Child Development Theories: Comparative Analysis

Subject: Psychology
Pages: 9
Words: 2215
Reading time:
8 min
Study level: School


There are various theories that have been advanced by a psychologist on child development, chiefly, the psychoanalytic theories of development, learning theories of development, and the cognitive theories of development (Smith, Cowie and Blades, 2003). The objective of this paper is to take a look at the comparative analysis of theories of child development with a specific interest in the role of the cultural context in child development. The child development theories that will be discussed are Vygotsky Vs Piaget in play and how the two theorists compare play and how they theorize and interpret the play.

Lev’s Vygotsky theory on play

Lev Vygotsky was a lesser-known psychologist who offered some well-thought-out ideas on cognitive development with selective emphasis on the relationship between thoughts and language. (Karpoz, 2005). He laid emphasis on language as a vital symbolic tool used in society and how the social culture factors played a role in contributing to the cognitive development of a child.

Vygotsky held that child development was a construct of culture and interpersonal communication which in turn was facilitated by language. In this case, the child’s environment which is comprised of significant figures like parents, siblings, and other adults influenced considerably the child’s mental development through social interactions. (Karpoz, 2005). According to Vygotsky, a child came to learn about his or her cultural habits and roles through interactions that used symbolic tools such as speech patterns and written language, which in turn helped the child to construct meaning derived from the symbols hence gain knowledge. (Karpoz, 2005, Smith, Cowie and Blades, 2003).

Out of social interactions, the child gained the ‘know how’ or rather, internalized the knowledge hence leading to cognitive development. The child began by internalizing the simple tasks such as riding a bicycle and so on. These concepts although ordinary and unchallenging to an adult were significant achievements to a child’s mind as they included various cognitive coordination and discernment. Therefore, mastery of a skill or a game signified advancement in the mental functioning of the child. This skill acquisition of the tools used by society only took place when the child engaged within play and activity. This means a child used the tool according to how he had internalized it, for his own ends and not the means or rather to uniquely express his own ideas rather than conform to what society had done previously. (Gardner, 1982).

The psychology of play as advanced by Lev. Vygotsky is lesser known as compared to those of prominent psychologists and contributors like Piaget, Bandura, Maria Montessori, and Sigmund Freud. Nonetheless, his theory has had a significant impact on the development of understanding of the child’s social world and the pattern of child development. Most of his work and ideologies have been adopted in various kindergartens and preschools to aid educators in skillful cognitive child development.

Lev Vygotsky felt that child play contributed appreciably to the psychological phenomenon that is child development. (Karpoz, 2005). He was of the opinion that children were able to derive the abstract meaning of the world from the symbols and tools used by society hence grow to higher mental functions of the cognitive domain. (Karpoz, 2005). Thus play a critical feature in facilities this end.

Lev Vygotsky’s theory of play was more like that of psychoanalytic as he also viewed play to have an affective drive behind it. To him play comprised of ‘imaginary illusory realizations of unrealizable desires’. (Smith, Cowie and Blades, 2003, p.231). He felt that play had more to do without building the child’s mastery and confidence and had little to do with specific or sexual impulses. This helped the child discern authority and attitudes in general. (Smith, Cowie and Blades, 2003, p.231). He continues to point out that ‘play is essentially wished fulfillment, not, however, isolated wishes but generalized effects. (Smith, Cowie and Blades, 2003, p.231.).

Play, especially the imaginary and pretentious kind of play that children are fond of engaging in, was a depiction of the child’s liberation from the limitations and constraints imposed by the situation (say the actual object). Imagery during play helped the child develop his own ideas and meanings as to what the actual object could become and not only what it is. Thus, Vygotsky proclaimed that play was ‘the leading source of development in preschool years (Smith, Cowie and Blades, 2003, p.231).

Vygotsky did not discount the fact that learning was achieved through corporation and interaction with significant people around him and also cultural symbols like songs, Art, Metaphors, play, and models. Vygotsky (1981, p. 163) as stated by Smith, Cowie, and blades (2003) stated that ‘social interactions or relations among people genetically underlie all higher functions and higher relationships’p.495.

Of specific interest to Vygotsky was the direct influence of the society’s culture that one lives on the cognitive process. Vygotsky gave an example of a child who wished to ride a horse but could not. In such a scenario, a child who had not gained any cognitive development would become frustrated and angry and thus begin to cry. Mostly, this child would be below the age of three. However, at the age of 3 and above, this child has developed a higher level of mental capability and is able to translate this situation to an imaginary horse and begin to ride it in his own terms. This means the world changes and as he says:

“Henceforth play is such that the explanation for it must always be that it is the imaginary, illusory realization of unrealizable desires. Imagination is a new formation that is not present in the consciousness of the very young child, is totally absent in animals, and represents a specifically human form of conscious activity. Like all functions of consciousness, it originally arises from action.” (Vygotsky, 1978 in Gardner, 1982 p.179).

For example, the child may pressure the parent to buy him a toy horse and ride it just like a real horse. Another scenario would be that the child would pick a stick roll around some material on one end of the stick to resemble ahead, stand astride the model of a horse, and ride. Vygotsky felt that the ideas held by the child and not the object is what helped the child to determine actions and rules of life. This is because to the child it is difficult to draw the meaning of his environment from the object.

Thus, imaginary and play pretend was a critical transactional phase in this direction. This implies that the stick was a pivot for helping the child to discern reality from imagination. If this was successfully passed; then it altered the child’s relationship with the real world.

