Vygotsky and Creativity

A Cultural-historical Approach to Play, Meaning Making, and the Arts, Second Edition

by M. Cathrene Connery (Volume editor) Vera P. John-Steiner (Volume editor) Ana Marjanovic-Shane (Volume editor)
Textbook XII, 342 Pages

Table Of Content

← viii | ix →


Figures and Table


Figure 8.1.Momma in Curlers (Courtesy of the artist)
Figure 8.2.Synthesis (Courtesy of the artist)
Figure 8.3.Playground of the Heart (Courtesy of the artist)
Figure 8.4.American Pie (Courtesy of the artist)
Figure 9.1.Finding a Personal Dance (Courtesy of Markus Dennig)
Figure 9.2.Improvisation and Play (Courtesy of Markus Dennig)
Figure 10.1.Peta’s Mask (Courtesy of the artist)
Figure 10.2.Dirk and Rita’s Interpretive Drawing (Courtesy of the artists & their parents)
Figure 10.3.Rick’s Architectural Drawing (Courtesy of the artist & his parents)
Figure 12.1.After Pointing at Michael, Milo (Center) Points at Himself (Courtesy of Fifth Dimension)
Figure 12.2.Milo (at Right) Mirrors the White Witch’s Hands and Arms, Extending His Own Upward (Courtesy of Fifth Dimension)
Figure 13.1.The Word Web Spider (Courtesy of Sherelle Patisaul)


Table 15.1.Eight Synergists Important for Healthy Development and Creativity ← ix | x →

← x | xi →



The succesful creation of any book requires multiple forms of expertise, talent, and commitment. We are deeply grateful to the many individuals who joined our dance to share essential gifts that brought this work into existence. Our profound appreciation is extended to the following people: Greg Goodman, our kind, patient, and wise editor; the talented production crew at Peter Lang; and our extraordinary colleagues and friends, Valerie Clement and Bonita Ferguson. We also wish to acknowledge the creative collaboration we have experienced working together as a source of inspiration, growth, compassion, and development. We are grateful to have had the opportunity to truly engage in the creative process over many years, elaborating our thinking, cheering each other on, providing encouragement, and nurturing confidence and trust.

Sadly, as this new edition was being birthed, our mentor, collaborator, colleague, and dear friend, Dr. Veronka Polgar John-Steiner passed away. Through this book, we extend the torch of her passionate dedication, healing wisdom, and brilliant legacy to a new generation of scholars and learners, having witnessed Vera’s enduring hope to be the greatest form of creativity. ← xi | xii →

← xii | 1 →

Part One: Theoretical Foundations

← 1 | 2 →

← 2 | 3 →


1.  Dancing with the Muses: A Cultural-Historical Approach to Play, Meaning Making, and Creativity


Strings sing at the touch of a violinist’s bow. Light and shadow cast across a stage like rivers of silk, while bodies sway to the heartbeat of a wild drum. Sunflowers burst into bloom on canvas, as clay rises on the wheel into a cylindrical dome. We have long been fascinated with the ability of the arts to transform the material into the seemingly ethereal. As children and adults, we have all been inspired to play, act, and dream on paper, in poetry, or through performance in our personal and professional lives. Across time and space, politics and religion, we are united in our collective need to dance with the muses as both artists and audience members.

So why have the arts been neglected by scholars of human development? Is it a consequence of the rationalistic bias of our educational system? Is it because development in literacy and mathematics is more accessible or open to measurement than growth in dramatic play, music, or drawing? In both the first and second editions of this book, we make the argument that thought, emotion, play, and creativity, as well as the creation of relationships, are an integrated whole. When some aspects of this totality are broken apart, learning and development are diminished.

As editors and authors, we bring to this issue a background in Vygotskian scholarship as well as that of practicing artists and educators. Since the first publication of this text, the ideas of the groundbreaking Russian psychologist, L.S. Vygotsky, have gained increased popularity in their emphasis on the social sources of development and the central role of tools and artifacts in learning. Vygotsky’s theory contrasts sharply with the more dominant approaches of ← 3 | 4 → constructivists (i.e., those of Piaget) who envisioned development as a universally shared process independent of the historical and cultural environment. Vygotsky’s strong emphasis on culture and social interaction is particularly relevant to our contemporary, multicultural society and has been effectively applied to studies of literacy, concept formation, and multilingualism. Ironically, although his first publication was devoted to the arts, cultural-historical scholars dedicated to his thinking have paid little attention to analyses of play, meaning making, and creativity.

As individual scholars, each of us has drawn on Vygotsky’s framework to investigate our own interests in play, meaning making, and creativity. Through these explorations, we encountered colleagues from a diverse array of disciplines who shared our fascination and curiosity and were eager to contribute to this book. Using cultural-historical theory, an approach founded on Vygotsky’s theories and developed further in the former Soviet Union, the United States, and other countries, we collectively sought to articulate a response to these essential processes in the life of the mind. While our informal, formal, political, and creative efforts inspired the first manuscript, this second edition arose from the need to more fully expand our initial thinking. Hence, we are delighted to present a second, reorganized edition with four additional chapters that integrate the scholarship of emerging and revered scholars into the book’s larger circle of thought.

The purpose of this introductory chapter is threefold: First, we seek to introduce the reader to Vygotsky as a teacher, researcher, scholar, and fellow creative spirit. Second, we provide a background of his ideas by summarizing essential concepts from the collection of loosely associated theories that constitute cultural-historical theory, followed by a discussion on play, meaning making, and creativity to present an enriched understanding of the arts. Finally, we introduce the scholarship of the contributors to the text inside the larger text, grateful to our colleagues for the opportunity to offer a more elaborate, complete corpus of writings. We are confident that our readers will appreciate how new chapters on sign development, play, and creativity enhance this second edition.

L. S. Vygotsky: A Life of Creative Activity

L. S. Vygotsky was born in 1896 in Orsha, Russia, a small town, which is now part of Belarus. The young boy grew up in Gomel, as a member of a large, highly educated, Jewish family (Blanck, 1990). By the time he reached adolescence, Vygotsky developed strong intellectual interests in many disciplines, including philosophy and history and shared his mother’s love of poetry. ← 4 | 5 → He finished gymnasium with great distinction and subsequently attended Moscow University where he studied law. He supplemented this course of study with classes at the Shanjavsky People’s University, continuing his interest in history and philosophy. As an adolescent, the young man composed several drafts of an analysis of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which later became the basis of his doctoral dissertation. During these years, he also broadened his knowledge of linguistics and psychology. Vygotsky was influenced by William James and Sigmund Freud and, throughout his life, he conducted a thorough study of European and American psychological theories (Blanck, 1990).

After completing his university studies, Vygotsky returned to Gomel, where he taught in state schools. He also participated in the town’s cultural life. During these years, he mostly published literary reviews and became interested in educational psychology. Vygotsky’s interest in literature and drama established his reputation as a brilliant lecturer. Unfortunately, Gomel suffered the hardships of civil war and attacks made by different armies and local bandits (Rosa & Montero, 1990). Nevertheless, Vygotsky began his first psychological investigations while teaching at Gomel’s Teacher’s College. During this time, Vygotsky’s family was first struck by tuberculosis and his younger brother died of the illness. While taking care of his brother, Vygotsky himself also became ill with TB. After his marriage in 1924 to Roza Smekhova, he left Gomel for Moscow at the invitation of a senior faculty member and psychologist, Alexander Luria. Vygotsky’s collaboration with Luria and Leont’ev would prove to be a highly creative endeavor (Blanck, 1990).

Once in the capital, Vygotsky joined the Institute of Experimental Psychology where “from very early in his professional life he had seen the development of the science of man as his cause, a cause he took extremely seriously and to which he dedicated all of his energy” (van der Veer & Valsiner, 1991). His first publication was The Psychology of Art (Vygotsky, 1925/1971) described by Cathrene Connery in Chapter Two. Vygotsky went on to publish 15 articles a year including lectures, reviews, and forewords to works of foreign authors. His second book was published in English as Educational Psychology (1992). In the late 1920s, his interests expanded to children with atypical development including blind, deaf, and retarded children. Publications on this topic were assembled in Volume 2 of his collected works. Vygotsky’s theoretical analyses were first summarized in “The Historical Meaning of Crisis in Psychology” (1927) which first appeared in English in Volume 3 of his collected works.

Increasingly, Vygotsky became interested in how human activity is mediated by artifacts, a topic that he first developed in “Tool and Symbol in Child Development.” This manuscript forms the first section of the volume Mind in ← 5 | 6 → Society (1978) co-edited by Michael Cole, Vera John-Steiner, Sylvia Scribner, and Ellen Souberman. Throughout his life, Vygotsky relied on a dialectical Marxist approach to the development and investigation of the human sciences. His most widely read work is Thought and Language, first published in English in 1962. In this book, he brings together his cultural-historical ideas with a focus on the interrelationship of thinking and speaking. The impact of this volume has grown substantially over the years and has been published and reedited several times. Vygotsky’s ideas were shaped by his extraordinary scholarship, his deeply original mind, and his ability to work interdependently with colleagues and friends. His legacy might have been lost were it not for Luria’s determined efforts to bring Vygotsky’s work to a world audience after his untimely death from tuberculosis at the age of 38.

Essential Concepts of Cultural-Historical Theory

Vygotsky’s conceptual framework provides a rich, unique, and pragmatic contribution to theories of human psychology. His notions regarding the social sources of development, mediation, perezhivanie, the zone of proximal development (ZPD), and methodology collectively describe the transformative development of individuals and societies. The following discussion highlights the significance of these concepts in order to inform a cultural-historical understanding of play, meaning making, and creativity.

Social Sources of Development

The common theme that runs across Vygotsky’s diverse writings is that of the social origins of psychological processes. Human beings are irrevocably interdependent. As infants, we are dependent on caregivers for survival and learning. In the course of development, young learners rely on the vast pool of transmitted experience shared by family members, teachers and peers. In his oft-quoted “genetic law,” Vygotsky emphasized the primacy of social interaction by proposing that any process in the child’s cultural development appears twice: Functions appear first on the social, then on the psychological plane or first between people, and then within the child as an intrapsychological process.

Imagination, as a psychological function that is located in the core of learning and development, also originates within social interaction and the cultural-historical moment of a child’s development. Vygotsky wrote that “imagination operates not freely, but directed by someone else’s experience, as if according to someone else’s instructions” (Vygotsky, 1930/2004, p. 17). ← 6 | 7 → In this manner, imagination “becomes the means by which a person’s experience is broadened, because he can imagine what he has not seen, can conceptualize something from another person’s narration and description of what he himself has never directly experienced” (Vygotsky, 1930/2004, p. 17).

Vygotsky’s genetic law of development is also observable in the development of speech. He proposed that language functions as a means of communication and cognition. Young children appropriate and make their own the speech that surrounds them. The internalization of dialogic interaction results in the development of language and thought. The semiotic means a child uses during internalization becomes the basis of her inner speech and verbal thinking. The condensed nature of inner speech was described by Vygotsky in his well-known metaphor stating “a thought may be compared to a cloud shedding a shower of words.…Precisely because a thought does not have its automatic counterpart in words, the transition to thought from word leads through meaning” (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 251). Contemporary students of language acquisition emphasize the interactional sources of language learning and language use (Tomasello, 2008). The communicative or interactional use of language, in fact, depends on the imagination of others. In this manner, learning from another can and should become an “experience based on imagination” (Vygotsky, 1930/2004, p. 17) in order for authentic learning to take place. Toward this end, Carrie Lobman illustrates the importance of teachers’ imagination in Chapter Sixteen.


The critical role of mediation in Vygotsky’s theory is most fully analyzed by James Wertsch who noted:

In his view, a hallmark of human consciousness is that it is associated with the use of tools, especially “psychological tools” or “signs”. Instead of acting in a direct, unmediated way in the social and physical world, our contact with the world is indirect or mediated by signs….It is because humans internalize forms of mediation provided by particular cultural, historical, and institutional forces that their mental functioning is sociohistorically situated. (Wertsch, 2007, p. 178)

In this quote, Wertsch highlights another important aspect of Vygotsky’s thinking: psychological tools develop within the diverse cultural and historical settings of humankind. One needs only to evoke the computer to realize how profoundly our memory, planning, writing, and editing processes have changed in our reliance on this relatively new technological and cognitive tool. ← 7 | 8 →

Most scholars within the cultural-historical tradition emphasize language as central to thought and pay limited attention to symbolic systems and other semiotic means. While we recognize the critical role of language, we prefer a pluralistic theory that John-Steiner (1995) named “cognitive pluralism.” Some examples of these diverse semiotic means include mathematical symbol systems, maps, artistic sketches, sign language, imagery, and musical notes. These systems of representation are imbedded in social practice in that, “ecology, history, culture and family organization play roles in patterning experience and events in the creation of knowledge” (John-Steiner, 1995, p. 5).

In the sections that follow, the authors describe a variety of meditating tools. In Chapter Six, Patricia St. John documents children’s reliance on musical instruments in her chapter. Peter Smagorinsky writes of students’ construction of masks and their impact on writing activities in Chapter Ten. Cathrene Connery highlights the appropriation of physical and psychological tools in painting as a young adult in Chapter Eight. Reliance on mediating tools is a developmental process which Vygotsky emphasized “is neither simply invented nor passed down from adults; rather it arises from something which is not originally a sign operation and becomes one only after a series of qualitative transformations” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 46, italics in the original).


While Vygotsky’s work is strongly cognitively oriented, he also included affective considerations in his theory of human development and consciousness. One of these is perezhivanie, which some have translated as “lived emotional experience.” Social interaction among children and adults is perceived through the lens of previous experience; mediational means are appropriated and represented by individuals in their own characteristic ways. In Chapter Thirteen, Michelle Zoss highlights how teaching and learning are enriched when classrooms provide opportunities for students to express ways of the impact* of their experience. Ana Marjanovic-Shane illustrates how interaction and instruction are enhanced when built on trusting relationships in play in Chapter Fourteen, including vivid and metaphoric descriptions of experience that produce emotional engagement.

The term perezhivanie is an important one in theater director Stanislavsky’s teaching of actors. He asked them to relive previously relevant or profound experiences when preparing to engage with a new role. Vygotsky was influenced by this work and appropriated the concept for his own thinking about emotional experience. It is only recently that his essay, “The Problem of the Environment” in which he developed his understanding of lived ← 8 | 9 → experience, was published in English. Diverse authors in the cultural-historical theoretical community, now familiar with this concept, increasingly refer to perezhivanie as they recognize its significant role in parenting, teaching, and communicating among partners. In Chapter Twelve, Beth Ferholt presents a novel means of studying perezhivanie through the unique use of film.

Emotional aspects of experience are also crucial for imagination. Vygotsky agreed that “all forms of creative imagination include affective elements” (Vygotsky, 1930/2004, p. 19). In his exploration of children’s imagination and creativity, Vygotsky often spoke of the circular path of imagination from lived experiences, through the imagination that combines and recombines elements of these experiences, to the embodiments of imagination in the material form of an artistic product (image, music, dance, story, etc.). According to Vygotsky, for such a circle to be completed, both intellectual and emotional factors are essential (Vygotsky, 1930/2004, p. 21). Toward this end, Barry Oreck and Jessica Nicoll describe how young dancers engage on this path as they develop a personal vocabulary of movement in Chapter Nine.

Zone of Proximal Development

The most widely discussed concept in Vygotsky’s writings is that of the ZPD. Vygotsky wrote “We propose that an essential feature of learning is that it creates the zone of proximal development; that is, learning awakens a variety of internal developmental processes that are able to operate only when the child is interacting with people in his environment and in cooperation with his peers. Once these processes are internalized, they become part of the child’s independent developmental achievement” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 90). The appeal of this notion of assisted performance that precedes a learner’s ability to independently solve tasks has widespread educational implications. Learners differ in how efficiently they use assistance and this difference was of significance to Vygotsky’s argument. To understand the full meaning of the ZPD is to recognize that it is not a recipe for teaching skills. As Lois Holzman emphasizes in Chapter Three, the ZPD is a relational process that embraces the full unity of the social and personal aspects of development in which new functions are realized that are not yet mature.

Currently, researchers have broadened this concept to include peer-based reciprocal assistance including “all aspect[s] of the learner-acting, thinking and feeling” (Wells, 1999, p. 331) and mutual zones of proximal development for collaborative partners (John-Steiner, 2000). In this broader view of the ZPD, scholars have come to identify that the co-construction of new ← 9 | 10 → ideas includes the sharing of risks, constructive criticism, and the creation of a safety zone. Partners can live, however temporarily, in each other’s heads. They draw on their mutuality as well as on their differences and background knowledge, working style, and temperament. As Mahn and John-Steiner (2002) reflect: “Innovative works of literature, drama and science are nourished by sustained support—as are teaching and learning across the lifespan” (p. 52). The complex relationship between writers and the literary establishment is the focus of Seana Moran’s Chapter Eleven in this book.

Vygotsky’s Method

A central theme in Vygotsky’s writings is that of movement. He argued that the nature of phenomena is revealed during the process of change. In following this principle, he wrote:

To study something historically means to study it in the process of change; that is the dialectical method’s basic demand. To encompass in research the process of a given thing’s development in all its phases and changes—from birth to death—fundamentally means to discover its nature, its essence, for “it is only in movement that a body shows what it is.” (Vygotsky, 1978, pp. 64–65)

Vygotsky created situations in which a new solution process was provoked by the way in which the experimenter and the participant interacted. For example, in Thought and Language he described how children, when getting ready to draw, lacked a color they needed. This arrangement was planned by the experimenter to study the children’s response to task difficulties. The young artists met the challenge by talking to themselves, articulating, “Where is the pencil? I need a blue pencil. Never mind, I’ll draw with the red one and wet it with water; it will become dark and look like blue” (1986, p. 30).

While this example is given in Vygotsky’s discussion of the role of private or egocentric speech, it also illustrates his “experimental-developmental” method in that the approach “artificially evokes or creates a process of psychological development” (ibid., p. 61). Additional examples of this experimental method occur when the researcher, teacher, or parent provides the learner with a psychological tool such as a number line when dealing with mathematical operations or the introduction of signs such as words or task cards to assist in concept formation. The developmental aspects of this method focus on the study of a process from its beginning through its various changes until competence is reached. As Vygotsky wrote:

We believe that child development is a complex dialectical process characterized by periodicity, unevenness in the development of different functions, metamorphosis or qualitative transformation of one form into the other, intertwining of ← 10 | 11 → internal and external factors, and adaptive processes that overcome impediments that the child encounters. (1978, p. 73)

A Cultural-Historical Perspective on Play, Meaning Making, and Creativity

Within this framework, we emphasize that play, meaning making, and creativity constitute distinct and interdependent processes in individual and collective experience.


Play is a dynamic and complex activity, which, according to Vygotsky (1933/1976), represents an interactive social form of embodied imagination. Play simultaneously requires and leads to complex symbolic constructions, behavioral mastery, collaborative protocols, emotional arousal and control, and the production of group cultural lore. Vygotsky noted “play is…the leading source of development in pre-school years” (1933/1976, p. 537). In early childhood, play appears as the motives of the growing child shift toward the realization of personal desires. Because these desires are unattainable in reality, the child seeks to realize them through the imagination. For Vygotsky, play represents the first appearance of imagination in development—as imagination in action.

