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[Xmca-l] Play Hath Yet Its Toil

One of my graduate students found this editorial by David Kohn in the New
York Times and we have been discussing it:


As you can see, a lot of the article is written in a tone Halliday would
call "childist": that is, there is the assumption that spontaneous,
naturalistic activities on the part of the child are inherently and
intrinsically developmental, and that activities which are involve doing
this that children do not spontaneously do themselves are inherently and
intrinsically anti-developmental. It's very easy to write this way, and
it's a crowd-pleaser.

But it is the opposite of what Vygotsky writes. Yesterday we were puzzling
over the last part of "Problem of Age", where Vygotsky marshalls three
arguments, not against "The Younger the Better" but rather against the idea
that higher cognitive functions must develop along the lines of "The Older
the Better".

First of all, the higher functions are always built WITH and not ON the
lower ones. So for example in language learning the child doesn't learn
vowels and consonants first and then go on to learn nouns and verbs next
and top it all off with sentences and paragraphs. No, the child must learn
all of them at the same time: as Saussure says, thinking and speech are
BOTH disorganized, but in their mutual decomposition they organize each

Secondly, even at preschool level, teachers understand that children learn
best when they are learning what they do not know how to do and not what
they already know how to do. So for example even the teachers who use Eric
Carle books to teach English to elementary school kids in Korea understand
perfectly well that they are not teaching the children anything they don't
know about colors or animals; they argue that they are teaching new foreign
language vocabulary and grammar (the problem is that they are NOT teaching
new word meanings!)

Thirdly, and I think most germane to Kohn's article, Vygotsky argues that
neoformations are the consequence of lines of development and not their
cause: new functions are built, not on development, but on developING. I
don't think this invalidates what Kohn says--it actually gives it a
scientific rather than simply a rhetorical basis. Truly developed play
(e.g. rule based play with winners and losers) only emerges at the END of
preschool. But for that very reason it is not the activity on which we want
to build the child's primary school curriculum. (And...from the child's
point of view...the intense competiveness we sometimes see in academic work
is actually a realization of the attempt to build a primary school
curriculum on this form of play!)

As Tennyson could have said but did not: Preschool hath yet its toil and
its honor.

David Kellogg

PS: I have some good news. Two of our Vygotsky books, the second volume of
HDHMF and the first volume of the Pedological Lectures, won the 2015 prize
for the top one hundred academic books in Korea.