Over time and after several exposures of the child to numerous pivots (dolls, sticks, toys among others, his/her reliance on such pivots to discern reality from idealism moderated and eventually wore off. (Gardner, 1982). At adolescents these abstracts and imaginations have already been internalized hence they are able to understand the world as it is.

Vygotsky also took another twist into the aspect of play that is the development of social rules through play, for example, the rules regarding roles and social expectations in relating with others. Of importance to note is that these rules normally go unnoticed but come alive in play further increasing the child’s understanding of the rules.

This play is essential in molding a child’s mental process in terms of relating to how others feel or expect from them. Take for example the case of a child participating in a friendly race at school. This activity is basically a play or a game but underlying these games is the rule that they must first line up and want for the instructor to give the signal so that they may start the race. Although the initial impulse that the child has is to run off fast so that he/she can finish the race, the rules are clear and he has to self-regulate this impulse in order to be part of the race. This means the child’s knowledge of the set of laws enfolded in the game as well as they wish to enjoy the game force her/him to comply with the rules. The same applies to other games that children play, for example acting out the roles of their family members and teachers among others. Therefore, in summary, it can be said that play and development of the child go hand in hand and are precepts of the cultural context in which the child exists.

Piaget’s theory of play

Jean Piaget was also a cognitive psychologist who made a significant contribution to the understanding of play and child development. According to him children and adults have different ways of thinking. He was quick to note the crucial role of play in helping children to gain knowledge of the environment and the world around them. He identified that child’s play occurred in different stages or rather there was a developmental sequence in children play namely practice play, symbolic play, and games with rules. (Thomas, 2000). These stages occurred successively and in an overlapping manner

Practice play

At this stage, the game was neither symbolic nor governed by rules and basically was all about sensor motor play. This play developed the child’s motor capabilities. At this stage (birth – 2 years old) the cognitive process of the child is oblivious of ht effect that objects remain in existence even in their absence (object permanence) (Gardner, 1982). Additionally, at this stage, the child experiments on different body sensations, motor movement, and objectives through trial and error and practice the child is able to understand how things work, (Thomas, 2000) for instance, kicking a ball to experience the pleasure of seeing it roll away.

Pretend play

This stage of play is characterized by children playing out the roles of familiar people and also transforming objects into ideas that express their views and feelings of the world around them. They also develop actions plans for instance they say let’s play a game about mummy and daddy. In this case, they have set out an action plan or a theme for the play. It is also in these games that identities orders are assumed as laid out by the culture within which the child is brought up. For instance, they assume stereotyped identities and characters as they have internalized from the greater culture say a nurse is supposed to be kind or dad is supposed to be firm and strict. Importantly, these games are predictable unlike those that are drawn from real experiences. (Smith, Cowie and blades, 2003, p.219).

Games with rules

At about the age of 4 to 5 years, the child has developed symbolic tools and themes of the world and is ready for more engaging and rule-based games. (Karpoz, 2005; Goldstein, 1994; Thomas, 2000) Their ways of thinking are also more socialized and more logical thus they seek interactive play. (Goldstein, 1994) The rules guide behaviors. Mostly, the games are competitive involving two sides that agree on the rules of determining the ultimate winner. (Karpoz, 2005). There is also a sense of negotiation and strategizing on the way to win the game. It is here that relationships with others depending on the similarity of identity are honed. This is because one chooses the sides that they want to compete in. Therefore, these games contribute significantly to developing the child’s intellectual, social, analytical skills in a flexible and motivating kind of way. (Thomas, 2000).

Piaget felt that play was to be made constructive as the child grew older to aid in his development. He postulated that ‘constructive games are not a defined stage like others but occupy a position halfway between play and intelligent work or between play and intimidation.’ (Piaget 1951 quoted in Smith, Cowie and blades, 2003, p.219). His theory was more goal-oriented and accommodative to constructive activities so that play was not only for pleasure but also to aid in child development. (Goldstein, 1994).

Piaget felt that play was manifested in two major processes that are adaptation and assimilation. Piaget notes that children acted out what was already in their schemas or rather, that which was already established behavior during play so that they could assimilate and adapt new concepts to fit the schemas. Piaget related learning more to the accommodation of reality.


The two theories as advanced by Lev. Vygotsky and Jean Piaget agree on one main thing, that is, play is very critical in the child’s development whether at an intellectual, social, or emotional level. They agree that play helps children to make sense of the world around them by applying abstract to already existing schemas to serve to mean. They also agree that symbols and culture determine how a child interprets objects in deriving unique meaning to objects at their disposal, for example, using miniature cars, horse sticks, and so on to create models of reality to the situations they are in. However, Vygotsky does not categories play in any way rather his theory generalizes play. Piaget on the other hand gives a more comprehensive analysis of play categorizing them into distinct stages from the simplest form to the more complicated form. All in all their theories have been very helpful in the understanding of child development.


Gardner J. K. (1982). Readings in Developmental Psychology. Little, Brown.

Goldstein J. H. (1994).Toys, Play, and Child Development. Cambrige: Cambridge University Press.

Karpoz, Y. (2005). The Neo-Vygotskian Approach to Child development. Cambridge University Press.

Smith, P. K. Cowie, H. L. and Blades, M. (2003). Understanding Children’s Development. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Thomas P. G. (2000). Play and Exploration in Children and Animals. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.