Vygotsky distinguishes play from other activities based on two essential characteristics: first, children create imaginary situations in play. Second, play is always based on rules. In fact, for Vygotsky, the imaginary situation already contains rules of behavior so that “there is no such thing as play without rules” (ibid., p. 541). As they explore the rules of social behavior and relationships, children develop through the meaning making of imaginary situations created in pretend play. Vygotsky discovered that children are able to follow the rules in play before they can adhere to those of everyday, real-life situations. Development calls for the capacity to be able to act in a situation “which is only conceived on an imagined level” and is independent of immediate reality for two reasons: first, in order for learning to occur, children must be able to interpret the meaning and sense of a situation (or objects) irrespective of their perceptual appearance. In other words, learners need to be able to evaluate events and things based on their relevant values, rules, and expectations.

Second, the use of imagined meanings and rules leads to the development of will and voluntary actions independent of immediate reactions to physical stimuli (ibid., pp. 545–550). Based on these insights, Vygotsky claimed that play represents a specialized form of the ZPD asserting, “Action in the imaginative sphere, in an imaginary situation, the creation ← 11 | 12 → of voluntary intentions and the formation of real-life plans and volitional motives—all appear in play and make it the highest level of pre-school development” (ibid., p. 552). Vygotsky’s work on play and its developmental significance have influenced many researchers and educators around the world, including Artin Göncü’s ideas in Chapter Seven on the ways in which children’s social imaginative play is enacted within and across multicultural communities. These innovations have resulted in an assortment of educational and recreational programs highlighted in our concluding chapter.

Meaning Making

Play is just one expression of meaning making or semiosis that occurs across the life span. Meaning making is the construction of knowledge into understanding with others within and across a variety of contexts and codes (Vygotsky, 1986). Commonly referred to as learning, comprehending, or understanding, meaning making developed from our need to organize life experience as individuals, communities, and members of the human species.

Vygotsky did not consider meaning to be a private collage of concepts residing within a person’s head. His thoughts on meaning making are refreshing in that he brings together traditionally held opposites. For example, instead of isolating forms of thinking into separate, discrete skills, Vygotsky viewed meaning making as a complex synthesis of interdependent processes. He also paired emotion and thought together as equitable processes that occur simultaneously. While meaning making occurs inside the social relationship of the ZPD, meaning is processed through the individual prism of perezhivanie. Similarly, the early meaning making efforts of children and novices often intertwine internal and external states, evidenced in Biljana Fredriksen’s vignettes of young children’s early sign development in Chapter Five. Ironically, the developmental task of today’s learners involves the discovery and recreation of concrete and conceptual tools inherited from past generations. Through the appropriation and application of these cultural tools, learners become a medium for and makers of meaning and history (Vygotsky, 1978, 1986).

Meaning making derives both content and significance from communications in the ZPD. The ZPD acts as a bridge to provide access between meaning makers and learning resources in a variety of forms and manners. Young children and novices are socialized into thought communities because in appropriating thought and signs together, meaning making is born. From the womb to the tomb, cultural knowledge and social practices from ever-widening circles are internalized through interactional exchanges, joint ← 12 | 13 → activities, and scaffolded experiences. In this manner, we gradually nurture a larger depth and greater breadth of understandings.


Within Vygotsky’s developmental framework, creativity as a process includes children’s play, imagination, and fantasy. It is a transformative activity where emotion, meaning, and cognitive symbols are synthesized. He focuses on everyday or mundane creative activities as well as the construction of creative artifacts or products which can have a lasting impact across generations emphasizing, “No accurate cognition of reality is possible without a certain element of imagination, a certain flight from the immediate, concrete, solitary impressions in which this reality is presented…” (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 349).

While early play provides the beginnings of the “construction of the new” so basic to creative processes, Vygotsky also emphasized the importance of desire-driven fantasy, which emerges more powerfully during adolescence. That is also a period when young people become more reflective and critical, thereby combining fantasy and cognition. Such a connection is basic to sustained exploration including the pursuit of diverse styles in the arts and modes of inquiry in the sciences. During adolescence the tension between social and individual processes is resolved in new ways, giving rise to works that, while frequently imitative, also provide the sources for future, more original, directions. Emotional support from family, teachers, and friends is crucial when young creative individuals are making difficult choices; they are engaged in transforming artistic knowledge acquired through apprenticeships into their first independent endeavors.

In Notebooks of the Mind, John-Steiner (1997, 1985) wrote about this passage as recalled by composers. Igor Stravinsky, as a young man, was taught by the Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov: “Once a week I took my work to him and he criticized and corrected it, giving me all the necessary explanations, and at the same time he made me analyze the form and structure of classical works. A year and a half later I began the composition of a symphony. As soon as I finished one part of a movement I used to show it to him, so that my whole work, including the instrumentation, was under his control” (1985, p. 147). In this passage, Stravinsky exemplifies how becoming a composer involves a deep engagement with a mentor and the practice of the ZPD. While Stravinsky uses the term “control,” the passage shows the power of scaffolding in the achievement of mastery and then the move into innovation.

Early in his career, Vygotsky wrote in The Psychology of Art that art “introduces the effects of passion, violates inner equilibrium, changes will in a new ← 13 | 14 → sense, and stirs feelings, emotions, passions and vices without which society would remain in an inert and emotionless state” (1925/1971, p. 249). Traditionally, creativity has been studied as an individual process, a result of predisposition, talent, apprenticeship, and recognition of prevalent trends. In contrast, Vygotsky saw a dialectical relationship between the individual and her/his world. In one of his essays on Imagination and Creativity in Childhood, he wrote, “every inventor, even a genius, is always the outgrowth of his time and environment. His creativity stems from those needs that were created before him, and rests upon those possibilities that, again, exist outside of him” (Vygotsky quoted in van der Veer & Valsiner, 1991, p. xi). This theme pervades the three sections of this book. The first section, entitled “Theoretical Foundations,” will further elaborate a sociocultural approach to play, meaning making, and creativity. The second section, “Domains of Artistic Expression,” will describe how Vygotsky’s legacy has been implemented in studies of literature, dance, and the visual arts. The final section and conclusion, “Connections between Creative Expression, Learning, and Development,” will elaborate how educational practices might embody the principles of play, imagination, and art to foster greater human growth and understanding.

The view of creativity as part of social life is presented in a variety of ways in the subsequent chapters. In Chapter Fifteen, Larry and Francine Smolucha emphasize the growing importance of neuroimaging research and its relevance to creativity. Some authors focus on improvisation as a joint activity between dancers and choreographers. Other scholars see it as collaboration between teachers, researchers, and students. In performances based on joint activities, the traditional dichotomy between everyday or “mundane” creativity and transformative creativity, which profoundly changes a human domain of knowledge in the arts or sciences, is attenuated. In the creativity literature, a distinction is frequently made between “c” or the novel solutions or approaches we invent in daily life and “C” attributed to the deep engagement of creative individuals in their lifelong pursuit in expanding our human legacy. However, in Chapter Four, Anna Stetsenko characterizes the role of engagement and commitment as a form of creative action that allows all of us to achieve transformative change.

In Vygotsky’s view, “creativity exists not only where it creates great historical works, but also everywhere human imagination combines, changes, and creates anything new” (Vygotsky, 1990, p. 90). The activity of improvisation becomes ephemeral if it is not linked to the enduring discipline of building on past work while also being governed by a broad vision and a passion for one’s task. In focusing on children and adolescents, Vygotsky ← 14 | 15 → highlighted the developmental processes that lead to the construction of the new. Play, fantasy, conceptual understanding, and creative imagination are all imbedded in the cultural and social processes that make human life possible. In The Psychology of Art, he first formulated his important principle that creative work is profoundly social:

Art is the social within us, and even if its action is performed by a single individual it does not mean that its essence is individual…art is the social technique of emotion, a tool of society which brings the most intimate and personal aspects of our being into the circle of social life…it would be more correct to say that emotion becomes personal when every one of us experiences a work of art: it becomes personal without ceasing to be social… (Vygotsky, 1925/1971, p. 249)

In this second edition of Vygotsky and creativity: a cultural-historical approach to play, meaning making, and the arts, we expand this framework and more thoroughly demonstrate how creativity, in all its manifestations, is woven together with learning, teaching, discovery, and transformational change.


Blanck, G. (1990). Vygotsky: The man and his cause. In L. Moll (Ed.), Vygotsky and education: Instructional implications and applications of sociohistorical psychology (pp. 31–58). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

John-Steiner, V. (1985). Notebooks of the mind: Explorations of thinking (1st ed.). Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.

John-Steiner, V. (1997). Notebooks of the mind: Explorations of thinking (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

John-Steiner, V. (1995). Cognitive pluralism: A sociocultural approach. Mind, Culture and Activity, 2, 2–11.

John-Steiner, V. (2000). Creative collaboration. Oxford; New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Mahn, H., & John-Steiner, V. (2002). The gift of confidence: A Vygotskian view of emotions. In C. G. Wells & G. Claxton (Eds.), Learning for life in the 21st century (pp. 46–58). Oxford: Blackwell.

Rosa, R., & Montero, I. (1990). The historical context of Vygotsky’s work: A sociohistorical approach. In L. Moll (Ed.), Vygotsky and education: Instructional implications and applications of sociohistorical psychology (pp. 59–88). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tomasello, M. (2008). Origins of human communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

van der Veer, R., & Valsiner, J. (1991). Understanding Vygotsky: A quest for synthesis. Oxford; Cambridge, MA: Blackwell. ← 15 | 16 →

Vygotsky, L. S. (1925/1971). The psychology of art. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1927/1997). The historical meaning of the crisis in psychology: A methodological investigation. In R. W. Rieber & J. Wollock (Eds.), The collected works of L.S. Vygotsky (Vol. 3, pp. 233–343). New York, NY: Plenum Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1930/2004). Imagination and creativity in childhood. Journal of Russian and Eastern European Psychology, 42(1), 7–97.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1933/1976). Play and its role in the mental development of the child. In J. S. Bruner, A. Jolly, & K. Sylva (Eds.), Play—Its role in development and evolution (pp. 537–554). New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1934/1986). Thought and language (A. Kozulin, Trans. rev. ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1962). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1987). Imagination and its development in childhood (N. Minick, Trans.). In R. W. Rieber & A. S. Carton (Eds.), The collected works of L.S. Vygotsky (Vol. 1, pp. 339–350). New York, NY: Plenum Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1990). Imagination and creativity in childhood. Soviet Psychology, 28(10), 84–96.

Wells, C. G. (1999). Dialogic inquiry: Towards a sociocultural practice and theory of education. Cambridge; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Wertsch, J. V. (2007). Mediation. In H. Daniels, M. Cole, & J. V. Wertsch (Eds.), The Cambridge companion to Vygotsky (pp. 178–192). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

← 16 | 17 →


2.  The Historical Significance of Vygotsky’s Psychology of Art


What is art? What is the relationship between the artist, viewer, and creative object or event? What is the function and value of art in individual and collective life? As a young scholar, L.S. Vygotsky deliberated the answers to these essential questions. His family life and education were enriched by a passion for literature, drama, and painting. Between Vygotsky’s nineteenth and twenty-fifth birthdays, he developed a series of preliminary, yet profound answers to his inquiries. At the age of twenty-nine, his initial analyses were incorporated into his doctoral dissertation and first major work entitled The Psychology of Art (1925).

This text establishes emotion and creativity as cornerstones of Vygotsky’s thinking, topics to which he returned intermittently throughout his life. Indeed, through his examination of aesthetics, history, and criticism of human creation, Vygotsky developed some methods of analysis which led him to transform existing approaches and develop the dialectical syntheses of intellect/emotion; thought/sign; and individual/society.

While a few critics have regarded the Psychology of Art as the product of immature scholarship, this seminal work offers a window into Vygotsky’s formative views on the creative process, providing contemporary theorists, researchers, and practitioners with the foundational concepts upon which a more articulated theory can be developed. Toward this end, this chapter highlights the historical significance of Vygotsky’s formative work as well as his perspectives on the triadic relationship between the artist, audience, and creative product. The chapter will also present his reflections on the psychobiological origins of art, the experience of catharsis through the creative process and aesthetic response, as well as the transformative value of art.

Vygotsky’s doctoral dissertation included a meticulous critique spanning Freudian theory, German idealist philosophy, Wundt’s psychology, and the ← 17 | 18 → aesthetics of Russian formalism. Vygotsky deliberately deconstructed and criticized these ideologies of his time, ingeniously uniting individual and collective trends in aesthetics that had traditionally been posed in opposition to each other. Scholars had previously viewed the psychological and sociological dimensions of art to be like the two ends of a rope. By juxtaposing and then bringing these two endpoints together in a circular fashion, Vygotsky pointed out the dialectical relationship between these concepts creating a novel philosophical system. His methodological application of dialectics distinguishes his work from his contemporaries.

In addition, Vygotsky dismissed previous notions regarding the transmission of creative products as central to their function. In breaking with scholarly tradition, the Psychology of Art places emotion at the heart of creative processes. His theory of catharsis, elaborated below, and his opposition to simple dichotomies motivated him to work toward a theory more fully realized in his later works that still provides a model for contemporary scholars. Vygotsky’s approach prompts reconsideration of psychological processes such as learning, meaning making, and communicating as cultural-historical practices rooted in emotion. In the Psychology of Art, Vygotsky had not fully formulated the productive integration of these processes and how they develop and change historically and culturally, but he progressed toward a theory more fully realized in his later works.

The Triadic Relationship between Artist, Audience, and Artistic Product

Who is the artist? In contrast to Western notions of an isolated individual working within a solitary venue, Vygotsky viewed the artist as a social person collectively engaged in the cognitive-affective processes of creation with other community members. During the creative process, the artist appropriates the legacy of her selected genre including the implicit ideologies of its cultural- historical canon. This creative heritage interacts with the artist’s unique problem-solving process and is further transformed by the productive forces, economic conditions, and sociopolitical constructs that impact the artist’s psychological processes.

Who is the audience? Vygotsky identified those persons who experience aesthetic outcomes and obtain novel understandings from creative products as spectators, viewers, and readers. The individual or group that constructs new knowledge through symbolic connection does so from both the primary cultural circle in which the piece was conceived and constructed, as well as the secondary cultural context in which the creative product is experienced. ← 18 | 19 → Vygotsky also viewed the aesthetic response as both intrapersonal (within an individual) and interpersonal (between individuals) processes. He characterized the roles of the spectator, reader, and viewer as active and dynamic.

What is the creative product? According to Vygotsky, the creative product is not a stand-alone idea or object imposed on a physical form; rather, it includes the original elements that exist prior to the complete realization of the creative product or event. He contended that an artist’s actual work involves the cognitive-affective processes of the painter, dancer, flutist, or poet as well as the resultant artifact or event. The young scholar viewed abstract and concrete components as a dialectic residing within a product itself. In other words, the artist infuses significance inside a creative artifact or event, resulting in the physical and psychological synthesis of content.

Content takes on an allegorical resemblance or symbolic manifestation through form. The young psychologist did not consider form to be a static shape or impression imposed on letters, wood, clay, or character. Instead, form results from a synergistic interaction between the artist’s work (cognitive-affective processes) and content (abstract and physical properties) inherent in the piece itself. In this manner, Vygotsky referred to form as an action or verb, “[an] artistic arrangement of the given material, made with the purpose of generating a specific aesthetic effect” (p. 53).

Interestingly, Vygotsky distinguishes between the artistic product and art per se. Vygotsky affirmed that, together with language, myth, custom, religion, laws, and ethical standards, art exists as the physical manifestation of an idea in motion. Despite the diversity of artistic genres, all creative objects and events organize sign, symbol, and pattern into an outer form, an inner form, and a core element. For example, the outer form of a sculpture consists of its material, such as bronze, while the outer form of a song is established by its melody. The inner form of a creative product incorporates the image, sensation, or idea encapsulated by the outer form. The inner form of the same piece of sculpture might appear as a blindfolded woman standing with a sword in one hand and a set of scales in another. The inner form of an African American spiritual might relate the journey of Moses and his people to the Promised Land.

In contrast to these empirical dimensions, the core element of a piece of art reflects the significance of the object or event hidden within the inner form: the allegorical representation of Justice constitutes the symbolic meaning of the sculpture; the core of the song relates the hopeful escape of slaves on the Underground Railroad.

Art condenses reality and the phenomena of life in ways that humans are not capable of experiencing in their daily lives. In this manner, Vygotsky ← 19 | 20 → attested that art includes “something above and beyond its normal, conventional content” that allows the artist and the audience to journey beyond “feelings of fear and pain” (p. 243). For example, when viewing the previously mentioned sculpture, an individual might experience a powerful sense of relief and assurance while simultaneously experiencing the elusive ideal of justice manifested within the concrete, authoritarian solidity of the metal placed in the context of a violent world. The rhythmic patterning of sound in the spiritual performance discussed earlier in this chapter might reach a crescendo where chorus and congregation momentarily experience a sense of sweet release of embracing their Maker at the height of the song. Vygotsky ascertained such profound, emotional states are rooted in a complex, transformative psychological process developed by early humans.

The Psychobiological Origins of Art

Why did art-making evolve as a unique activity of the human species? The Greeks first proposed that art originated as a by-product of economic activity. While Vygotsky acknowledged the relationship between art and trade or financial interchange, in contrast, he argued that art originated from an internal psychobiological source. His theory postulates that revolutionary advances in the cerebral cortex of early humans initiated the replacement of instinct with consciousness. As a result of this new psychological functioning, human beings came to rely on the use of multimodal signs to assist in controlling the often unstable and threatening environment that surrounded them. As symbolic constructions created by the mind, these signs are differentiated from random movements, gestures, and sounds and result in integrated patterns. Patterns, when systematized, become rhythms.

Vygotsky ascertained it was not coincidental that ancient peoples viewed rhythmic pattern as an archway into the mystical world. The alluring qualities of rhythm in dance, drumbeat, and chant were employed to evoke and induce apparitions from the spirit world in order to make requests, prayers, and voice grievances. In this manner, the systematic application of rhythmic sign was believed to potentially correct or even redirect the future. Many traditional communities believe that tonal rhythm soothes the heart and can potentially cure the body/mind. Modern science is supporting these assertions. Whether birthed of dance, decoration, or drum, the use of rhythmic pattern originated as a form of visual, verbal, or kinesthetic discourse. Diverse communities employ these multimodal, rhythmic signs to communicate, heal, and connect with powers greater than their own.

Vygotsky exemplified his theory of the psychobiological origins of art using music. The application of aural rhythmic pattern in songs evolved as ← 20 | 21 → a response to arduous labor. Patterned rhythms assist humans engaged in strenuous work through a song’s capacity to organize, support, and regulate physical movement, thereby providing relief and relaxation from continuous effort. He observed that the lyrics of work songs characteristically express the voice of the work as well as that of the workers themselves. Universal themes regarding the nature and length of the activity, the hopes and dreams of the laborers, and their position to authority weave their way across continents, cultures, and tunes.

