Play as development: Vygotsky and teaching English to adults

I was reviewing an old notebook and came across the following quotation taken from L. S. Vygotsky’s Mind in Society.

Could one suppose that a child’s behavior is always guided by meaning, that a preschooler’s behavior is so arid that he never behaves spontaneously simply because he think he should behave otherwise? This strict subordination to rules is quite impossible in life, but in play it does become possible: thus, play creates a zone of proximal development of the child. 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. As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form and is itself a major source of development.

And my little note:

This is amazing!

Since I’ve been teaching adults mainly, I haven’t really thought about play that much. I’m even embarassed sometimes to ask my adult students to do things that are more playful. But after reading this chapter and pondering over my attitudes when I play, I realized that many times I myself “behave beyond my average age” cognitively speaking. But also quite the opposite too; being an adult I also behave below my average mental age when I play (sometimes).

Being below (and not above as Vygotsky said) makes me less self-critical and less self-demanding perhaps, which in turn enhances my creative thinking greatly, and paves the way for a kind of learning that is many times more memorable. The so-called ZPD (zone of proximal development) has perhaps been wrongly associated with ‘growth’ and in ‘going up’ and its facilitators (teachers, caregivers, etc) as ‘pulling up’ the cognition of others. And in adult learning, the ‘up’ things are often taken as the ‘serious’ things; therefore, few people are able to see learning as it happens in play, which in fact does place learning in the background.

But as we know so much learning happens in the background anyway that it’s just a matter of acknowledging it and raising adult learners’ awareness that play can help them perform above their level and that it can open new spaces for learning.

That’s what I thought — about 3 years ago. Reconsidering the issue today, I still have some questions.

In theory, the question I have is how much these Vygotskyan principles which were primarily brought about from studies of child development can be transferred to adult learning. There are lots of examples in research, that I know. But I lack examples in my own practice, which makes me think that:

In practice, I just have to do it and find the answer myself. The question is: when will I try it, with whom, and how?

Maybe you could help me with the ‘how’ part, i.e. how do I incorporate play (beyond business role-plays) with adult learners of English as a Foreign/Second language? And most importantly, how do I make it NOT look like it’s only fun for the sake of fun?

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13 Responses to Play as development: Vygotsky and teaching English to adults

  1. phil wade says:

    An interesting area.

    I’ve seen quite a few ‘adult play’ centres open in France which are often part of creches. They offer ‘evenings for adults to play games and socialise in a relaxed environment’. I’ve never attended one but I’ve watched from afar. It wasn’t dissimilar to a pre-school nursery in that various board games and activities were set up (all taken from the creche) and adult kids talked, drank and then moved around and played, sometimes with friends, sometimes on their own.

    The same organisation then orgaised a family play day in a park with lots of physical games like big jenga, pinball and board games. It was packed but most kids were running round or playing with ipads. It was the adults playing the games and loving it.

    You may enjoy this:

    • Willy says:

      Interesting story, Phil.

      I’m not sure I enjoyed the McDonald’s video. I mean, the idea is nice, but just the fact that it’s McDonald’s and that there’s a huge Ronald McD. in the playground kind of puts me off.

      But yeah, adults can behave like children quite often.

  2. mura says:

    I have always found general knowledge quizzes work with adult learners, I started off adapting some ‘quiz’ type activities from 700 classroom activities by David Seymour and Maria Popova. They are great for practicing question forms, numbers, and various lexis work.
    With adults I think the element of competition you find in some forms of play is a major factor.
    cheers for thoughtful blogpost Willy.


    • Willy says:

      Hi Mura
      I agree, competition is often motivating. Whenever I offer students business roleplays involving negotiation, the lesson is very lively and I see they reach a peak in their engagement.

  3. I think there’s space for play in any language classroom, no matter how old or young the learners (and teacher!) may be.

    Could be something as simple as a silly tongue-twister, listening to silly sound effects or drawing pictures of scary bosses 😉 I think these things help us get in touch with that inner child who is eager to learn, and just the inner psyche in general.

    Also, it’s just good to have a laugh! Thanks very much for the Vygotsky reference – I’m planning to read up myself on motivation, so if you have any more core texts I’d be more than grateful =)

    • Willy says:

      I will use more sound effect when there’s an ebook on it 😉
      I haven’t used drawing for a really long time, but last week when I asked students to build a story from a few prompts, one of them sketched the scene and handed it in as his contribution saying it was easier to draw then to describe the scene.

