Vygotsky in the Play-school ...

Updated: Aug 23, 2021

I started my journey as a pre-nursery assistant teacher in a playschool. In my initial days, of Pre-school teaching I was not sure how the little ones would accept me. But as days passed, I realized slowly and gradually they started accepting me as a storyteller, caregiver, comforter, playmate, rescuer, and teacher.

My experience while handling a class full of pre-school children reminds me of an incident of a young boy who was afraid of taking slides during free outdoor playtime. When other pre-nursery children automatically went into exciting mode even by the mere thought of the slide, this three-and-a-half-year-old boy showed no such excitement even standing in front of the slide. I was quite surprised. I shared my observation with the class teacher, but it seemed she already knew it and she had accepted it gladly without much hesitation. I was curious. I wanted to understand the reason behind this behavior. I asked his mother about his discomfort. She denied. I kept thinking ... Is he afraid of heights? Has he had a bad experience related to slides? Is he afraid of stairs? Did somebody push him while sliding and he got hurt?

To get my answers I chose the easiest path to hold his hand and gently pulled him towards the slide. He resisted and was about to cry. I stopped. I sat down, looked at his watery eyes, and asked “don’t you like a slide?” He said nothing. He kept looking at other children who were laughing and pushing and shouting while sliding. I stopped insisting. I stood beside him and tried to understand his thoughts by his facial expressions. He seemed happy. He kept smiling when he saw others. I kept narrating “see how Ayu is coming down in the slide.. whoosh....., oh! Look Anita is peeping from that hole, do you want to say hi to her? ....”

Next few days, I let him enjoy the way he wanted to enjoy, standing and watching others going up and down on the slides. I observed that he gradually started moving towards the slide. He started clapping and jumping by seeing others. One such day, again I held his hand gently and asked “let’s go up one stair and come back.” Then two and three and four ... and finally we reached the top. He stood there and looked down. He looked happy.

That day, I didn’t insist further. I knew he was not prepared for that day. We both came down the stairs. I was relieved. Again he wanted to go up. He held my hand and pulled. But, this time, I said to him very politely “ yes, you wanted to go up. That’s wonderful. This time I am standing beside the slide, holding the slide, so that you don’t fall down. You will feel safe”. He understood and went up all by himself. He was so excited and happy! And then, came the “D-day” he came down on the slide and went up again. Finally, he overcame his discomfort. In the process, he started to communicate with his peers as well, which was not there before, and started enjoying his outdoor playtime.

This incident made me realize the true application of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), proposed by the Russian educationalist and psychologist Lev Vygotsky. ZPD is defined by the gap between the most difficult task that a child can do without help and what he can do with help. Well, it might sound very normal and self-explanatory, but the process in which it works is not that trivial. Teachers as well as parents and other caregivers need to understand the concept and try to implement it carefully. This use of ZPD defines the ‘teachability’ of the child in a specific activity or in problem-solving. If an activity or problem can be accomplished by the child with the help of more capable others, this activity or skill is considered possible to teach the child. If, however, the activity or skill cannot be accomplished by the child with the help of more capable others, it is considered not useful for the child, at that moment.

Observation is the key factor. Early Childhood Educators must understand that “one size doesn’t fit all”. Every child is different and so are their processing abilities. Vygotsky placed a huge emphasis on the importance of observation. Careful watching and listening to the children help the kindergarten teachers to know what is within a child’s ZPD at any time and plan their curriculum accordingly. In the above case, sliding was under this child’s ZPD. But, with careful and timely intervention, the journey turned out to be smooth rather than bumpy.

Vygotsky’s theory focuses on a child’s skills not yet experienced but can acquire while interacting with peers and teachers. This will help to extend their knowledge by stretching their competence, keeping in mind their individuality. As Carol Garhart Mooney rightly pointed out in her book “Theories of Childhood” that “the combination of instructing the child and honoring the child’s individual development optimizes learning”.

Purna Mukherjee,

Academic Coordinator Alpine First Step Preschool, Greater Noida.

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