Vygotsky pointed to dance as a second example of the psychobiological origin of art. He maintained systematic, rhythmic use of kinesthetic pattern directly correlates with the need to continuously reestablish homeostasis with one’s environment. The exercise of visual, aural, and kinesthetic rhythms has traditionally aided human beings during times of great joy and distress or as an accompaniment to profound life rituals or passages. Thus, he proposed that the foundations of art are rooted in the human need to manage and release intense physical, mental, or emotional strain.

An Alternative View of Catharsis

What was Vygotsky’s view on catharsis? In order to achieve his own definition, he examined several traditions, outlining the genesis of the term. The Greeks first referred to catharsis as the physical purging of excrement from the intestines. Aristotle extended this meaning to a form of emotional purification achieved through vicarious experience. In time, Grecian culture came to view drama and music as artistic products with the potential of favorably inducing moral purgation. While the concept of catharsis later assumed Christian connotations of purity through the use of self-flagellation and torture, Vygotsky noted the triadic association between emotion, healing or cleansing, and the arts to be firmly rooted in antiquity. In the Psychology of Art, the young scholar additionally presented Freud’s view of catharsis as the abreaction of unconscious, pan-sexual conflicts dormant since youth. Freudian theory posited catharsis as a central feature of psychoanalysis whereby the analyst seeks to facilitate the relief of intense emotions by linking his patient’s affective states with childhood memories.

In a meticulous critique of these schools of thought, Vygotsky rejected catharsis as a psychological event derived from a negative malaise of the body or mind. Instead, he defined the cathartic process as a natural, innate, and healthy psychological need of all individuals and the societies which they inhabit. Questioning the notion of the unconscious mind, Vygotsky argued that all thought and emotion are consciously experienced to a lesser or greater ← 21 | 22 → degree. His writings suggest that affective and intellectual knowledge subsist at various locations along a continuum of consciousness, subject to movement from one state of realization to another.

The transformative potential of emotions is a central feature of Vygotsky’s alternative view of catharsis. He considered feelings to be the “pluses and minuses” or “discharges and expenditures of unused energy” (p. 246). Characterizing the nervous system as a constantly active battlefield or relentless funnel, Vygotsky advised, “The world pours into man…thousands of calls, desires, stimuli, etc. enter but only an infinitesimal part of them is realized and flows out through the narrow opening. It is obvious that the unrealized part of life…must somehow be utilized and lived” (p. 247). He noted that “a need arises from time to time to discharge the unused energy and give it free reign in order to re-establish our equilibrium with the rest of the world” (p. 246). Employing the metaphor of a tea kettle, Vygotsky asserted that our psyches occasionally require the release of “steam pressure” or emotion, when it “exceeds the strength of the vessel. Apparently, art is a psychological means for striking a balance with the environment at critical points of our behavior” (p. 247).

While Vygotsky recognized that contemporary artistic endeavors appear to be detached from their work-related origins, he asserted art retains its early psychobiological roots today as a means by which catharsis might be achieved by individuals and societies. The young psychologist observed that the artist, per se, independently “introduces into the work of art the element which was formerly generated by labor: the feelings of pain, torment, and hardship (which require relief) are now aroused by art itself, but their nature remains the same” (p. 245). In other words, the psychobiological origins of the ancient pyramid builder’s song laid the foundation for the hip-hop listener and symphony audience to experience relief and relaxation when engaged with music. Art has endured as a means to consolidate the vast amount of phenomena encountered in the rigors of everyday living, providing a vessel to achieve cognitive-affective balance. The biological basis of art confirms its relevance as a requisite tool in the struggle for existence, affording “the possibility of releasing into art powerful passions which cannot find expression in normal, everyday life” (p. 246).

Catharsis and the Artistic or Aesthetic Response

How does the cathartic function of art occur in individual and collective life? Vygotsky observed that artists and audiences alike can achieve the transcendent resolution of emotion by engaging in the reciprocal processes of creative production and aesthetic response. ← 22 | 23 →

Catharsis originates with the artist’s need or desire to engage in the creative process. As a community member and cultural inheritor of the genre, the artist relies on an intense association between feeling, imagination, and sign systems. The representation of meaning through symbolic means aligns with the artist’s understanding of the relational capabilities of her medium and the perceptual capacities of the human brain. The artist draws on a conglomerate of symbolic patterns and rhythms afforded by the content, genre, and material to purposely summon an aesthetic response on the part of the audience by means of the resultant artifact or event.

Vygotsky identifies three parts to this artistic or aesthetic response: “the contrast discovered by us in the structure of artistic form and that of artistic content” creates the rhythmic pattern which enables catharsis to occur (p. 215). The first two components include conflicting art elements. Vygotsky pointed to the contrast between material and form in sculpture. He noted, “It is remarkable that the artist forces the stone to take on the shape of plants to sprout branches, to bear leaves, to blossom” (p. 237).

When juxtaposed, the physical, concrete or outer form of a creative product clashes with its psychological, abstract, inner core or significance to create the third component Vygotsky identified as rhythm. In architecture, Vygotsky observed, “the lightness and transparency that the Gothic architect manages to draw up from the heavy, inert stone is the best corroboration of this idea” (p. 237). The contrast between a cathedral’s “material massiveness” and “triumphant vertical” creates a rhythm “which makes the viewer feel the whole edifice striving upward with tremendous force” (p. 237).

In catharsis, the artist or viewer interacts with the rhythmic patterns of the creative product or event in a “process of breaking up and associating what has been read [or viewed] with the emotions previously stored in the mind” (p. 81). The dialectic that occurs between internal and external texts is realized in material, relational, and psychological transformations. Such r/evolutions potentially lead the artist and/or audience to emotional release.

For example, the effect and content of a creative work often contrast to form the beat of the cathartic rhythm as evidenced in comedy, drama, and tragedy. These two contrasting elements develop into two separate trajectories, ultimately meeting at a single point of emotional culmination. Vygotsky explained that “the spectator or reader’s feelings of anger, horror, regret, or grief as they witness the struggle of the plot are transformed into hope, enthusiasm, and happiness at the moment of the protagonist’s destruction” (p. 232). The cathartic dynamic results in “the creative act of overcoming feeling, resolving it, conquering it” (p. 248) and is achieved as “painful and unpleasant affects are discharged and transformed into their opposites…[as] ← 23 | 24 → a complex transformation of feelings” (p. 214). Vygotsky was so captured by these transformative properties that he observed “art’s true nature as transubstantiation” (p. 243).

The Social Technique of Emotion

The following formulation provides the most important bridge between Vygotsky’s work on art and his later work on the unification of the social and individual spheres of experience. He explained that the aesthetic response does not generate immediate action. Rather, like an earthquake revealing concealed strata below the crust, art “opens the way for the emergence of powerful hidden forces within us” (p. 253). In addition to achieving intense emotional release, catharsis produces novel forms of understanding characterized by the integration of intellect and affect. When encountering Michelangelo’s Pietá for the first time, a viewer might experience a sudden, novel, and pristine sense of the physical mortality of the man named Jesus Christ.

Vygotsky ascertained that everyday emotions evolve into artistic feelings through heightened activity of the imagination of the artist and the audience. Catharsis produces the emotional knowledge of an embodied image or concept. For example, most people can identify the emotion of fear as a common, recognizable, and fleeting affective state. Munch’s painting, The Scream, provides a distinct “secondary” form of expression that dramatically captures the cognitive-affective notion of fear. In this manner, “art is the social technique of emotion, a tool of society which brings the most intimate and personal aspects of our being into the circle of social life” (p. 249). In other words, the artist infuses their internal, private, individual feelings into a work of art. Their emotion is “objectivized, materialized, and projected outside of us” (p. 249) within an external, public, and social event. The reciprocal processes of aesthetic creation and response allow us to personalize the universal and universalize the personal, potentially inspiring us to organize our future behavior.

The Transformative Value of Art

Vygotsky’s conclusion in the Psychology of Art emphasizes that the cathartic potential of art offers a host of evolutionary benefits to individuals and communities alike. The aesthetic response relieves, exposes, and refreshes the individual and collective psyche like opening a window after the rain. In calling dormant, sequestered, or dispossessed emotions forward to the present, a terrific energy is relinquished, reestablishing emotional flow. This discharge of untapped energy “introduces order and harmony into the psychic ← 24 | 25 → household of our feelings” (p. 248) at independent and communal levels. As perceptual reality, emotion, and knowledge are transformed into higher forms of consciousness, art provides the vehicle by which the artist/audience is able to mediate beyond their individual realities to collectively experience a more profound comprehension of truth as it relates to the human species (Leont’iev, 1971 in Vygotsky, 1971).

Creative ingenuity is not bound to the past; artists serve our culture as agents who actively construct the tools by which we draft blueprints for the future. Herein lies the human potential for cultural, conceptual, or evolutionary change: Facilitating action, art is the muse who awakens us from our affective slumber, inspiring individuals, groups, communities, and cultures to conquer the past and advance undeterred into the future.


Vygotsky, L. S. (1925/1971). The psychology of art. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ← 25 | 26 →

← 26 | 27 →


3.  Without Creating ZPDs There Is No Creativity


When discussing the essential role of play in early child development, Vygotsky remarked, “In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 102). In this chapter I will explore that marvelous metaphor “a head taller” in the context of investigating the mundane creativity that is and produces human development and learning. In other words, my focus here is on the collective activity of creating. I am interested in how social units create environments in which they qualitatively transform themselves and their environments. I propose an understanding of creativity as socially imitative and completive activity. I have come to this understanding from immersion in a quarter century of intervention research that actualizes the “head taller” experience for people across the life span by allowing, inviting, and guiding them to create zones of proximal development (ZPDs). This research, serving only as a backdrop for the present discussion, is discussed in other writings, the most recent being Vygotsky at Work and Play (Holzman, 2009).

A ZPD Is a ZPD—Or Is It?

Even though Vygotsky’s ZPD is essential to his understanding of the relationship between development and learning and play, it has become, in our time, more narrowly associated with learning and the school-like acquisition of knowledge and skills.1 Part of what I want to do in this discussion is restore the complexity, radicalness, and practicality of Vygotsky’s discovery of the ZPD. ← 27 | 28 →

The ZPD is important in Vygotsky’s rejection of the popular belief that learning follows and is dependent upon development and in his related criticism of traditional teaching: “Instruction would be completely unnecessary if it merely utilized what had already matured in the developmental process, if it were not itself a source of development” (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 212). Rejecting the view that learning depends on and follows development, Vygotsky put forth a new relationship between these two activities: “The only instruction which is useful in childhood is that which moves ahead of development, that which leads it”(p. 211) pushing it further and to elicit new formations. In other words, for Vygotsky learning leads development. In previous works, I refer to this discovery as not merely a new relationship but as a new kind of relationship (at least for psychology) the dialectical unity learning-leading-development. I do this to capture the way Vygotsky sees learning and development as a totality and change as qualitative transformation of the whole (Holzman, 1997; F. Newman & Holzman, 1993).

The question of how learning leads development depends, at least in part, on how we understand what the ZPD is. As the most popularized concept stemming from Vygotsky’s writings, the ZPD has been given multiple interpretations by educational researchers, psychologists, and others. Different meanings can be traced, in part, to different translations of his writings (Glick, 2004) and from the numerous contexts in which Vygotsky wrote about the ZPD. In briefly reviewing some of these contexts, understandings, and implications that follow from them, I will bring together Vygotsky’s comments from diverse sources and provide the backdrop for the view I am putting forth.


A common understanding of the ZPD is that it is a characteristic or property of an individual child. This understanding stems from passages like the following:

The psychologist must not limit his analysis to functions that have matured. He must consider those that are in the process of maturing. If he is to fully evaluate the state of the child’s development, the psychologist must consider not only the actual level of development but the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1987, pp. 208–209).

To some educational researchers this translates into the ZPD being or producing a measure of a child’s potential, and they have devised alternative means of measuring and evaluating individual children2 (for example, Allal & ← 28 | 29 → Pelgrims, 2000; Lantolf, 2000; Lidz & Gindis, 2003; Newman, Griffin, & Cole, 1989; Tharp & Gallimore, 1988).


In other passages, however, the ZPD plays a key role in Vygotsky’s argument that learning and development are fundamentally social and form a unity. Joint activity and collaboration in children’s daily lives are also implicated, as in the following passage:

What we call the Zone of Proximal Development…is the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving, and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers. (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86)

Perhaps it was the phrase “more capable” that led to the conceptualization of the ZPD as a form of aid termed prosthesis by Shotter (1989) and Wertsch (1991) and scaffolding by Wood, Bruner, and Ross (1976). This conceptualization has become so popular that the typical college textbook equates the ZPD with scaffolding and (incorrectly) attributes both terms to Vygotsky (for example, Berk & Winsler, 1995; MacNaughton & Williams, 1998; Rodgers & Rodgers, 2004). Moreover, despite Vygotsky’s mention of “peers” in the passage above, most empirical research with this perspective takes “the aid” to be a single, more capable individual, most often an adult (termed “expert” in contrast to the “novice” child).

In keeping with this dyadic interpretation of the ZPD, it is common for “social level” and “interpsychological” to be reduced to a two-person unit in the following oft-quoted passage:

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 all voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher mental functions originate as actual relations between people. (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 57)


At other times Vygotsky emphasized more clearly that the socialness of learning-leading-development is collective, that the ZPD is not exclusively or even primarily a dyadic relationship, and that what is key to the ZPD is that people are doing something together. For example, “Learning awakens a variety of internal developmental processes that are able to operate only when the child ← 29 | 30 → is interacting with people in his environment and in cooperation with his peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 90).

The necessity of collective activity that Vygotsky attributes to the learning-development relationship is at the forefront of his approach to special education. His writings on this subject (collected and published in English as Fundamentals of Defectology, 1997) argue that children with abnormalities such as retardation, blindness, or deafness can indeed develop. They should not be written off or remediated, nor should these children be segregated and placed in schools with only children like themselves. Vygotsky made the point that qualitative transformation (as opposed to rote learning) is a collective accomplishment, a “collective form of ‘working together’” he called it in an essay entitled, “The Collective as a Factor in the Development of the Abnormal Child” (Vygotsky, 2004, p. 202). In this same essay he characterized the social, or interpsychological, level of development (Vygotsky, 2004, p. 4) as “a function of collective behavior, as a form of cooperation or cooperative activity” (p. 202).

I like that phrase, “a collective form of working together.” It seems a good fit with my experience as researcher, teacher, and trainer. I read Vygotsky here as saying that the ZPD is actively and socially created. This is beyond and perhaps other than the popular conception of the ZPD as an entity existing in psychological-cultural-social space and time. For me, the ZPD is more usefully understood as a process rather than as a spatiotemporal entity and as an activity rather than a zone, space, or distance. Furthermore, I offer the ZPD activity as the simultaneous creating of the zone (environment) and what is created (learning-leading-development).


The concept of ZPD activity provides a new way to understand human development that puts creativity center stage. Not creativity as typically understood, however. For in both everyday and psychological discourse, creativity is taken to be an attribute of individuals. Further, creative individuals are understood to produce special things, original, novel, unique, and perhaps extraordinary or extraordinarily significant items, relative to others who are “not creative.” The kind of creativity I am talking about in relation to ZPD activity is not an attribute of individuals but of social units (e.g., dyads, groups, collectives, and so on), and it is not special or extraordinary but ordinary and everyday. (Yet, while mundane, it is also magical!)

How do social units create ZPDs? For one thing, we must be capable of doing what we do not know how to do, either individually or collectively. ← 30 | 31 → Human beings learn and develop without knowing how or that we know. In other words, we become epistemologists without employing epistemology. Vygotsky recognized this seeming paradox of human life, at least in its early childhood version. He understood that developmental activity does not require knowing how, as when he identified “the child’s potential to move from what he is able to do to what he is not” (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 212) as the central characteristic and creative activity of learning-leading-development.

Further, he understood that for young children, knowing how to do a particular thing does not require knowing that they are doing this particular thing. As he put it, “…before a child has acquired grammatical and written language, he knows how to do things but does not know that he knows…In play a child spontaneously makes use of his ability to separate meaning from an object without knowing that he is doing it, just as he does not know he is speaking in prose but talks without paying attention to the words” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 99). This thread of Vygotsky’s thought has, to my way of thinking, been neglected not only in the study of early childhood but also in its implications for understanding and fostering development throughout the life span. If children do not need to know, why do the rest of us (Holzman, 1997; Newman & Holzman, 1997)? This question has been debated vigorously by postmodernists, of course, but very little by cultural historical activity theorists, a situation I have tried to remedy (see, for example, Holzman, 2006a).

Inspired by Vygotsky’s insights into how very young children and children with disabilities go beyond themselves and participate in ZPD activity (creating environments for learning–leading development and simultaneously learning leading–development), my work has been to expand this creative methodology through collaboration with others in building “ZPD–creating–head taller” therapeutic, educational, and organizational practices and simultaneously studying the practices we have built. Development, from this perspective, is the practice of a methodology of becoming in which people shape and reshape their relationships to themselves, each other, and to the material and psychological tools and objects of their world.


Thus far, I have suggested that from a developmental and educational perspective it is useful to understand ZPDs as actively created, that the creators are social units rather than individuals, and that the creative ZPD activity is a non-epistemological methodology of becoming. What is this methodology? In other words, what does being a head taller look like? ← 31 | 32 →

The answer requires taking a new look at imitation. Along with not knowing, imitation has been overlooked by sociocultural researchers in my opinion. And as with not knowing, I suggest that imitation is necessary for creativity in general and for creating ZPDs in particular. In relation to ZPDs, I take my cue from Vygotsky: “A full understanding of the concept of the zone of proximal development must result in a reevaluation of the role of imitation in learning” (1978, p. 87).

As part of his reevaluation, Vygotsky discounted an essentially mechanistic view of imitation that was “rooted in traditional psychology, as well as in everyday consciousness” (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 209). He was also wary of the individualistically biased inferences drawn from such a view, as for example, that “the child can imitate anything” and that “what I can do by imitating says nothing about my own mind” (1987, p. 209). In its stead, Vygotsky posited that imitation is a social-relational activity essential to development noting, “Development based on collaboration and imitation is the source of all specifically human characteristics of consciousness that develop in a child” (1987, p. 210).

