speech’ is the child’s demonstration of their thinking.

  4. Ingrowth or inner speech stage is seen from eight years on. During this stage children’s private speech declines and becomes much more internalised. They solve problems ‘in their head’ or using inner speech; however, you will still hear people using private speech when faced with unusual or complex problems (Nixon and Aldwinckle 2003).

Vygotsky’s influence on the curriculum

Vygotsky believed that social interaction influenced cognitive development. He did not divide development into stages as he believed that learning and development is a life long process that begins at birth and continues until death and is far too complex to split into stages.

His sociocultural theory focused on the connections between people and the cultural context they interact in and share experiences. The child’s development is guided by social interaction and their cultural context. Vygotsky believed that tools such as reading and writing are developed within cultures to communicate with others and that initially children use these predominately for communication but the use and internalization of these tools lead to higher level thinking skills. He believed that thought and language does not exist or function without each other.

Vygotsky proposed the Zone of Proximal Development – the gap between what children can learn unassisted and what children can learn when guided by an adult or a more capable peer. Educators need to have a thorough knowledge of each child. We need to be able to see when a child is becoming frustrated and would be able to gain the concept or skill if guided by the educator, thus scaffolding their learning.

If you subscribe to the beliefs and theories of Vygotsky then your program will have numerous opportunities for children to work together in a social setting, the relationships between children and children and children and adults will be important and your setting will concentrate on providing areas where children can work together in groups.

Video: Vygotsky’s developmental theory: an introduction:

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Watson John B (1787-1958)

Established the psychological school of behaviourism


Berk L (1996) Infants and children: prenatal through middle childhood. 2nd ed. Allyn and Bacon, Boston. (There is a 4th ed., 2002)

Isenberg Joan Packer, Jalongo Mary Renck (2001) Creative Expression and Play in Early Childhood 3rd ed. Merrill Prentice Hall, Ohio.

Nixon D, Aldwinckle M (2003) Exploring: Child Development from three to six years 2nd ed. Social Science Press, Katoomba.

Nixon D, Gould K (1999) Emerging: Child development in the first three years. 2nd ed. Social Science Press, Katoomba.

Child development theorists From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

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