      I love Vygotskyan perspectives on learning and development and his “ELT followers” also write very good stuff, but it’s quite a dense reading, sometimes hard to understand and see any immediate applicability, also some of the terms like ‘mediation’ and ‘internalization’ are not that easy to grasp. Anyway, what I mean is that although Mind in Society is a great book, it’s not one of the key texts I usually recommend in the sociocultural literature. And since you mention ‘motivation’, I’ll tell you that it’s not really about it; it’s about child develoment. Anyway, I’d be happy to lend you my copy so you can see for yourself.
      A great text I’ve been reading and re-reading is Sociocultural Theory in Second Language Education: An Introduction Through Narratives
      and I really recommend it as an intro to Vygotskyan theories.

  4. Rob says:

    Hi Willy,

    Picasso said it takes a long time to ‘grow down’. I think he was talking about creativity, the ultimate form of play. I would encourage creativity in your classes with adults, reminding everyone that no one need be a Picasso – after all, he said there was only one. 🙂


    • Willy says:

      Hi Rob

      He also said every child is an artist, but it’s hard to remain one once you grow up; and also something like not growing old but growing ripe.

      I always leave plenty of room in my lessons for creativity, it happens much more than reproduction I’d say. This week’s been quite challenging in this aspect – I have lovely people in my group, but it seems they are not used to speaking out, and every little step they make to achieve it is really a lot of joy for me. At the same time I’m learning that freedom of silence is as important as freedom of speech.

  5. Bekah Palmer says:

    Vygotsky is so interesting. I, too, wonder about how to transfer the principles. It seems that the ZPD is most effective when we are in a state of “not knowing” and of trying to figure out what is happening. As adults, I believe we sometimes shut off this part of our mind because we feel like we need to logically discover everything.

    I’ve found that the best “play” in my classes with adults is competition based. Either they debate silly issues that they don’t believe in (Should there be a law forbidding chocolate ice cream?) or they must work in teams to do something.

    Other times, though, I think the key with play for Adults is explaining the point. For example, you can play a game like Taboo or Catchphrase (where one person must get the other team members to say/guess a word without saying other words) with language learners to help them speak, but if you explain that, in normal language, we forget words or we don’t know words, and this game helps to practice ways to work around it, sometimes they let their guard down and actually just have fun.

  6. Willy says:

    hi Bekah
    you mention something that is very important, and that I’m always highlighting, which is explaining to students the purpose of the activities we present them. And more than that I think it’s important for them to be able to articulate how they think they learn better, and with which kind of activity they feel more comfortable and motivated. Once we can have this kind of conversation and feedback, the course runs much better I reckon.

  7. Hi Willy,

    If we take play in ELT to mean ‘playing with language’ then there is a lot we can do in the classroom. Everything from poetry and songs to word games and puns could be considered ‘play’.

    One of the books that changed the way I teach was ‘Language Play’ by Guy Cook. It liberated my teaching as it meant I had a rationale for not just doing ‘communicative’ activites in class.

  8. Raquel_EFL says:

    Hi Willy,

    I’ll answer you with one of Einstein’s best quotes :
    “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

    Why do I say that? Because when we invite adults learners to ‘play’ with Language in class, we are also inviting them to use their creativity to the fullest… improving their creative thinking and problem solving ability. The point is: Teachers should create/use games with a goal in mind… Otherwise, it will only be fun for the sake of fun, as you wrote…

    Having said that, it is also crucial to take the adults’ behaviour into account. Silence is a key element for many of them… I’ve been trying ‘chain sentences’ games in the beginning of my lessons so as to recycle previously taught content… And, time to time, I invite them to stand up or sit down on the floor ‘to taste the lesson’ from a different perspective…

    Congratulations on your ideas… you are such a thought-provoking educator 🙂

  9. Chuck Sandy says:

    Very interesting piece Willy, but what I hear is you hesitating to play with your students because you think they might perceive it to be something less than what they’re in class to do. I used to do the same thing until one day I came in the room with a box of spaghetti noodles, scotch tape, rubber bands, and marshmallows, showed my adult students the following video and got them to do the marshmallow tower challenge. I wasn’t sure exactly why we were doing it except that it seemed my class needed a break from whatever else it was we had been doing and I thought we’d discuss what we learned from doing it after we did. Well, it was brilliant. The class ended up being half play and half playful learning and inside me I felt something shift. Maybe more is possible. I began bringing in a handful of video cameras and asking what we could do with them which resulted in the students deciding we’d make 30 second videos in groups with each one illustrating an adjective we’d learned. Play, playful learning, fun. This led to a big basket of markers and finger paints and huge sheets of paper. How could we use these to build on the stuff we’d been working on. Students were full of ideas. Now here i should mention that the age range of this class was 18 – 78 with the majority of students older than I am. They wanted to play. They were ready. The more we played, the more we learned. What I learned from all this was that the only thing that had been holding them back from getting their collective inner child outward bound had been me. Once I showed that I was willing to play they didn’t need much encouragement. Play is very powerful. Walk in, toss a ball out, make a joke, set up a game, make it fun, and watch what happens.

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