Children do not imitate anything and everything as a parrot does, but rather what is “beyond them” developmentally speaking and yet present in their environment and relationships. In other words, imitation is fundamentally creative, by which I mean that it helps to create the ZPD. The kind of language play that typifies conversations between very young children and their caregivers can perhaps provide clarity on this point. Here is one of Vygotsky’s many descriptions of early childhood language development. It is a difficult passage, one that I have to rediscover the meaning of each time I read it:

We have a child who has only just begun to speak and he pronounces single words… But is it fully developed speech, which the child is only able to master at the end of this period of development, already present in the child’s environment? It is, indeed. The child speaks in one word phrases, but his mother talks to him in language which is already grammatically and syntactically formed and which has a large vocabulary… Let us agree to call this developed form, which is supposed to make its appearance at the end of the child’s development, the final or ideal form. And let us call the child’s form of speech the primary or rudimentary form. The greatest characteristic feature of child development is that this development is achieved under particular conditions of interaction with the environment, where this…form which is going to appear only at the end of the process of development is not only already there in the environment…but actually interacts and exerts a real influence on the primary form, on the first steps of the child’s development. Something which is only supposed to take shape at the very end of development, somehow influences the very first steps in this development. (Vygotsky, 1994, p. 348) ← 32 | 33 →

Both developed and rudimentary language are present in the environment, Vygotsky tells us. In that case, what is environment? If both forms of language are present, then environment cannot be something fixed in space and time nor separate from child and mother. Rather, it seems that environment must be both what is the specific socio-cultural-historical conditions in which child and mother are located, and what is coming into existence, the changed environment being created by their language activity. In other words, this environment is as much activity as it is context. In their speaking together, very young children and their caregivers are continuously reshaping the “rudimentary” and “developed” forms of language. It is this activity, I suggest, that is and creates the ZPD, and through which the child develops as a speaker, meaning maker, and language user.


Along with imitation there is another activity taking place in the creating of the language-learning ZPD: completion.3 This idea is based in Vygotsky’s understanding of the relationship between thinking and speaking, in which he challenged the expressionist view of language (that our language expresses our thoughts and feelings). Speaking, he said, is not the outward expression of thinking but part of a unified, transformative process. Two passages from Thinking and Speech are especially clear in characterizing his alternative understanding:

The relationship of thought to word is not a thing but a process, a movement from thought to word and from word to thought… Thought is not expressed but completed in the word. We can, therefore, speak of the establishment (i.e., the unity of being and nonbeing) of thought in the word. Any thought strives to unify, to establish a relationship between one thing and another. Any thought has movement. It unfolds. (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 250)

The structure of speech is not simply the mirror image of the structure of thought. It cannot, therefore, be placed on thought like clothes off a rack. Speech does not merely serve as the expression of developed thought. Thought is restructured as it is transformed into speech. It is not expressed, but completed in the word (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 251).

Instead of positing a separation into two realms, the private one of thinking and the social one of speaking, there is just one: speaking/thinking, a dialectical unity in which speaking completes thinking. Vygotsky was delineating the thinking-speaking process for individuals, but his conceptualization can be expanded in the following way. If speaking is the completing of thinking, ← 33 | 34 → if the process is continuously creative in sociocultural space, then the “completer” does not have to be the one who is doing the thinking. Others can complete for us (Newman & Holzman, 1993; Holzman, 2009). Think about it. Would children be able to engage in language play/conversation before they knew language if thinking/speaking were not a continuously socially completive activity in which others were completing for them?

The ongoing activity of completion can be seen in the conversations that very young children and their speaking caregivers create, as in caregivers’ typical responses to the single words and phrases of toddlers (e.g., Child: “Cookie!” Adult: “Want a cookie?” [getting a cookie and giving it to child] Child: “Mama cookie.” Adult: “Yes, Mommy’s giving you a cookie.”). Like the child’s imitations, completion is also a dominant activity of creating the language-learning ZPD. Together, imitation and completion comprise much of the language play that transforms the total environment, a process out of which a new speaker emerges.

The current culture too often loses sight of what I have presented: not its detail but its general common sense notions. Children do not learn language nor are they taught language in the structured, systematic, cognitive, acquisitional, and transmittal sense typical of later institutionalized learning and teaching. They develop as speakers, language makers, and language users as an inseparable part of joining and transforming the social life of their family, community, and culture. When babies begin to babble, they are speaking before they know how to speak or that they speak, by virtue of the speakers around them accepting them into the community of speakers and creating conversation with them. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, siblings, and others do not have a curriculum, give them a grammar book and dictionary to study, nor remain silent around them. Rather, they relate to infants and babies as capable of doing things that are beyond them. They relate to them as fellow speakers, feelers, thinkers, and makers of meaning. In other words, as fellow creators. This is what makes it possible for very young children to be as though a head taller.


It is time to return to play, the activity to which Vygotsky attributed the “head taller” experience. His writing on play concerned young children’s free play of fantasy and pretense, and the more structured and rule-governed playing of games that becomes frequent in later childhood.

All play, Vygotsky believed, creates an imaginary situation and all imaginary situations contain rules. It is the relationship between the two that ← 34 | 35 → changes with different kinds of play. In the game play of later childhood, rules are overt, often formulated in advance, and dominate over the imaginary situation. The elements of pretend are very much in the background and rules are instrumentally necessary to the playing (Vygotsky, 1978). Think of basketball, video games, and board games.

In the earlier play of very young children, the rich meaning making environment of free and pretend play, the imaginary situation dominates over rules. The rules do not even exist until the playing begins, because they come into existence at the same time and through the creation of the imaginary situation. In Vygotsky’s words, they are “not rules that are formulated in advance and that change during the course of the game, but ones that stem from an imaginary situation” (1978, p. 95). That is, they are rules created in the activity of playing.

When a young child takes a pencil and makes horse-like movements with it, in creating this imaginary situation s/he is simultaneously creating the “rules” (keep jumping, make whinnying sounds, don’t write on the paper) of the play. When children are playing Mommy and baby, the new meaning that the imaginary situation creates also creates the “rules” of the play (for example, how Mommy and baby relate to each other “in character”). In these examples, at the same time as new meaning is being created with pencil, self, and peer, the “old” meanings of horse, pencil, Mommy, and baby are suspended from these objects and people. Both the old and the new meanings are present in the environment. This is analogous to creating language-learning ZPDs just discussed, in which environment is both the specific socio-cultural- historical conditions under which children play, and the changed environment being created by their play activity. Here, as in that case, environment is as much activity as it is context.

It is these elements of free or pretend play that, for Vygotsky, distinguish the play ZPD from that of learning-instruction ZPD:

Though the play-development relationship can be compared to the instruction-development relationship, play provides a much wider background for changes in needs and consciousness. Action in the imaginative sphere, in an imaginary situation, the creation of voluntary intentions, and the formation of real-life plans and volitional motives—all appear in play and make it the highest level of preschool development. (Vygotsky, 1978, pp. 102–103)

In making this distinction, to my way of thinking Vygotsky makes too sharp a break between playing and learning-instruction. Can’t play be the highest level of preschool development and still be developmentally important across the life span? I think so. I think that Vygotsky overlooked some continuity between the two ZPDs, in part because he was so concerned with ← 35 | 36 → learning in formalized school contexts. This continuity, which I have come to believe has significance for later childhood and beyond, relates to the characteristics of creativity in ZPD activity that I have been discussing.

Learning Playfully Outside of School

It is a feature of our western culture (and most other cultures) that we relate to very young children as creative. I mean that both in the sense of creativity I have introduced here: their participation in creating ZPDs and in the more conventional sense of appreciating their individual products (scribbles, phrases, songs, dances, and so on). And we gradually stop doing so as they get older. We bifurcate learning and playing, trivializing play in the process, and have created institutionalized structures to maintain that bifurcation and trivialization. We introduce the concept of work. In nearly all schools the elements of ZPD-creating, freedom from knowing, creative imitation, and completion, are absent.

We also relate to the imitative activity of very young children as creative in both the mundane and the appreciative senses and we gradually stop doing that as they get older. Imitating becomes copying. What once gave delight is to be avoided. A child of three or four years is likely to be told she is clever or smart (or at least cute) for creatively imitating. In nearly all schools, a child of seven or eight is likely to be told she is cheating and shouldn’t copy.

In the extreme, schooling transforms not knowing into a deficit; creative imitation into individualized accomplishments, rote learning and testing, and completion into correction and competition.

This is the current situation. This is what schools do and do not do.4 I am as concerned as the next person about it, but I am equally concerned with bringing informal learning to the forefront of dialogue and debate among educators, researchers, policy makers, and the public. This is because that is where creativity still lives. Putting on a play or concert and playing basketball as a team require the members to create a collective form of working together. Unfortunately, doing well in school does not. My reading of the literature on informal educational or learning programs, along with my own intervention research, shows that these programs (in particular, those involving the arts or sports) are more often than not learning-leading-development environments, methodologically analogous to early childhood ZPDs in a manner appropriate to school-aged children and adolescents. Whether deliberately or not, they continue to relate to young people as creative in both mundane and appreciative senses.

These kinds of cultural informal learning programs share important features, most notably, those that foster activities that create ZPDs: freedom ← 36 | 37 → from knowing and socially imitative and completive activity. First, kids come to them to learn how to do something they do not know how to do. Maybe they want to perform in a play, make music videos, play the flute, dance, or play basketball. They bring with them some expectation that they will learn. They are related to by skilled informal educational instructors, often practitioners themselves, as capable of learning, regardless of how much they know coming into the program. Thus, while there are, of course, differences in skills and experience that young people bring to informal learning programs, the playing field is more level than in school. Really good programs, in fact, use such heterogeneity for everyone’s advantage (Gordon, Bowman, & Mejia, 2003; Holzman, 2006b, 2009).

Second, in these programs it’s OK to imitate and complete; in fact, it’s essential. The presumption is that one becomes an actor, music producer, musician, dancer, and athlete by doing what others do and building on it. From the fundamentals through advanced techniques and forms, creatively imitating instructors and peers, and being completed by them, is what is expected and reinforced.

I have come to view informal learning programs that have these features as learning environments created by, and allowing for, learning playfully. They are, in this sense, a synthesis of Vygotsky’s ZPDs of learning-instruction and of play, not as spatiotemporal zones but as mundane creative activity. For, as in the free or pretend play of early childhood, the players (both students and instructors) are more directly the producers of their environment-activity, in charge of generating and coordinating the perceptual, cognitive, and emotional elements of their learning and playing. Most psychologists and educators value play for how it facilitates the learning of social roles, with sociocultural researchers taking play to be an instrumental tool that mediates between the individual and the culture and, thereby, a particular culture is appropriated (as in the work of Nicolopoulou & Cole, 1993; Rogoff, 1990; Rogoff & Lave, 1984; Wertsch, 1985). Through acting out roles (play-acting), children try out the roles they will soon take on in “real life.” I am sympathetic to this understanding, and yet I think there is more that play contributes to development than this. Being a head taller is an ensemble performance, not “an act.” After all, we don’t say the babbling baby is acting out a role.

I see play as both appropriating culture and creating culture, a performing of who we are becoming (Newman & Holzman, 1993; Holzman, 1997, 2009). I see creative imitation as a type of performance. When they are playing with language very young children are simultaneously performing, becoming themselves. In the theatrical sense of the word, performing is a way of taking “who we are” and creating something new, in this case a newly emerging ← 37 | 38 → speaker, on the stage a newly emerging character, in an outside-of-school program a skilled dancer or athlete, through incorporating “the other.”

In his essay on the development of personality and worldview in children, Vygotsky wrote that the preschool child “can be somebody else just as easily as he can be himself” (Vygotsky, 1997, p. 249). Vygotsky attributed this to the child’s lack of recognition that s/he is an “I” and went on to discuss how personality and play transform through later childhood. I take Vygotsky to be saying that performing as someone else is an essential source of development at the time of life before “I.”

Early childhood is the time before “I” and the time before “I know.” We can never completely replicate the type of lived activity out of which learning-leading-development occurs and “I” and “I know” are created. Nor should we want to. But outside-of-school programs, to the extent that they are spaces and stages for creativity (mundane and otherwise), appear to support young people’s learning-leading-development through revitalizing play and performance. Such programs are precisely the kind of support schools need for as long as schools continue to discourage creativity.


1. Vygotsky used the Russian word “obuchenie,” which refers to both teaching and learning. It is usually translated as “learning.”

2. Lantolf and Thorne (2006) note this misunderstanding and make a worthwhile distinction between scaffolding and development in the ZPD.

3. What I am describing as completion would be identified in language acquisition and linguistics literature by other terms, such as expansion or contingency, which are located within a cognitive framework. My expansion/liberal interpretation of Vygotsky’s terms is not.

4. Reports on the advantages of culturally based outside-of-school programs, including arguments that they can help close the “achievement gap” are many. See for example, Arts Education Partnership, 1999; Bodilly and Beckett, 2005; Childress, 1998; Heath, 2000; Heath, Soep and Roach, 1998; Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1992; Gordon, Bridglall and Meroe, 2005; and Mahoney, Larson and Eccles, 2005.


Allal, L., & Pelgrims, A. (2000). Assessment of—or in—the zone of proximal development. Learning and Instruction, 10(2), 137–152.

Berk, L. E., & Winsler, A. (1995). Scaffolding children’s learning: Vygotsky and early childhood education. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children. ← 38 | 39 →

Glick, J. (2004). The history of the development of higher mental function. In R. W. Rieber & D. K. Robinson (Eds.), The essential Vygotsky (pp. 345–357). New York, NY: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.

Gordon, E. W., Bowman, C. B., & Mejia, B. X. (2003). Changing the script for youth development: An evaluation of the all stars talent show network and the Joseph A. Forgione Development School for Youth (pp. 23–44). New York, NY: Institute for Urban and Minority Educations, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Holzman, L. (1997). Schools for growth: Radical alternatives to current educational models. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Holzman, L. (2006a). Activating postmodernism. Theory & Psychology, 16(1), 109–123.

Holzman, L. (2006b). Lev Vygotsky and the new performative psychology: Implications for business and organizations. In D. M. Hosking & S. McNamee (Eds.), Organizational behaviour: Social constructionist approaches (pp. 254–268). Oslo, Norway: CBS Press.

Holzman, L. (2009). Vygotsky at work and play. New York, NY: Routledge.

Lantolf, J. P. (2000). Sociocultural theory and second language learning. Oxford; New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Lantolf, J. P., & Thorne, S. L. (2005). Sociocultural theory and the genesis of second language development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lidz, C. S., & Gindis, B. (2003). Dynamic assessment of the evolving cognitive functions in children. In A. Kozulin, B. Gindis, V. S. Ageyev, & S. M. Miller (Eds.), Vygotsky’s educational theory in cultural context (pp. 99–116). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

MacNaughton, G., & Williams, G. (1998). Techniques for teaching young children: Choices in theory and practice. French Forests, Australia: Longman.

Newman, D., Griffin, P., & Cole, M. (1989). The construction zone: Working for cognitive change in school. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Newman, F., & Holzman, L. (1993). Lev Vygotsky: Revolutionary scientist. London; New York: Routledge.

Newman, F., & Holzman, L. (1997). The end of knowing: A new developmental way of learning. London; New York, NY: Routledge.

Nicolopoulou, A., & Cole, M. (1993). The generation and transmission of shared knowledge in the culture of collaborative learning: The Fifth Dimension, its play world, and its institutional contexts. In E. A. Forman, N. Minick, & C. A. Stone (Eds.), Contexts for learning: Sociocultural dynamics in children’s development (pp. 283–314). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Rodgers, A., & Rodgers, E. M. (2004). Scaffolding literacy instruction. Strategies for K–4 classrooms. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Rogoff, B. (1990). Apprenticeship in thinking: Cognitive development in social context. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Rogoff, B., & Lave, J. (1984). Everyday cognition: Its development in social context. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ← 39 | 40 →

Shotter, J. (1989). Vygotsky’s psychology: Joint activity in the zone of proximal development. New Ideas in Psychology, 7, 185–204.

Tharp, R. G., & Gallimore, R. (1988). Rousing minds to life: Teaching, learning, and schooling in social context. Cambridge; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1987). The collected works of L.S. Vygotsky (Vol. 1). New York, NY: Plenum Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1994). The problem of the environment. In R. van der Veer & J. Valsiner (Eds.), The Vygotsky reader (pp. 338–354). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1997). The historical meaning of the crisis in psychology: A methodological investigation. In R. W. Rieber & J. Wollock (Eds.), The collected works of L.S. Vygotsky (Vol. 3, pp. 233–343). New York, NY: Plenum Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (2004). The collective as a factor in the development of the abnormal child. In R. W. Rieber & D. K. Robinson (Eds.), The essential Vygotsky (pp. 201–219). New York, NY: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.

Wertsch, J. V. (1985). Vygotsky and the social formation of mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wertsch, J. V. (1991). Voices of the mind: A sociocultural approach to mediated action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wood, D. J., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 17(2), 89–100.

← 40 | 41 →


4.  Agentive Creativity in All of Us: An Egalitarian Perspective from a Transformative Activist Stance


Genius is an exceedingly common human quality, probably natural to most of us.

—John Taylor Gatto

Creativity is a topic of unfading interest and everlasting importance to scholars of human development. It taps into qualities of infinite appeal including novelty and originality, uniqueness and generativity, discovery and innovation, all of which epitomize what is essentially a movement beyond “the given” of the status quo and a search for the new—uncommon and unconventional—ways of being, doing, and knowing. In a fitting vindication of these core qualities of creativity, it is only fair that scholars do not ever seem capable to fully grasp what creativity is and how it comes about. Hardly ever satisfied with what is already known about creativity, we continue on a never-ending quest to rediscover and rethink creativity in novel and unexplored ways. Actually, it makes sense that no definition of creativity apparently is and ever could be definitive or final because this is consonant with the core meaning of what creativity stands for—something that is ever evolving, open-ended, potential, elusive, ambiguous, intangible, forever out of reach by any snapshot view that attempts to reify it.

With this in mind, this chapter calls for an expanded approach to creativity for it to be understood as an inherent characteristic of human condition itself—a characteristic present in each and every act of being, knowing, and doing even in the context of the so-called “everyday” life of supposedly “common” endeavors and allegedly “mundane” circumstances. That is, creativity, along with its features of novelty and uniqueness, generativity and ← 41 | 42 → innovation, discovery and invention, is the defining feature of all human acts including those of making meaning, communicating, and coming to know ourselves and the world. In other words, creativity is the formative (or constitutive) dimension of the human condition and the distinctive feature of what being human is all about. No human action is possible without a degree of creativity, innovation, authorship, and ingenuity, even when solving what appears to be everyday problems and common tasks in ordinary life, because no everyday task is ever completely common and no life is ever completely ordinary.

This approach overturns the traditional portrayals of human beings as essentially passive and merely dwelling in the world fashioned for them by others, that is, as recipients of outside stimuli, or as jugglers of information by means of cognitive modules that are supplied by nature, or as carriers of inherited endowments and hosts of brain biochemistry. Based in Vygotsky’s approach to human development expanded with the transformative activist stance (TAS), these portrayals are supplanted by the notion that people are co-creators and co-authors of their world who are agentive, creative, and constantly innovating (if even only in small ways and on small scales) in always moving beyond the status quo of the world as it currently exists. Although recent theories have moved in the direction of acknowledging that creativity is more common than had been traditionally assumed, developing a fully democratic, egalitarian, and empowering conception of creativity is still the task for the future. Such a conception can be achieved if the whole range of restrictive assumptions that typically accompany thinking about human development and associated inferences about creativity is critically interrogated and overturned. This requires that no less than the worldview level premises about human development are refashioned in ways that account for and integrate creativity and agency—or creative agency cum agentive creativity, since the two always go together—in their ontologically and epistemically central and constitutive role in human life and development.

Moving Beyond the Myths of Creativity

In both everyday discourses and professional literature, creativity is traditionally associated with exceptional accomplishments, special gifts, unique talents, and rare discoveries by outstanding, and as a rule solitary, individuals. Indeed, it is common for all of us to admire, typically with reverential awe and a profound sense of humility, creative giants like Newton and Einstein, Darwin and Vygotsky, Shakespeare and Tolstoy. We habitually picture these geniuses as paragons of some other-worldly greatness that separates them from the ← 42 | 43 → rest of us, as if they were dwelling at unattainable Olympian heights or within the Pantheon for the “chosen few.” This de facto mythology about creativity and talent has been recently debunked by research suggesting that the key factors associated with high achievement and extraordinary accomplishments actually are not to be found in some divine spark or allegedly inborn talent. Rather, creativity is the offspring of much more commonplace qualities, such as deliberate and strenuous practice, as popularized in recent books including “Outliers: The Story of Success” by Malcolm Gladwell and “Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin, among others.

Furthermore, recent research has drawn attention to a whole range of creative acts and expressions that are not confined to the forms of “eminent creativity” only. In addition to a traditional focus on “creative greatness” of eminent and renowned individuals, or those who excel at high levels on creativity measures (so-called Big-C creativity), current studies also explore everyday creativity (Richards, 2007) of the “average” persons (so-called little-c creativity; see Kaufman & Beghetto, 2009). The category of little-c highlights the role that creativity plays in everyday life (Richards, 2007) and points to the importance of nurturing creativity in settings such as schools and classrooms (Beghetto & Plucker, 2006). In reviewing these approaches, Kaufman & Beghetto (2009) argue that the creative insights experienced by students as they learn new concepts or make new metaphors is overlooked in the works focused on little-c. Their suggestion is to add yet another construct to the inventory of creativity descriptors—that of the “mini-c” creativity that highlights the personal (cf. Runco, 1996; Vygotsky, 2004) and developmental (Cohen, 1989) aspects of creativity.

Central to the concept of “mini-c” is that the dynamic, interpretive processes of constructing personal knowledge and understanding are recognized as creative acts, even if they do not gain wide acclaim and instead, are confined to what a person experiences. Aspects of creativity such as openness to new experiences, active observation, and willingness to be surprised and explore the unknown, therefore, are taken to be representative of the initial, creative interpretations (Kaufman & Beghetto, 2009; Richards, 2007). This view is in alignment with the Vygotskian approach and represents a much needed expansion on the notion of creativity that helps to dispel some of its traditional mythology. Yet even this approach, with its premise that the creative potential of the many should not be overshadowed by the creative accomplishments of the few, still preserves some hierarchy separating those who are deemed as creators (albeit admitted to be numerous) from the rest of us. It is not surprising that in this perspective, “most teachers are aware that none of their students likely are in the Big-C category—how many students ← 43 | 44 → are genuine George Gershwins or Marie Curies?” (Kaufman & Beghetto, 2009, p. 3). That is, while laudable in its thrust to deconstruct the narrow view of creativity, this perspective is still viewing some students as less capable than others and still excluding some individuals from the rank of “creators.” An alternative is to acknowledge that all human beings are creative and that all students can be in the Big-C category unless their creative potential is stalled and stifled rather than supported and nourished.

The mythology of creativity as a characteristic possessed only by a select few, or by many “creators” yet not by all individuals, needs to be further and more resolutely challenged. This can be done based on an in-depth analysis of the grounding assumptions about human development in ways that foreground creativity and acknowledge that all (not just many) human beings, without exception, already by virtue of being human are involved in agentively co-creating and co-authoring the world. Along this path, the shift can be made away from an elitist and disempowering approach to creativity that sorts people along some scales of creativity, while diminishing accomplishments all humans can be credited with in their seemingly “ordinary” lives and their so-called “everyday” circumstances. Inventories of creativity ranging from Big-C to small-c and mini-c types still underplay this fundamental equality that in fact can and needs to be written into the very basic premises about human development. The stipulation in this chapter, in following with the tenets of Vygotsky’s theory, is that creativity is actually something we all share as human beings and that, therefore, there is no impenetrable wall separating any one person from even the most prolific and creative giants and creators of any sort and caliber.

In fact, many perceptive teachers have long since known that any child is a genius, if perhaps only in the making. To quote one of these teachers, John Taylor Gatto (2010, p. xxiii), whose words appear in the epigraph of this chapter, “[g]enius is as common as dirt. We suppress our genius only because we haven’t figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women.” The creativity myth that puts some men—indeed, typically white males from privileged circumstances and backgrounds (with some notable exceptions)—on pedestals as extraordinary and exceptional individuals presumably possessing divine qualities and access to transcendent truths serves only to erect barriers between them and the rest of us, magnifying their abilities beyond any reason while diminishing equality among all people and squashing incentives for daring.

Such a statement is not meant to either devalue achievements by our great predecessors or to equalize all accomplishments without regard to their ← 44 | 45 → social significance, import, and value in the context of human history and society. Yet any ranking of creative accomplishments and types of creativity can be made, I suggest, only after the profound and ineluctable creativity of all individuals is acknowledged and ascertained. This suggestion calls attention to what is otherwise overlooked and dismissed, namely the extraordinary complexity inherent within the so-called everyday, ordinary, mundane, and commonplace human lives. A closer look at what an “ordinary” life actually represents, and the formidable challenges that it in fact entails—without the blinders of the mythology of creativity—might reveal surprises. Without such blinders, we might be able to see that all human beings develop while constantly exercising an amazingly creative agency, albeit often inconspicuous and apparently common, as something that all human beings possess, albeit only within collaboratively and socially organized, contextually situated, and culturally supported processes of development as members of human communities.

Vygotsky’s theory has prepared grounds for just such an empowering, egalitarian and democratic understanding of creativity. Indeed, he was extremely attentive to creativity and assigned it with an extraordinarily important role, writing that “the entire future of humanity will be attained through the creative imagination…” (2004, pp. 87–88). Vygotsky also eloquently and directly argued that all human beings are creative:

There is a widespread opinion that creativity is the province of a select few… This is not true. If we understand creativity in its true psychological sense as the creation of something new, then this implies that creation is the province of everyone to one degree or another; that it is a normal and constant companion in childhood. (2004, p. 33; emphasis added)

Vygotsky’s insights have given rise to a varied and productive sociocultural research on creativity that has elaborated on a number of his ideas and advanced many new understandings. What remains to be addressed, however, is how his nontraditional, breakthrough insights that challenged the very core of the creativity concept are connected with, and supported by, Vygotsky’s broader conception of human development. This conception, I suggest, is grounded in a nontraditional worldview—a system of ideas at deep ontological and epistemological levels that defines the core premises related to human condition, social life, development, creativity, and even reality itself. To move on with our understandings of creativity toward a socially empowering and egalitarian approach, an impending task is not only to explicate and strengthen this worldview but to creatively expand it in making the next steps on its basis. ← 45 | 46 →

An Alternative Perspective on Creativity: Expanding Vygotsky’s Insights

Vygotsky’s position that creativity is inherent in all expressions and forms of human beings, knowing and doing, is supported by a worldview that, at one level, can be described as a deeply relational one. Indeed, for Vygotsky, social interconnectedness or relationality constitutes the deepest and most significant feature of human life and development. In this worldview, human development, language, and consciousness represent collaborative achievements of togetherness, that is, achievements of people acting, and therefore also knowing and being, together. This is particularly evident in Vygotsky’s (e.g., 1998) writings on the roots of psychological processes in infancy and his well-known “general law” of development (e.g., 1997). According to this law, the roots of consciousness and self are situated in the distributed field of co-being and co-acting in joint activities of children with adults (from the first days of life) and only gradually become differentiated from this initial social unity (for details and analysis, see Arievitch & Stetsenko, 2014; Stetsenko, 2007). These ideas might be interpreted to imply that individuals are directly shaped by society in a top-down fashion wherein they themselves are relatively passive. However, this is not the case because Vygotsky’s approach integrates ideas about social, relational roots of human development with those of creativity and freedom. This is apparent especially in his approach to the topic of play.

On the one hand, Vygotsky (2004) suggested that play is profoundly social since it originates in the interactions with others and relies on cultural tools that they provide. Importantly, all tools are products of social history of communities who collectively form systems of community practices and forms of cultural mediation that support these practices. On the other hand, however, Vygotsky insisted that play is a fundamentally creative process, producing novelty and originality and thus stretching beyond what is “given” in the present. The great value of play, according to Vygotsky, is exactly that it represents activity context in which freedom becomes possible. This is because play allows for the use of signs and tools in ways that afford distance from the immediately given context through the power of imagination. This is achieved because in play we create imaginary situations in which objects can be used as substitutes for other objects in roles that we assign to them, rather than following with any outside dictates of the context. This experiencing of things coupled with acting with them per one’s imagination is of fundamental importance. As a result of such acting, objects lose their determining force and we learn to be in charge of our own acting. This is no small achievement. Instead of being driven and guided by the “dictate” of objects ← 46 | 47 → and situations encountered in the outside world, children exercise through play in acting that is agentive and self-determined—and thus, fundamentally creative. It is in this sense that Vygotsky brings together the themes of sociality and freedom.

In highlighting agentive acting that is imaginative and creative in that it does not follow any extraneous dictates, Vygotsky’s insights into play is one illustration of how he straddles the boundaries between the relational and the transformative worldviews. Indeed, Vygotsky laid out foundations to move beyond the relational worldview and instead, charted outlines for a novel perspective on human development and subjectivity that supplants this worldview in a transition to the transformative one. In an attempt to articulate, explicate, and elaborate on this novel worldview, a number of specifications have been developed in a perspective that I have termed “the transformative activist stance” (or TAS, see e.g., Stetsenko, 2008, 2010a, 2010b, 2012, 2014, 2015; Vianna & Stetsenko, 2014). This perspective can be applied to understand creativity through an egalitarian lens in that it celebrates creativity as inherent in all forms of human beings, knowing, and doing as discussed in the next section.

Creativity from a Transformative Activist Stance

The TAS builds on Vygotsky’s ideas about collaborative practice as the key grounding for human development, Bakhtin’s notion of becoming (or postuplenie; for elaboration, see Stetsenko, 2007; Stetsenko & Ho, 2015), and Freire’s critical pedagogy—as these are further integrated with insights from recent works in feminist, ecological, and critical approaches. On this foundation, the following expansions are suggested. First, the world is understood as a constantly shifting and continuously evolving terrain of social practices enacted and reenacted by people acting together in performing their individually unique and authentically authorial, or answerable, deeds. That is, the world is posited to be an ongoing and ceaselessly changing process, or a collective forum, composed of communal practices enacted through human struggles and strivings stretching across generations. Each person entering this collective forum and joining in with its dynamics, right from birth, is the core condition and foundation for her or his becoming and development.

Second, these collective and open-ended collaborative practices, although social through and through, are understood to be realized through unique contributions by individual agents acting from their own irreplaceable positions and stances. Each person not only enters these social practices, but realizes and makes a difference in them, thus gradually co-authoring these ← 47 | 48 → practices, and oneself, through enacting and transforming them in view of one’s own unique strivings, struggles, and agendas, that is, as agentive actors of communal world shared with others. The primary emphasis is on people en-countering, con-fronting and overcoming the circumstances and conditions that are not so much given as taken up by people within the processes of actively grappling with them and thus, realizing and bringing them forth in striving to change and transcend them.

A critical expansion offered by TAS concerns the relevance of the forward-looking activist positioning vis-à-vis the sought-after future—what one imagines, deems important, and strives for—and a commitment to bringing this future into reality. The core constituent of human development, mind, and teaching-learning is posited to consist in taking stands and staking claims on ongoing events, conflicts and contradictions in view of the goals, commitments, and aspirations for the future—the process of making up one’s mind as literally a process through which human subjectivity, and processes of teaching-learning, come about and which they are made up of. From this position, the higher mental functions are processes of authorially taking up social practices, in contributing to changing them, by individual qua actors of society and history in always creative, novel, agentive, and transformative—that is, activist—ways.

The resulting view suggests that it is directly through and within the dynamic process of transforming and co-creating their social world that people simultaneously come to be, to know, and to act. In other words, human beings are agents of their own lives and society, as agentive responsible actors of social practices. They do not passively dwell in the world, but instead co-create and co-author it together with other people. Importantly, it is within this creative process of co-authoring the world by contributing to its collective dynamics that people simultaneously co-author themselves in becoming individually unique and irreplaceable within the communal world shared with others.

Based on these broad premises, the processes of knowing, being, and doing are acts of creative transformation contingent on how each individual contributes to social, communal practices by changing their dynamics, creating novelty, and leaving one’s own indelible traces in them. This understanding contrasts with explanations that premise human development on passive processes of people being simply situated in context while merely experiencing what is “given” or reacting to influences and stimuli coming from the outside. A focus instead on creativity and novelty suggests that our acts and deeds do not just take place in the world; rather, we simultaneously bring forth the world and ourselves, in a spiral of a mutual and bidirectional ← 48 | 49 → becoming. Development is grounded in answerable and responsible—rather than responsive—deeds by individuals as agents in the social drama of life rather than as simply “undergoes” of solitary experiences. Individuals come into being while co-creating their world in a relational, synergistic process of reciprocal recognition and mutual becoming.

The Amazing Complexity of the Everyday

The TAS is based in the understanding that humans live within dense and constantly changing, hierarchical social webs of interactions and collaborations infused with infinitely complex and often tacit dimensions including social contracts, rules, responsibilities, expectations, and obligations fraught with contradictory meanings, ambiguities, and high degrees of unpredictability and uncertainty. In this approach, a rigid opposition between creativity and imagination on one hand and the world of ordinary life on the other is eliminated by reintegrating them through the ontological treatment of human life and development as a creative work (or a project) of self- and world-formation. This conceptual shift is accomplished along with the problematization of the notion of reality “as it is” in its status quo, for it to be replaced with the notion of reality as a contested terrain of struggles and strivings of becoming.

That even apparently simple phenomena and processes in the world represent systems of high complexity, refined organization, and sophisticated structure is a profound insight widely acknowledged in physics, biology, and other natural sciences. To illustrate, the physicists Nigel Goldenfeld and Leo P. Kadanoff (1999) wrote,

One of the most striking aspects of physics is the simplicity of its laws. … Everything is simple and neat—except, of course, the world. Every place we look—outside the physics classroom—we see a world of amazing complexity. The world contains many examples of complex “ecologies” at all levels: huge mountain ranges, the delicate ridge on the surface of a sand dune, the salt spray coming off a wave, the interdependencies of financial markets, and the true ecologies formed by living things. Each situation is highly organized and distinctive, with biological systems forming a limiting case of exceptional complexity.

These descriptions apply with equal force, if not a stronger one, to what we traditionally think of as our everyday life and what appears to be its routines and mundane tasks in the context of our seemingly utmost ordinary lives. In fact, the everyday is anything but routine, mundane, or ordinary in the usual connotation of processes that are automatic, noncreative, and not requiring invention, contestation, negotiation, and agency. On a close look, the everyday greets us with bewildering complexity and extraordinary challenges, even ← 49 | 50 → as when we wake up in the morning to “just” prepare for work, “merely” get our children to school, and “simply” engage in any other activities in workplaces, schools, families, and wherever else life takes us. In even these apparently mundane circumstances and activities, we enter a de facto infinite spectrum of human interactions and phenomena, across immeasurable time, within a boundless variety of overlapping contexts that are endlessly complex, unpredictable, fluid, ever-changing, contested, and shifting. This is a highly complex and uncertain terrain composed of activities across a wide spectrum of contexts and time scales, typically in relations with others including those who are close to us, those who we have just encountered for the first time, and those who we don’t even know exist (or existed in the past), yet who also affect us in myriad powerful ways. The same terrain is filled with tasks and challenges, obligations and rules, promises and expectations, hopes and fears, strivings and struggles—not only every day but actually every hour and every minute of each and every day.

That is, even seemingly routine deeds by common people in their utmost ordinary lives are always creative, often innovative, and not infrequently daring—implying that actually no deed is completely routine, no person completely common, and no life completely ordinary. Indeed—truly in deed—no instance of human life, activity, and interaction is exactly like any other and no circumstance of life exactly repeats those in the past, never meaning the same thing nor carrying the same implications depending on when, why, how, what for, and for whom these meanings and implications apply. Such a “behind the surface” and virtually hidden complexity of everyday life mirrors insights about the profoundly creative nature of language. As Bakhtin (1984) describes:

[a]n utterance is never just a reflection or an expression of something already existing and outside it that is given and final. It always creates something that never existed before, something absolutely new and unrepeatable… But something created is always created out of something given… What is given is completely transformed in what is created. (pp. 119–120)

To these important insights it can be added that just as language cannot ever be used in copying or repeating what others had said in the past, so is every new encounter, every circumstance, every relation and every action uniquely novel—underscoring how little there is to repeat, copy, or merely reflect. Instead of reacting to the world “as it is,” we actually face a much more complex reality in which we often ignore the obvious and stretch the possible, extrapolate from the past and predict the future, challenge the taken for granted and forego the expected, grapple with the uncertain, hope for the ← 50 | 51 → unlikely, and desire the impossible. In doing so, our actions extend far beyond what is in front of us, and instead aim at the horizon of what is to come as something that we commit ourselves to. We act based on our anticipations and expectations, often made on a hunch.

We rely on prediction, faith, and intuition, without much certainty for the outcome, nor enough “evidence” to support us in circumstances that are complex, ambiguous, confusing, unpredictable, and constantly changing. We have to solve problems not of our making, as we also constantly create new ones for ourselves and others, every step of the way. For most of these problems, there are no easy answers and rational calculation does not suffice. We not so much rely on perceptions of what is, but more centrally, act based on what could be or might have been, including about events in the distant past we never witnessed, such as when we extrapolate from past events and apply experiences of others to ourselves. We also act based on events that have not yet happened, while we imagine and project into the future. We go by promises and obligations that often stretch what is possible, based on our interpretations of what the events that unfold around us mean or could mean, making sense of connections that are neither straightforward nor guaranteed, following with our stipulations of where our actions might lead and conjectures of what their ramifications could be. We come up with justifications to explain the unexplainable, predict the unpredictable, count on impermanent, calculate the incalculable—all in order to make hard choices in charting our next steps into the unknown.

In this description of the everyday, it is abundantly clear that the world around us is truly a “brute” reality (to use the term that is often chosen by many authors to describe what is real in contrast to what is merely imagined) but not, as traditionally assumed, in the sense of a neutral or distant world separate from us, forged of iron-clad stability and inflexible, predictable reliability. Rather, the world is “brute” in the sense of it being demanding, challenging, and requiring our actions and creative agency in the face of challenges and predicaments that arise in our complex en-counters with reality. Reality itself is changed in these counters that enfold us and the world, thus making reality fuzzy and shifting, incalculable, indeterminate, unpredictable, full of suspense, blended with fantasy and immersed in imagination. Reality, as such, is full of hard choices and uneasy decisions, confusion and doubt, anxiety and struggle, but also permeated with hope and striving—all demanding creative agency in the face of the unknown. Reality itself is in the making—our own making—notwithstanding all the powerful forces that affect us in myriad complex ways, including those that reverberate through history and are thrust upon us at unexpected moments and inopportune times. ← 51 | 52 →

All that can ground and give stability to this fuzzy and unpredictable world, to this shifting and uncertain reality, is our commitment and stance to what is not yet but what we deem worthy of striving for and thus realize it at the intersection with the future. A perspective of TAS on creativity highlights that a person’s activist positioning and stance taking, within the dynamics of participation in community practices, is the core dimension of both collective and individual becoming. For, it is acting from one’s unrepeatable stance and unique place in the world that reality is encountered, experienced, understood, made sense of, and ultimately realized. Viewed through this lens, development is about constant becoming and daring (or postuplenie, to use Bakhtin’s expression) that have to do with taking stands and making decisions, on a daily basis, as to what is right or wrong, as well as what to do next under the pressures of uncertainty, unpredictability, and urgent demands to seek and innovate—all within contexts in which the only permanent “given” is that the world is in constant change, spinning off in unexpected directions, every step of the way, our way, as we shape it in interacting with the world. Human development is a work in progress by people figuring out their stake in the events, claiming their own stand on what is going on, and making their own decisions so that their actions and deeds count and matter, for themselves and others. Most critically, while discovering how to act in creative ways in co-authoring the world, people discover how they themselves matter, and thus embark on the path of becoming individually unique and free in a world shared with others.

Imagination and Play in Light of Agentive Creativity

In highlighting agentive capacities for transformative change captured by the notion of activist stance, creativity is posited as the central, indeed formative, constituent of the human condition and development. Ironically, it is not originality, creativity, or novelty in acting and thinking that require explanation—because these qualities actually “come with the territory” of being human; rather, it is acting while rigidly sticking to routines and rules while mechanically processing information in neutral and dispassionate ways that requires explanation. Unfortunately, these abilities are often “successfully” drilled into children in schools, especially in the present climate of market-driven reforms that target cognitive skills understood in narrow terms as processing allegedly neutral information, thus circumventing learners’ agency and activism while stalling their development as agents of history and society and their own lives. Therefore, it is important to explicitly include creativity among the most basic, formative constituents of human ← 52 | 53 → nature, while understanding that this nature itself is co-created by people acting in communities. This amounts to asserting that it is the nature of all humans to be creative and innovative, instead of listing creativity among the exclusive properties or privileges of “uniquely gifted” individuals and “extraordinary” creators.

The perspective suggested by the TAS sheds light on play as a generic expression of a world that is in the making, providing an optic that allows us to see with particular clarity the nonobvious and creative dimensions of human life. Especially in its dramatic and fantasy forms, play represents a quintessential expression of what is a uniquely human world of possibility, agency, and creativity. Play embodies a type of activity where rules are paramount, yet boundaries are flexible; negotiation and conflict are ubiquitous, yet agreement is possible because the world is open-ended, imperfect, unfinished and un-finalizable. This world, rather than being a brute reality that acts on us as an external force, is a space where our agency is central and we create ourselves in co-creating the world together with others. Play is about acting in ways that do not copy the world as it has been in the past and how it exists in the present. To play is not about simply coping with the world by adapting to its status quo. Instead, to play is to act in novel and creative ways no one has ever done before, each time bringing forth novelty, transcending the given, and realizing the impossible. In the transformative activist process of creative play, nothing is repeated nor merely recreated, but invented and discovered each time anew in unique and authentically authorial ways.

Though play is often described as a fictional world of fantasy opposed to the real, it is actually not a separate or exotic world. Instead, play can be understood as the world of possibility and potentiality, where we are free and connected at the same time. Many authors have written about how fuzzy the boundaries between play and reality are, including Henricks (2006, p. 1) who contends, “…play is the laboratory of the possible. To play fully and imaginatively is to step sideways into another reality, between the cracks of ordinary life.” To expand on this point, it can be added that the “other reality” of play is actually not all together, nor fully, another since the world including in its everyday expressions is much more complex than meets the eye mired in mythology of creativity.

In Conclusion

If reality truly is always in a state of flux, being always uncertain and demanding and having loopholes (as Bakhtin wrote) and thus, in the making and constantly changed by our acts and even by our “mere” presence (because ← 53 | 54 → our presence in never “mere”), then the reality of play in actuality might be more real than the one we encounter through the lens of passivity and resignation that often applies especially in our adult lives. It is through an extended and expanded notion of reality—the one encompassing imagination, creativity, and agency that all capture the possible and the projected, or what is yet to come through the power of our stances and commitments—that play can be seen as not outside of the real. For in play, we might be closer to reality than we are used to thinking—not to reality as it is, because reality never just “is” but to how it could be, as an open-ended possibility in which our quest for freedom in a world shared with others is supported and actualized. This reality is where, by imagining things being otherwise and committing to their realization, we power the impossible into the real and creatively co-create ourselves and the world while undoing the boundaries between reality and potentiality, between the here and now and the imagined, between the present and the future. This agentive creativity results in a simultaneous co-construction of spaces that are both “real-and-imagined” (Soja, 1996) and of our identities that come about through taking our own stances, making our own commitments, and taking up responsibilities that come together with them.

The world of play, creativity, and imagination is not opposed to the real world. Rather, what the former stands for is the real world as it can and should be, if human agency and creativity were given their due place in liberation from top-down controls and constraints on human development and freedom as they now exist. In a Vygotskian and Bakhtinian sense, play and imagination are actually quintessentially real or, I would add, even more-than-real. This idea parallels the famous words attributed to G. K. Chesterton that “fairy tales are more than true—not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” A TAS highlights in addition that the hopeful and existentially important message here is not only that dragons can be beaten but beaten by any one of us, including young children and that, in other words, human beings are in the business of transcending the status quo, be it beating dragons or fighting any other ills and injustices.

If the real world is not like play thus understood, then perhaps it is the real world that needs to change. There is much that children learn in playing, especially in the sense of self-discovery of oneself as a creative agent of the world, which is why the value of this truly existential endeavor cannot be overestimated. Yet it is also true that all of us, as educators, scholars, and simply adults, have much to learn from play—about the world as it can be and about how much needs to be improved if we want to be free ← 54 | 55 → and relational at the same time. Play cannot substitute for the need to meet diverse challenges of life that extend far beyond the playful. For, to celebrate a playful attitude as the key principle in the sense of parodic performance and withdrawal from serious matters is hopelessly and dangerously naïve in the world that is full of conflict and struggle, for all of us and especially those who are on the margins of society and subjected to controls which produce subordination, inequality, and injustice. And yet, creativity and agency—however out of reach they might presently seem to be—need to be acknowledged, asserted, and promoted. The need for such a vision, in foregrounding agentive creativity and creative agency, is especially dire now, in our troubled times, when the impossible is actually more reasonable and more real than the status quo that is in fact unsustainable, unsupportable, and intolerable. Such an optimistic account of human agency and creativity against the bleakness of what we have today as the status quo might be an accurate approximation of what is more-than-real in the sense of what is worth struggling for and committing to, in taking a TAS and thus hopefully powering a different world into existence.


The author would like to thank Maria Arievitch for her editorial assistance.


Arievitch, I. M., & Stetsenko, A. (2014). Developmental trajectories and transformations of cultural mediation: From symbiotic action to psychological process. In A. Yasnitsky, R. van der Veer, & M. Ferrari (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of cultural-historical psychology (pp. 217–244). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Bakhtin, M. M. (1984). Problems of Dostoevsky’s poetics (C. Emerson, Ed. and Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Beghetto, R. A., & Plucker, J. A. (2006). The relationship among schooling, learning, and creativity: “All roads lead to creativity” or “You can’t get there from here?” In J. C. Kaufman & J. Bear (Eds.), Creativity and reason in cognitive development (pp. 316–332). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Cohen, L. M. (1989). A continuum of adaptive creative behaviors. Creativity Research Journal, 2, 169–183.

Gatto, J. T. (2010). Weapons of mass instruction: A schoolteacher’s journey through the dark world of compulsory schooling. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Goldenfeld, N., & Kadanoff, L. P. (1999). Simple lessons from complexity. Science, 284, 87–89. doi:10.1126/science.284.5411.87 ← 55 | 56 →

Henricks, T. S. (2006). Play reconsidered: Sociological perspectives on human expression. Urbana, IL; Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Kaufman, J. C., & Beghetto, R. A. (2009). Beyond big and little: The four C model of creativity. Review of General Psychology, 13, 1–12. doi:10.1037/a0013688

Richards, R. (2007). Everyday creativity: Our hidden potential. In R. Richards (Ed.), Everyday creativity and new views of human nature (pp. 25–54). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Runco, M. A. (1996). Personal creativity: Definition and developmental issues. New Directions for Child Development, 72, 3–30.

Soja, E. (1996). Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and other real-and-imagined places. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Stetsenko, A. (2007). Being-through-doing: Bakhtin and Vygotsky in dialogue. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 2, 25–37.

Stetsenko, A. (2008). From relational ontology to transformative activist stance: Expanding Vygotsky’s (CHAT) project. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 3, 465–485.

Stetsenko, A. (2010a). Standing on the shoulders of giants: A balancing act of dialectically theorizing conceptual understanding on the grounds of Vygotsky’s project. In W.-M. Roth (Ed.), Re/structuring science education: ReUniting psychological and sociological perspectives (pp. 53–72). New York, NY: Springer.

Stetsenko, A. (2010b). Teaching-learning and development as activist projects of historical becoming: Expanding Vygotsky’s approach to pedagogy. Pedagogies: An International Journal, 5, 6–16.

Stetsenko, A. (2012). Personhood: An activist project of historical becoming through collaborative pursuits of social transformation. New Ideas in Psychology, 30, 144–153.

Stetsenko, A. (2014). Transformative activist stance for education: Inventing the future in moving beyond the status quo. In T. Corcoran (Ed.), Psychology in education: Critical theory~practice (pp. 181–198). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Stetsenko, A. (2015). Theory for and as social practice of realizing the future: Implications from a transformative activist stance. In J. Martin, J. Sugarman, & K. Slaney (Eds.), The Wiley handbook of theoretical and philosophical psychology: Methods, approaches, and new directions for social sciences (pp. 102–116). New York, NY: Wiley.

Stetsenko, A., & Ho, P.-C. G. (2015). Serious joy and the joyful work of play: Children becoming agentive actors in co-authoring themselves and their world through play. International Journal of Early Childhood. doi:0.1007/s13158-015-0141-1

Vianna, E., & Stetsenko, A. (2014). Research with a transformative activist agenda: Creating the future through education for social change. In J. Vadeboncoeur (Ed.), Learning in and across contexts: Reimagining education. National Society for the Studies of Education Yearbook, Volume 113, Issue 2, pp. 575–602.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1997). The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky. Volume 4: The history of the development of higher mental functions (R. W. Rieber, Ed.). New York, NY: Plenum Press. ← 56 | 57 →

Vygotsky, L. S. (1998). Early childhood. In R. W. Rieber (Ed.), The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky. Vol. V: Child psychology (pp. 261–282). New York, NY: Plenum Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1999). The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky. Volume 6: Scientific legacy (R.W. Rieber, Ed.). New York, NY: Plenum.

Vygotsky, L. S. (2004). Imagination and creativity in childhood. Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, 42, 7–97. ← 57 | 58 →

← 58 | 59 →

Part Two: Domains of Artistic Expression

← 59 | 60 →

← 60 | 61 →


5.  Where Is the Body?: Understanding Children’s First Signs and Representations from Their Point of View


When my son called me “mammy” for the first time, he slapped his little hand on my chin and looked straight into my eyes. I was touched. He called me his mom. He had been babbling “ma-ma-ma” for some time, but never before addressed me directly. Even though he did not really have to change any sound in his babbling for it to sound correct in Norwegian (mother is pronounced “mam-ma”), there was still a difference in babbling and pronouncing a word—connecting the sound to something graspable. The gesture of slapping could have been a form of pointing, an invitation to a dialogue or an attempt to get my attention—and it really worked. He was addressing me, talking to me. I wonder how he came up with the idea to call me “mammy”? Could he somehow comprehend that I spoke about myself in the third person when I said, “Mammy is here”? How could an eight-month-old even imagine that a set of sounds could represent something?

Most probably, he could not until he sensed my expression of joy. Perhaps it might be exactly the moment he grasped that his action meant something to me, that he understood it could mean something to him, too? A new understanding was negotiated between us: between me, my son, and his multimodal symbols mediated through sounds, hand movements, gaze, and breathing. Luckily, he did not connect joy to the act of slapping my face, but to my excitement of being addressed by him.

As parents and teachers, we are thrilled by children’s first signs, but the signs seem to be only the final products of something much larger. They signify that some kind of creative meaning or negotiating has just taken place “behind the scenes.” A child’s first signs are important achievements; ← 61 | 62 → however, the signs in themselves might not be the most important item of relevance for the child. A developed sign can be seen as a by-product of the main process of meaning making, a deeper and more complex process entailing not merely the signs and their relationships to objects and concepts, but also relationships between the child’s subjective experiences and the particularities of history, culture, contexts, and personal relationships. Connecting thoughts and signs is complex, as Tolstoy noted when he wrote, “The relation of word to thought, and the creation of new concepts is a complex, delicate, and enigmatic process unfolding in our soul” (Tolstoy quoted in L. Vygotsky, 1986 [1934], p. 218). During the process of sign development, a child can become aware of her/his own creative process and of oneself as an engaged subject, director of own learning.

Vygotsky and This Chapter

This chapter addresses the creative process of children’s development of verbal, visual, and multimodal signs and representations, individually, but together with others. According to Connery and John-Steiner, “a major assumption in Vygotsky’s writings is that creative work is profoundly social as well as individual” (2012, p. 132). Children’s creation of signs is motivated by their need to express something meaningful to them and their will to communicate with others. During their search to find what in English is colloquially referred to as “the right words,” children co-construct signs in specific social and physical contexts and in personal ways. Vygotsky (1934) emphasized the personal sense of the creative process of knowledge (Lindqvist, 1995, p. 250) when he wrote:

Meaning and the whole inward aspect of language, the side turned toward the person, not toward the outer world, have been so far an almost unknown territory. No matter how they were interpreted, the relations between thought and word were always considered constant, established forever. Our investigation has shown that they are on the contrary, delicate, changeable relations between processes, which arise during the development of verbal thought. (L. Vygotsky, 1986 [1934], p. 254)

This quote reminds us that the “inward aspects of language” relate to delicate and changeable processes on an individual level. Young children’s inner processes are hidden within their preverbal world and difficult to grasp. We can never know which processes find a place inside a child’s mind, but their actions and expressions can tell us about the inner processes.

In this chapter, I will try to make visible the ways in which children’s meaning making processes are complex and contextual; imaginative and emotional; ← 62 | 63 → and embodied and relational. Such complexity will, for instance, be notable in a story about a two-year-old boy who created a multimodal expression about his first experience with a horse. He used an imaginative combination of hand gestures, head shaking, snorting sounds, and the word “pan,” which is “bread” in Spanish, in order to express his emotionally loaded experience inside the specific social context. Children’s sign making processes depend on complex relations between (a) a child with all her/his unique biological, emotional, physical, cognitive, and other attributes; (b) other people, including adults and children involved in the specific sociocultural contexts, including their biological, emotional, physical, cognitive, and other attributes and; (c) physical environment, time and space, present objects and their materiality, affordances and constraints. The short vignettes I will present will characterize this complexity.

Turning Toward Individual Experience

In keeping with Vygotsky’s project, this chapter aligns the sign development of young children to their creative endeavors and cognitive accomplishments. How do they make connections between the “real world” and verbal, visual, and other signs? I am not interested in children’s imitations or repetitions of signs adults have showed them first, but the processes driven by a child’s own reasoning. I’ve been fortunate to accompany children younger than three in their developmental, creative, and cognitive processes in several projects including my doctoral research with 3- to 5-year-old children (Fredriksen, 2011a, 2011b, 2011c, 2012). As a visual art teacher of early childhood educators, I have been most focused on understanding how materials such as clay, sand, wool, or wood influence children’s meaning making. However, the processes of meaning making cannot be assigned to the materials alone: Explorative material play leads to diverse multimodal expressions. Through my presence in play contexts and video analysis of play events, I have developed a methodology that empirically evidences how young children construct sense relations between their thoughts, words, and experiences that, according to Vygotsky (Vygotskij & Kozulin, 2001), are in constant oscillation.

My doctoral study was part of a larger collaborative research project called “Children’s Learning Through and About Language” based on Vygotskyan sociocultural perspectives. The project operated with an extended definition of “language” and my study, later called “Negotiating Grasp,” aimed for a better understanding of how children communicate through three-dimensional (3D) materials and how they learn through expressions through such “three-dimensional language.” During the study, I became more engaged in ← 63 | 64 → the phenomenon of relations between verbal and other languages, and relations between social and individual dimensions of meaning making processes. At some point, I started to sense how my path was slightly departing from Vygotsky’s route, making a sharper turn toward children’s individual and preverbal experiences.

As individuals with separate bodies and sense systems, each person goes through a different set of experiences. Even though creativity can be seen as collective, each creative activity is directly linked to the individual’s experiences (Vygotskij, 1995 [1930]). The concept of “experience” is applied here in a similar way to Vygotsky’s concept of “perezhivanie,” which is a deeply, engaging event, that remains in our memories and influences our personalities. Such perezhivanija/lived experiences are a unity of emotional, cognitive, embodied, and physical factors (Dewey, 2005 [1934]). The fact that I, myself, was engaged in the children’s play during the study made my own experience or perezhivanie a tool for my own understanding: I was researching my lived experiences (Van Manen, 1997). My understanding of the children’s experiences depended on my abilities to connect to my “autobiographical emotional memories” (Ferholt, 2010), past actions and experiences, proficiencies to notice and emphatically connect to the children’s experiences/perezhivanija.

Cultural and Historical Contexts

Meehan, John-Steiner, and Kennedy noted that “Cognitive pluralism attests that biology, sociocultural context, and a variety of semiotic mediational means interact in human cognitive functioning. Within this model, explanatory principles cannot be reduced to one component or another” (1995, p. 372). Coinciding with the idea of cognitive pluralism, my study is in many ways situated within Vygotsky’s framework, but the investigation took place in distinct and diverse cultural-historical contexts in which cognitive pluralism (John-Steiner, 1997) and Vygotsky’s original theories were developed. Cultural influence affects researchers’ attitudes, subjectivities, and assumptions. For example, assumptions about children’s development or adults’ cognitive superiority influence adults’ abilities to understand young children. The specific Norwegian context of the study, where acknowledgment of children’s voices and perspectives is required by law (Ministry of Education and Research, 2005), demanded the reduction of power inequities between the children and myself in order to allow their voices to come forth during the investigation. During my interactions with the youngest of them who was three years and 18 days old, the absence of verbal communication challenged ← 64 | 65 → me to become more attentive to all of the children’s nonverbal and multimodal expressions. On the other hand, my attempt to minimize expectations of what they could or should do made it possible for the children in the study to act in unconventional ways, liking stepping on clay, and free their imaginations.

One of the most central premises of Vygotsky’s work is that “thinking, feeling, and acting are historical, social, and cultural practices” (Connery, 2006, p. 30). Therefore, it seems highly legitimate that each of us today makes different interpretations of our past, present, and future. Contemporary historical and cultural contexts, on the global and local levels, are different from the world Vygotsky lived in and made sense of almost a hundred years ago. However, specific social-historical contexts often function as invisible forces on our thinking, actions, and understandings. We depend on them, but are not aware of the extent to which they influence us, like Geertz’s (1993) metaphoric spiders who, tangled in their own web, are unable to view the world from the outside. Our reasoning is deeply grounded in our subjectivities and it is hardly possible to discern how we think from who we (Stake, 2010). Hence, in the list below, I have identified some of the reasons for my understanding of young children’s sign making, those that specifically differ from Vygotsky’s standpoint:

1. In contemporary Nordic countries, children are seen as competent individuals and democratic participants, capable of expressing their needs before they can talk. Emphasizing the child’s individual point of view was also a methodological choice that demanded an even or equitable distribution of power between myself and the research participants, by disregarding age differences.

2. In my view, similar to the theoretical platform of symbolic interactionism (Blumer, 1969), there are biological similarities between humans and other species. Both animals and humans learn from sense experiences and other functions of the body. Many of the basic needs are biological, including our cultural nature (Rogoff, 2003). Our abilities to communicate though body language, eye contact, gestures, delicate expressions of emotions, intersubjectivity, and other means, essential for the co-construction of meaning, are inherently embodied. While Vygotsky (1978) emphasized that humans are different from animals because we can use tools and talk, while animals cannot, my research draws on the similarities between humans and animals within an ecological-philosophical perspective espoused by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Ness who introduced the concept ← 65 | 66 → of “eco-sophy” also known as ecological philosophy (Næss, Drengson, & Devall, 2008).

3. As I see it, one of the underlining assumptions in Vygotsky’s writings is that attuning to a culture has a positive effect on a young individual. Through my research, influenced by contemporary challenges in education on a global level, I have come to the conclusion that the social cultivation of current understandings that build on economic and meritocratic forces can have negative influences on children’s understanding of themselves, their meaning making, and quality of life. These notions evolve into global forces that drag children away from acknowledging that the senses, attention, time, engagement, dwelling, intersubjectivity, and other aspects of perezhivanie or lived experience are essential to the quality of life on a personal level, as well as to the survival of our planet. A larger, important, complex and sensitive question, that is too massive to address in this chapter, is how we view the relationship between culture and nature.

4. Vygotsky applies the concept of “tools” to both physical and psychological tools. Considering the historical and political context Vygotsky was situated in, it is possible that he emphasized the psychological nature of tool use in meaning making and that mechanical tools like a hammer were not considered as prominent as intellectual tools. As an art teacher who values physical manipulations of materials with and without tools, I view embodied activities that engage muscles, senses, attention, and other dimensions of experience as the most valuable for the development of cognition, creativity, and responsibility. Agreeing with Vygotsky’s emphasis on tools and intersubjectivity, locating myself in the specific historical-political, sociocultural, and individual position, I stress the use of physical tools to be essential to meaning in addition to psychological tools and intersubjectivity.

5. Influenced by the production of knowledge and academic milieu of his time, Vygotsky’s concepts held other focus, meaning, or weight for him than they have for individuals and groups of scholars from this digital, global era. For example, Vygotsky distinguished between lower and higher mental functions, stating, “Lower mental functions are connected to the developing physiology of the meaning maker, including basic sensation, perception, memory, attention and thought” (Connery, 2006, p. 40) while “higher mental functions are based on social relations and are therefore products of mediation” (Connery, 2006, p. 41). Since words are often understood according to their metaphorical references, I assume that his descriptive ← 66 | 67 → terminology of the use of “lower” and “higher” propose a certain hierarchy that is also is a hierarchy of values. In my view, “lower” and “higher” functions in a child’s development are mutually intertwined, and there is no hierarchy between subjective and objective; basic sensations are necessary for concept-forming in young children to the same degree as the social relations that influence a child from the first day of her/his life.

An attentive reader has probably noticed that the abovementioned points refer to ontological and epistemological issues caused by differences in time, space, and location between Vygotsky’s and my own cultural-historical and political-historical contexts. However, my argument does not suggest that the conceptual tools Vygotsky provided were not highly valuable and relevant to my study; indeed, I consciously appropriated his rich framework while building on it at the same time. Having established this stance, the next section of this chapter will introduce the concepts of sign, symbol, and representation.

Children’s Signs and Representations

Preverbal Experiences

In the first chapter of this book, the authors remind us that most scholars within the cultural-historical tradition emphasize verbal language as an essential cognitive tool. Similar to Connery, John-Steiner, and Marjanovic-Shane’s (2010) notions in the first edition of this book, I recognize the critical role of verbal language, but prefer the notion of cognitive pluralism (John-Steiner, 1997; John-Steiner & Mahn, 1996). The importance of nonlinguistic and embodied forms of communication and thinking should not be overlooked. We all have individual bodies before we develop verbal language and it is the body that is “the most fundamental mediating tool that shapes our understanding” (Egan, 1997, p. 5). Understanding young children’s sign development demands attention to their embodied ways of being in the world and consideration of the complex capacities of the human body. These capacities, biological predispositions or “embodied competences” (Fredriksen, 2011a), include the power of imagination, attention, intersubjectivity, holistic experience, emotional engagement, the will to act upon physical and social environments, and the ability to negotiate contextual understandings in order to make meanings (Fredriksen, 2011a).

Our childhood is always with us. As the famous Russian trio wrote, “Even the most exalted forms of activity or creativity turn out to be connected with the remote past. Man emerges as the slave of his early childhood” (Vygotsky, ← 67 | 68 → Ivanov, & Leontiev, 1971, p. 81). Vygotsky’s powerful metaphor “the slave of early childhood” expresses the fact that none of us can escape his or her early experiences.

Childhood lived experiences/perezhivanie are preverbal and therefore hard to describe. Experiences and contexts from when our concepts were first formed are long forgotten, but many of the same important concepts capture the spirit of our past and continue to shape our present understandings (Efland, 2004; Egan, 1997; Van Manen, 1997). We cannot go back in time to revisit the moments of the birth of our own concepts. However, accompanying young children in their processes can help us better understand what we cannot study in ourselves.

Defining Signs and Representations

When we sense the wind increasing its intensity and dark clouds chase across a turbulent sky, these natural phenomena can be a sign that a storm is coming. We can read and understand this sign if someone has told us what to watch for, if we had seen a storm or, even better, if we had experienced it with all its power, and become wet and cold. The lived experience would most probably make us remember what to watch for.

Aside from natural signs, there are conventional signs that communicate meanings people within a group have agreed upon. Such conventional signs “include words, movements, images, sounds, gestures and any other phenomena that might symbolize or re-present thought” (Connery, 2006, p. 41). Signs can point to something abstract or concrete, present or absent, but in and of themselves, they are always something directly observable. A sign is a “physical fact” (Langer, 1957, p. 16) that often does not mean much in itself. For example, babbling like “ma-ma-ma-ma” are only sounds until they are assigned meanings that connects them with something or someone, in this case a mother. From that point of connection, the sounds can have meaning and function of addressing a dear person, including her mothering. The transformation of an infant’s babbling into expression or a sign takes place when the infant, through response from his environment, becomes aware of the meaning of his own sounds and actions (Dewey, 2005 [1934]). The sound combination “mam-ma” became a sign when my son and I agreed about it.

Langer (1957) distinguishes between signs and symbols. She notes that signs point to something present in the context, and since most words in adult conversation are used to talk about things that are not present, they are not signs, but symbols. Symbols are substitutes for something that is ← 68 | 69 → not present, notably: “Instead of announcers of things, they are reminders. They have been called ‘substitute signs’” (Langer, 1957, p. 24). I was present when my son pointed to me by touching, looking at, and addressing me; he made a sign not a symbol. The concept “symbol” is complex and not quite relevant for a chapter that addresses young children in micro-contexts; a symbol is something that has shared meaning within a larger group of people, while children’s first signs usually concern meaning sharing between very few people, and like in the vignette offered at the start of the chapter, often only between a child and a caregiver.

The concept of representation is relevant for this chapter when visual representations are discussed. This notion of re-presentation can be understood as both an object and a process, as (a) a visual form the child has invented in order to represent something from the real world, and (b) a mental activity that goes beyond the perception of objects (Golomb, 2002). Visual representations are fluid and changeable: A dot on paper can be an eye, a fly, or a grain of sand. The same representation can, in one moment, point to one referent and, in the next, change the signified and possess a completely different meaning for the child who is drawing. The process of representing something is interesting in this context; before young children are capable of making signs, they have to realize that something can stand for another item. The mental activity involved in this realization is parallel to the process of making visual representations.

Visual Signs

Different types of signs, including verbal, visual, gestural, facial, and 3D signs, have specific qualities that distinguish them from each other. Diverse sign types require different senses and types of action and relate differently to time and space. For example, verbal signs depend on someone’s ability to hear them while gestures depend on a person’s ability to see during the moment the gesture is performed. It is only when the gesture is noticed in the moment that it can have impact on the ongoing communication. A visual sign on paper or other materials remains after the sign has been made. Such 2D and 3D signs are available both for the child and others after the sign has been made. When a child draws something on paper, s/he can observe the shape on the paper and assign meaning to it; add something: or in other ways, be challenged to think and act. In that sense, visual representation temporarily stabilizes a child’s experience and imagination so that both the meaning maker and their making of meaning can be reconstructed through an “editing process”; be made public; and contribute to the invention and transformation ← 69 | 70 → of meaning (Eisner, 1990). Meanings emerge continually through perceiving, experiencing, and exploring within the process of representation; during the child’s process of communication with her/his own representations; and during communication with others.

In verbal language, signs are a combination of “sound words” that seldom have direct resemblance with the objects they represent or their referents. There is nothing dog-like in the way the word “dog” is pronounced or written. Young children often make signs that in some way imitate the real world: a sign for a dog could be “wooff-wooff,” resembling the sounds a dog makes. Children make up signs that in some way remind them of a referent, and are not necessarily linked to visual qualities. A child’s verbal sign for an object can resemble the sounds that the object made the first time the child experienced the item. For instance, my cousin once invented the made-up word “tika-la-la-la” for a key ring.

An adult’s visual image can resemble visual qualities more or less precisely. The visual image of an apple can really look like an apple, but is not an apple, similar to Rene Magritte’s pipe which is not a real pipe. Young children can see similarities between real-world objects and visual images when they, for instance, read picture books. However, making their own representations is a more complex process, which does not necessarily involve the visual qualities of the objects themselves.

For a child, the act of moving a pencil tip over a piece of paper can represent a car in motion. The child’s “brrrrrr” sound made during the activity could be a clear sign if someone was there to hear it. Another recognizable sign for a car would be the intensity of the child’s pushing movements, if someone was present to observe such gestures in the drawing moment. But, when the drawing is viewed after the activity, the lines on the paper might not look like a car at all and may not represent an actual sign in an adult’s eye.

Again, for the child, lines can be the representation of something experienced that later might develop into visual signs, letters, or words. Traces on the paper might actually be reminders of the activity of driving, as well as results of mastery in holding a pen in a particular position and moving it with suitable pressure and speed across the paper. Thus, Langer notes, “The growth of [this] sign-language runs parallel with the physical development of sense organs and synaptic nerve-structure” (1957, p. 23). The first processes of visual representation are sensory motor experiences, trial and errors in exploring the affordances of the tools and materials. At some point, when a child masters the motoric of circular pencil movement, s/he can suddenly notice a pair of spots that stare back from the drawing sheet. ← 70 | 71 →

I watched my own son draw some of his first representations of a human being. He made a large circle with two dots, which signaled eyes, and two vertical, almost parallel lines starting from the lower part of the circle. I enthusiastically said to him, “Oh, fantastic! A face, and eyes, and two legs…Is there anything else?” He was standing beside a living room table and took a step back. His arms were hanging relaxed on each side of his body. He then bent forward so that his upper body formed a 90-degree angle with the lower half of his body. As he bent, his arms followed his upper body; separated from his hips; and disappeared behind his back. He looked at his body, facing his knees. Then, he slowly straightened up and answered my question, exclaiming, “No!” Young children’s representations of human beings usually look just like this including—a head and two legs. But where was the body? My son showed me why he did not draw the body! I was overwhelmed by this new understanding, thinking: “Oh, he made a drawing of himself! Not as he could see himself in a mirror, but looking down on his body!” My son helped me to understand that he created a representation that literally reflected his physical “point of view.” His drawing was a self-portrait. I have learned from diverse literature on drawings that children all around the world make their first sign for a human in quite the same way with a circle, two dots, and two lines. I question, “Are all of them making self-portraits?” Even though I proposed the concept that a symbol might not be relevant, I wonder if this specific visual sign conveying meanings on a global level is a symbol for THE human—or rather a symbol for a child that makes sense of the world from her/his own, subjective, locational point of view.

Three-dimensional Signs

Vygotsky emphasized the multimodal nature of sign development; children use sign language, facial expressions, and gestures during verbal language acquisition (Connery, 2006), and the other way around; they also use verbal language, gestures, singing, and jumping while they are developing visual and 3D signs. Representations made in 3D materials, like clay, wood, or sand, are physically manipulable and therefore more similar to objects from the real world (Trageton, 1995). For example, a clay sign for a ball can actually be represented with a little ball that can roll over the floor. Shape and other properties of real objects can easily be recreated in malleable materials like snow, clay, or dough. The process of creating 3D representations is, therefore, more straightforward than in drawing, where the 3D world has to be translated into 2D representations. Similar to some toys, objects shaped in soft clay can represent objects, animals, and people that children use in their ← 71 | 72 → dramatic play. Children can easily reshape clay with bare hands, add sounds and voices to the material, and move the matter in ways similar to real life; a random lump of clay can become a sign when it is used in a specific way. If we listen to the sounds a child makes and watch how the lump of clay might be jumping, rolling, or flying, we might understand which kind of object/animal the material represents. However, the lump in itself would not be a sign to us if we were not present during the child’s play with the shaped clay.

Creative Processes of Sign Making

The examples that will be presented in this section are selected from my participant observations during children’s play with 3D materials. While I did my very best to be attentive to the children, some of the sign making processes were so subtle that they remained unnoticed when occurring in the actual context. These processes were only captured and observed during the review of video data. The videos uncovered how some children’s signs were created with lightning speed, while others took a long time to develop. It is important to note that while I could watch the videos over and over to try to understand the process of the development of 3D signs and the children’s thoughts behind them, I could never truly be sure what was going on in children’s minds.

Breath as a Sign

Vygotsky (2004 [1930]) claimed that imagination is especially important because it allows one to imagine what they have not experienced themselves. In his view, one’s repertoire of experiences is broadened when one can “conceptualize something from another person’s narration and description of what he himself has never directly experienced” (L. S. Vygotsky, 2004 [1930], p. 17). I believe that Vygotsky’s concept applies well to adults who have diverse experiences from the past and are able to imagine on the basis of similar experiences. However, for young children who have only few experiences from which to draw on, it is difficult to imagine a concept that is completely novel, new, or alien.

Therefore, the question of firsthand and secondhand experience comes to the forefront of our discussion. Some of the children in my study observed my own activities with materials and emotionally connected with myself or with the material. Though they had never experienced the same activity before, they had experienced similar or empathetic feelings and sensations, and could therefore imagine my own feeling and sensations. Imagining other people’s feeling is the basis for empathy. ← 72 | 73 →

Slicing clay. For example, a boy in my study, William, was holding his breath while I was slicing a piece of clay with a thread. He looked amazed at my actions as if he was witnessing something impossible. The moment a slice of clay separated from the larger piece, William exhaled, relaxed his body, made a giggling sound, and gestured with a particular hand movement that said: “Easy! Just like that!” This hand movement, together with his breath, was a multimodal sign directed to me within that context. William’s tense body language told me that he had never witnessed such an activity before. He intersubjectively connected with my efforts and expressed his excitement by holding his breath. His intensive gaze and look on his face told me that he was expecting something to happen, but did not know what—his body language signaled curiosity.

The next time William got a chance to carry out the same activity, his cutting-clay-experience became more colorful when performed from his own first-person perspective (Stelter, 2008). He could feel the contractions in his arm muscles; the sharpness of the thread between his fingers; and the invisible requirement to attune his movements to the materials’ affordances and constraints. William did not tell me about his experiences; I had to interpret them from his gestures and other signs.

Clay is like a body. In another example, a five year-old girl, Emma, explained with words and body language her new insights about clay. While she was manipulating clay, Emma suddenly lit up and started to talk with an engaged voice. From the look on my face, she grasped that I did not understand, so she started to explain herself with a distinctive combination of physical movements, sounds, while pointing and articulating out loud, “Just like when we run, the body gets tired.”

While Emma was talking, she was imitating the actions of running and weight lifting; in the moment she pronounced the word “tired,” she exhaled strongly through rounded lips. I obviously still looked like I didn’t understand, so she continued explaining while pointing to her mouth by saying, “Warm! The mouth is warm. And warmth comes to the body and skin … and one is warm inside.” She stopped for a minute to look at me and check if I understood. I still didn’t quite understand her, but I was making an honest effort to do so.

Emma then stretched her arm toward me and pointed with the hand that was holding the clay, saying “Just like the clay!” Now I understood!—She could see or feel the signs of my new understanding even before I confirmed my insight verbally, stating: “Oh, you’ve got something really important there!” A huge smile covered her face and her whole body expressed pride and joy. The way she moved in her chair displayed an unmistakable sign of ← 73 | 74 → self-importance as interpreted by multiple teacher education students who have seen the video.

I feel lucky that I was engaged in this episode that provided access to Emma’s meaning making processes as they unfolded. I am not able to describe all of the signals and signs she, myself, and another boy, Thomas, who was sitting with us shared in the context. I imagine that it would be difficult for people outside the context to understand what our conversation actually was about. However, it might be helpful to know that when the three of us met an hour earlier, I presented different types of clay and asked the children to help me find out which kind of clay would be best to buy for children in their preschool. In the situation presented above, Emma was explaining about the clay’s change of consistency: Our conversation had neither started nor stopped there. The negotiation of meaning continued when Thomas became involved and wondered what the girl was trying to explain. She explained her understanding again in the first scenario presented above, but in a different way with quite a different and distinguished explanation of how and why the clay became soft. From the way she changed her explanation, I am quite certain that her thoughts were not ready-made before her words, but were under co-construction during our multimodal conversations. Her expressions seemed to represent her thinking as inner speech that “is a dynamic, shifting, unstable thing, fluttering between word and thought, the two more or less stable, more or less firmly delineated components of verbal thought” (L. Vygotsky, 1986 [1934], p. 249). Emma’s effort to construct meaning by making connections between her thoughts and experiences, as Vygotsky proposed, was so comprehensible, possibly because both of us did our best to attune to each other: we were taking short breaks in our conversation in order to read each other’s signs. Thus, the sign reading activity was also readable as a sign of mutual interest and respect.

In sum, Emma taught me about the significance of her perezhivanie/lived experience to and within her process of meaning making. The lump of clay in her hands had an important role in this process. Though she was not making a sign in clay to represent an object or animal, her manipulation of the clay and attention to its gradual change of consistency reminded her of the soma-esthetic experience (Shusterman, 2008) of becoming warm and tired during working out. She compared the softening of muscles in training to the “clay’s body,” though, I would not say that the lump of clay was a 3D sign for a human body, because this did not seem to be her intention. Emma emphatically and empathetically connected with the clay, personified it, and explained that the clay became tired and soft after it had been exercising. Her theory in transition was personal and contextual; it was a kind of metaphor. Her ← 74 | 75 → gestures, pointing, breath and other signs, together with her discontinuous verbal explanations, can be called “embodied metaphors,” a concept invented for the purpose of my study (Fredriksen, 2011c) to explain how young children express connections between their past and present experiences, but do not necessarily use verbal signs to share these new insights.

First Symbols Are Highly Personal

Caballo/Horse. Once, I visited a friend in Spain where I witnessed an extraordinary event: a two-year-old boy, Umberto, constructed a new concept. I did not speak Spanish and his “multimodal word” was not easy to understand even for those adults in the context who did speak Spanish. Umberto stretched out his arm with an open palm and said “pan, pan.” Then he made the sound “prprprprprpr…” by blowing though his lips while simultaneously and quickly shaking his head.

To be able to understand his concept-under-construction, one has to know that “pan” means bread in Spanish. One also has to imagine Umberto’s little hand holding a piece of bread while bravely stretching out his tiny arm while keeping his body as far as possible from his hand. Umberto “compressed” a whole story into one word of “pan.” His multimodal expression referred to the experience of his first meeting with a horse. Through his gestures and sounds Umberto described how he fed the horse with his body movements, while his sound and head shaking described what the horse did. His creative expression was initiated and constructed alone, by himself, from his firsthand experience. Umberto was very excited and motivated to share this experience with everyone, especially the woman that introduced him to the horse. He repeatedly approached her while running around a crowd and “telling” people about the horse. At first, his audience did not understand; they had to become familiar with the subject and circumstances of his communication in order to comprehend his message (L. Vygotsky, 1986 [1934]). But soon everyone knew about Umberto’s meeting with the horse and they responded to him by saying, “Sí! Caballo!” or, “Yes! A horse!” By doing so, interlocutors acknowledged his sign; helped him to learn the word “horse”; and unknowingly motivated him to compress his embodied experiences into a single word.

Vygotsky wrote, “In inner speech, one word stands for a number of thoughts and feelings, and sometimes substitutes for a long and profound discourse” (1986 [1934], p. 148). The example presented here illustrates sign development in progress before a word was formed. Umberto’s multimodal signs were his way of communicating before he knew that all of the ← 75 | 76 → signs could be substituted with the single word “horse.” If the boy learned to use the word “horse” that day, he would probably be using it to represent the specific experience with the horse. In keeping with Vygotsky, the word “horse” would be a whole sentence, and even more: a whole story (1986 [1934], p. 219). As Vygotsky suggested, “In inner speech, the phenomenon reaches its peak. A single word is so saturated …it becomes a concentrate of sense” (1986 [1934], p. 247). This saturated word functions as the concentration of his first experience in that specific context.

Children support what they want to say by active use of their bodies to explain through showing, and they invent words that “are expressively suitable to what they wish to say” (Eisner, 1990, p. 47). The moments of establishing connections between past and present experiences are driven from the inside and supported by emotional engagement. Our words are loaded with feelings from the specific contexts where the concept was first conceived. If learning verbal language springs from one’s own experience, whether the experience is real or imaginative, then each of us has a uniquely personal and emotive understanding of concepts.

Cuddle cloth. When three-year-old Eva and Marit were exploring pink textiles, they were reminded of their past experiences with textiles, but also of other materials and objects. While aspects of their present exploration during the study reminded them of experiences outside the context, they did not call attention to these direct reminders, but expressed them using metaphoric language. For example, Eva said “cuddle cloth!” while she was smelling a piece of textile and stroking it over her chin. From this multimodal expression, I imagined she was talking about a specific piece of material that she was very familiar with which she held emotional connections. Her expression was a metaphor that referred to something outside the context, but was more than that. She was not talking about any kind of “cuddle cloth” and category of cloths, but about a specific, unique item, with exceptional qualities; her cloth could not be bought in a shop by picking a cuddle cloth from a rack.

As Connery (2006, p. 79) suggested, “children will assign words to objects based on the physical attributes of their referents.” We often assume that such physical attributes are visual, but children are as much concerned about features related to smell, texture, transparency, or movement. Eva’s experience with materials made her recall her past experiences and generate her associations with a familiar object. Significant qualities for Eva could have included the smell, texture, thickness, and softness of the actual handheld material. These same qualities were the physical attributes she assigned to the notion of a “cuddle cloth.” Children’s first words often refer to their perezhivanie/lived experiences with specific objects or people. According to ← 76 | 77 → Merleau-Ponty (1962), associative connections can be possible only because experiences include different senses and a spectrum of different qualities.

Eva’s concept of “cuddle cloth” was highly contextual and not a generalized category of words/concepts that are often used by adults. As Connery notes, “The use of signs affords an efficient means of mediating generalizations.” (2006, p. 41). Stern (1998) also asserts that verbal language is an ideal medium for generalizing and categorizing information. The general content of a word is too narrow to embrace the width and depth of children’s experience. The gap between the personal meanings children assign to a word and the meaning the word conveys to others is often so large, and can be frustrating for them (Stern, 1998). Because of young children’s competencies to experience the world holistically, Stern (1998) proposes that, in some ways, verbal language acquisition might threaten the depth of the individual’s experience.

Common Words and Misunderstandings

Stamping clay. Stern (1998) also shows a number of examples that indicate how much knowledge young children have before they can speak. Studying young children in the phase of emerging verbal language makes it possible to understand transitions between their embodied and verbal thinking. The example of three-year-old Tom, described in the vignette below as one participant in a small group, shows his search for signs to represent an understanding that he had previously made. He was not sure how to pronounce the words that could help him communicate the specific meaning he wanted to share, yet this understanding was embodied before the verbal sign was developed.

While we were playing with clay, Tom tried to tell me something three times; each time his utterance included the same number of sounds and stress on the same syllable, but I did not understand him. Tom was attentive to my reactions; I could sense he was uncomfortable that I did not know what he meant, but he still kept trying. At one point, he turned his body in the chair and moved his feet to communicate with me through active movements. I still did not understand. When he finally stepped on the floor and stamped with his feet, I understood! Tom was trying to tell me or ask me if he could stamp on the clay! Extended video analysis showed that his idea to stamp on the clay emerged from his experience that the clay was too hard to press flat with his hands. His micro-discovery (Fredriksen, 2011a) that clay could be made flat by applying the weight of one’s own body emerged from his past and present efforts and the clay’s resistance. Tom’s idea emerged in that ← 77 | 78 → specific context where we had explored possible ways to make the clay flat as we had smashed it on the table, banged the material with sticks, and pounded it with stones and other actions. His idea to stomp on the clay with our feet was a valuable solution to the implicit problem of how to make the clay flat. When he took the opportunity to step on the clay and convince his peers, myself, and himself that his suggestion would work, he could sense that his unique idea was welcomed and appreciated, which made him feel important and proud.

Tom tried to pronounce a word or phrase he probably had heard before but could not remember. I believe that he was determined to communicate because the activity and the relationships in context meant something to him; Tom had found a solution for our problem and could contribute to our little group of three. He was eager to share his idea, and when his verbal communication did not work, he used his body language to communicate. Finally, Tom managed to share his experiences and thoughts through a multimodal expression that orchestrated his different sensory experiences including touching, using his muscles to apply pressure, feeling his own body weight and expressive modes including spatial, linguistic and dance-like, gestural dimensions (Matthews, 1999).

We tend to understand thought as distinct from that which is directly perceived (Dewey, 2009 [1909]). The example with Tom illustrates how his perception directly influenced his meaning making and choice of actions in order to communicate. The fact that Tom suggested stamping on clay before he was familiar with the word “stamping” can imply that he was not thinking in terms of words, but in terms of embodied experience. He was thinking simultaneously with his hands, feet, senses, and brain, as children often do (Vecchi, 2007), as if there were a constant oscillation between thought, the word, and the experience (Vygotskij & Kozulin, 2001). Toward this end, Vygotsky (1986 [1934], p. 248) wrote: “It is evident that the transition from inner speech to external speech is not a simple translation from one language into another. It cannot be achieved by merely vocalizing silent speech. It is a complex, dynamic process involving the transformation of the predicative, idiomatic structure of inner speech into syntactically articulated speech intelligible to others.”

Sweets. During the textile play with Eva and Marit, I struggled to understand what three-year-old Eva was saying to me about sweets or candy. She was exploring a piece of woolen textile with small felted dots sticking out of its surface. She said something that to me sounded like the verbal sign “sweets,” so I assumed that she thought that the dots were similar to candy. I asked her, “Sweets?” to confirm if it was what she meant, but she started ← 78 | 79 → to laugh thinking my suggestion was silly. My misunderstanding initiated her decision to pretend play that she was picking the dots and eating “the sweets.” She began to physically pull the dots that were stuck to the textile. I figured out that she needed scissors and gave her a pair, which she then used to cut the dots loose from the textile. While she was cutting, she met resistance working with the scissors as the tool stuck to the textile. This phenomenon led us to develop the activity further beyond our imaginations. The reason I am mentioning this example is not to emphasize the interchange of the words “sweets” or “dots,” but to draw attention to the fluidity of the present moment (Aspelin, 2010) and how meanings are negotiated in relation to everything that happens in social contexts, including coincidences and misunderstandings.

Watching the video of the event did not help me discern what Eva was trying to tell me; some of the suggested signs did not work in the actual context. Langer (1957) points to the importance of errors and mistakes in the process of sign-making and co-construction of meaning. Again, as Vygotsky (1986 [1934]) wrote, sign development is a complex, dynamic process that moves toward the conventional use of signs that are intelligible to others. In Eva’s case, misunderstandings were a part of the process and underlined the creative collaborative dynamics that allowed explorations and a playful attitude from all of the participants.

Embodied Metaphors

When Eva recognized her “cuddling cloth” in a piece of textile, her laughter and body language accompanied her words. Her whole expression was multimodal and embodied; in order to understand what she meant, it was necessary to consider all facets of the expression. In some cases, children in the study did not say anything at all, but expressed what they were thinking about in other ways. Such expressions, where verbal language did not have a central role or was absent, are addressed here as “embodied metaphors” (Fredriksen, 2011a). For example, Selma’s rhythmic gymnastic movements with a measuring tape that she pretended was a ribbon is an example of an embodied metaphor. When Selma was turning pirouettes, she did not directly say “This looks like a ribbon,” but instead, suddenly started to dance around making circling movements with her arm as she was holding the measuring tape as if it was a ribbon.

As she danced around, another girl, Emilie, held the end of the measuring tape, while periodically throwing it on the floor and slowly pulling it back. This set of movements resembled the activity of fishing. In yet another ← 79 | 80 → example, rhythmical movement like winging from side to side and calmly humming while sitting in a cardboard box, can also be considered an embodied metaphor. All of these expressions were clearly recognizable as something the children were associating with while playing. By making use of diverse, expressive forms, they made representations of something from outside the educational context.

In a similar way to Umberto, these children were telling stories about their past experiences. They were connecting their past and present experiences when they recognized something familiar in their present lived experience. The affordances of the materials in the children’s physical hands seemed to initiate their associations, perhaps leading them to silently question, “What could be done with this material? How does it move? Which sounds can it make?” When the participants used the measuring tape as ribbon or as fishing line, the measuring tape became a sign or a symbol for these other objects. In this sense, the children did not exactly reshape the material in order to make a visual sign, but used the physical object as it was, untransformed. However, the way they used the object or material expressed which meaning they assigned to the physical tool. Similarly, children who constructed 3D representations, in many cases, did not significantly transform the materials, but added sounds, movements, or voices to the forms that already existed. For example, a three-year-old Emil took a piece of wood from a tree and held it as if it was a puppet. Then, he noticed there was a round hole in the branch and became scared: In his mind, the puppet man that the piece of wood represented was shouting in an angry way!

Singing with a hammer. A five-year-old boy Ferdinand made a symbol of a water vessel by attaching a nail to a piece of flat wood that had already reminded him of a boat. While he was hammering, Ferdinand repeatedly lifted a hammer and hit the nail. After some time, Ferdinand established a firm rhythm. His head then started to move in the same rhythm with the hammer; he also invested a little extra effort to make his long hair follow the movement. Ferdinand then started to sing verses to a popular song “I-was-made-for-loving-you-baby…” His body movements were undoubtedly initiated by the pounding sound and gestures necessary to perform the hammering activity. On the other hand, the rhythm itself recalled his past experiences and brought a familiar song to mind. Through this embodied metaphor representing some kind of instrument playing, the familiar song and hammering activity acquired new meaning in the present context. The activity was not planned or imagined in advance, but negotiated according to the affordances of the context, physical tools, and Ferdinand’s physical actions and choices. Interestingly, the enactment of this embodied metaphor took place ← 80 | 81 → during five minutes when Ferdinand was alone in the room and obviously had forgotten that a video camera was recording him. He did not intend to communicate with another person like myself since he knew he was alone in the room. Ferdinand’s did not try to make signs with purpose to communicate. He was rather in condition of “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). The fine attunement to the repertoire of past experiences acquired in his body led to his creative musical expression.

Some of the children’s embodied metaphors were more dependent on verbal language, even though they were not easy to understand. For example, Marit shouted “rug” the moment I unfolded a large piece of textile in order to spread it over the table. I later realized that it did look like unfolding a rug on the ground to sit on. In another case, Line, a three-year-old girl suddenly said “My heart beat” while she was playing with sand. I was struggling to understand and could not see what possibly could remind her of a heartbeat. In a sense, I was ignoring the fact that a heartbeat is never absent and can resonate in the outside world at any moment. Nevertheless, I focused my attention and managed to hear a distant sound of hammering somewhere outside the preschool building. The drumming noise was repetitive and as fast as a heartbeat of a young child. Line’s soma-esthetic attentiveness amazed me. Her verbal expression was not exactly an example of embodied metaphor related to the task at hand, but an eye-opening and ear-opening experience that made me understand how complex, unexpected, and invisible children’s representations can be for adults. We can easily come to ignore children’s intricate expressions, and in our obliviousness, we can lose the chance to acknowledge children’s creative achievement.

Creative Expressions

In a project where a group of children agreed to paint sea monsters, a three-year-old boy named Henrik painted a large round monster that was kind, ate only tomato soup and sausages, and moved by rolling over the surface of the water. He gave the monster a funny name akin to the title “Rolling-butt,” and painted the creature completely white on white paper. Better insight into Henrik’s creative process shows that he was afraid of a fox that hunted him in his dreams; the other children’s interest in sea monsters scared him, too. It is possible that Henrik’s fears influenced his choices during the process of his visual representation. Creative activities depend on the richness and variety of a person’s previous experience, as well as on their emotional state in the moment of the creative activity (L. S. Vygotsky, 2004 [1930]). I suppose it would have been far too scary for Henrik to paint a dangerous monster when ← 81 | 82 → he was already afraid. Instead, he painted an invisible and kind monster that in many ways resembled his own likes and dislikes—for both of them ate only tomato soup and sausages.

Pointing at his painting, Henrik shared his thoughts with a teacher: “My monster likes rolling on the top of water, but he cannot do it now because he’s stuck to the paper on the wall.” This comment motivated the teacher to provide white clay for him to be able to make a 3D monster that was no longer trapped in the 2D world. During his transition from the 2D to the 3D “world,” a transformation happened to Rolling-butt. When Rolling-butt was metaphorically “reborn” in clay, he was much smaller, but far more dangerous than his predecessor; he grew sharp teeth and was even eating humans. While Henrik was actively engaged in taking decisions about the design of the creature, he was also negotiating new understandings of his fear and imagination. Henrik’s emotions helped him select elements from reality and recombine them in associative ways (L. S. Vygotsky, 2004 [1930]) in order to resolve his emotional challenge. It seemed that Henrik’s external activity of making a representation of his monster paralleled his inner transformation of thoughts, feelings, experiences, and imagination as Dewey (2005 [1934]) proposed. During the sign making process, Henrik appeared to negotiate new understanding of his own power of imagination; he had the power to decide how dangerous his monsters were allowed to be. He gained control over his own imagination and was not afraid any longer.

The connection between fresh and emotionally loaded experience on one hand and available materials on the other, made it possible for Henrik to make unique representations of his monster. Painting with white paint on white paper might be considered to be meaningless or a waste of paint. In this case, these meaning making choices and actions without being pushed to use other colors made it possible for him to make the specific representations he needed in order to process his emotions. Rolling-butt was Henrik’s visual representation for the specific monster he needed in exactly that moment of his life: his creation was not a sign that could represent a referent or the concept of “monster.” For, unlike people, monsters can have an infinite number of arms and shapes, as well as colors and talents. During the creative process, Henrik seemed immersed in his painting activity and did not seem interested in talking to anyone until he was finished. Compared to the other children who were painting at the same time as they were talking about their monsters, Henrik’s painting choices did not seem to be meant to impress his teachers or to appear funny, poetic, or artistic. Instead, the condition of “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002), during an intimate dialogue with his painting, told me that Henrik’s focus was rather on negotiating meanings for himself than on ← 82 | 83 → communicating with others. However, during the creation of the 3D monster, he seemed more confident and open to communication with others. Still, the development of both monsters was motivated by the specific social contexts and driven by Henrik’s creative process of meaning negotiation.

Reminders and Conclusions


XII, 342
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2018 (May)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2018. XII, 342 pp., 12 b/w ill., 1 table

Biographical notes

M. Cathrene Connery (Volume editor) Vera P. John-Steiner (Volume editor) Ana Marjanovic-Shane (Volume editor)

M. Cathrene Connery , Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Literacy and Children’s Literature at Salisbury University in Salisbury, Maryland. A bilingual educator and advocate, she has drawn on her visual arts education to inform her research and professional activities in language, literacy, and sociocultural studies on behalf of culturally and linguistically diverse children and their teachers across the United States. Vera John-Steiner , Ph.D., Emerita Presidential Professor of Linguistics and Education at the University of New Mexico, served as an authority on creativity, collaboration, and cultural-historical activity theory, having published and presented internationally for the past 50 years. Dr. John-Steiner sustained a lifelong interest in dance. Ana Marjanovic-Shane , Ph.D, is a founder and a deputy editor-in-chief of Dialogic Pedagogy: An International Online Journal . A former Fulbright Scholar, she is interested in dialogic meaning-making, creativity and democracy in education and human development. Her articles on critical dialogic pedagogy, drama in education, and democratic educational approaches have been published in various journals and books related to play and education.


Title: Vygotsky and Creativity