Toy as Psychological Tool
The concept of psychological tool
Man's ability for self-determination is his essential characteristic; human’s behaviour is a direct function of neither his bodily organisation nor his social environment. It may become free, and this freedom comes from consciousness. By becoming aware of his behaviour, Мan acquires an ability to construct it at his own free will irrespective of the power of his natural state or pressure from the outside. This awareness of one's own behaviour presupposes considering it, as it were, from without. To become aware of something, it has to be viewed as something not coinciding with the viewer. As long as man acts automatically, he does not separate himself from the natural course of life. Meanwhile, going beyond the natural course of life enables cognizance of oneself and one's own activity.
The problem, however, is that the child lacks an innate capacity for such 'going beyond'. At the same time practically every child covers this road of the development of consciousness, during which he overcomes behavioural determination by external stimuli or natural necessities that is characteristic of all animals and becomes capable of self-regulation and self-control.
Lev Vygotsky, the founder of cultural-historical psychology, offered an effective solution to this problem. He came up with the idea of sign mediation in human consciousness, which gives new answers to the eternal problems of the psychological evolution of the child.
Signs are special things with double – material and ideal - nature. On the one hand, signs are material things with an external form of their own (visual, audio and so on) and, on the other, sign has a meaning that conveys an ideal representation (image) of some object, process or phenomenon. Signs thus substitute for reality and make it possible to translate this reality into an ideal form.
The postulate that signs as cultural phenomena are not merely substitutes for reality but also media or tools of man’s internal psychological activity (1) is pivotal to Vygotsky’s cultural-historical concept. By analogy with work tools signs are psychological tools used by man to build his own inner world and to organise his behaviour. Psychological tools enable the personality to take cognizance of and transform itself and its own behaviour, that is to say, to get control of oneself. According to Vygotsky, the specificity of human behaviour is that it involves sign mediation. The main function of signal tools is to objectify one’s own behaviour by transforming it into a special object, separate from man. This behaviour no longer 'coincides' with the subject of activity and thus enables its cognizance and control (self-regulation).
Speech is the most universal system of signal instrumental media. That is why, according to Vygotsky, the development of speech mediation is central to the child’s mental development. Speech is of universal importance in liberating man from the pressure of the existing situation and making him behave consciously (1, pp. 24-25).
However, speech is far from the only means of taking cognizance and therefore control of one’s own behaviour. Different models, rules or ways of acting can also serve as such media. D.B. El’konin linked the development of deliberate, conscious behaviour in children with their ability to act after a certain model. Children begin to act consciously and deliberately when their actions are mediated by an idea of ‘how they are to act’. Such mode of behaviour can be set in the form of a general rule or play role or else the behaviour of a concrete person. For rule as a mode of behaviour to perform its instrumental function, it is important that it become a model, with which the child is to compare his behaviour. By comparing it with the model the child becomes cognizant of his own behaviour and takes a certain attitude to it.
It can be surmised that toys as the main attributes of child play serve as the most important psychological tool for preschoolers.
It is difficult to define the notion of 'play' (even if we mean exclusively child play). In Russian psychology and pedagogy this term has two meanings. In a broader sense play means any type of child activity involving toys or game material in keeping with their purpose. In stricter scholarly usage play means the creation of conventional imaginary space (with the help of toys or without them) in role play or symbolic play. In the latter sense discrepancy between the real and the imagined situation is the main characteristic of play. Objects are given new names and functions that are not usually associated with them, with the playing child proceeding ‘from thought rather than from the object’ in a thought-up, imagined situation instead of the real one. For preschoolers (between the ages of 3 and 6) this type of play is an important activity, which ensures effective psychological development of the child as a personality.
Functions performed by toys in child play
Anything with which children play, be it a rattle or a construction set, is usually called a toy. All these things are, beyond doubt, useful and make their contribution to child development. However, if we consider toys as a means of playing in the strict sense of the term, that is, of acting in imagined space, the range of objects covered by this term is far narrower. For instance, when the child shakes a rattle, builds something of blocks or plays with a stacker, his external and internal activity has the same direction. The child imagines nothing outside the limits of his main activity. Consequently, there is no discrepancy between the real and the imagined sphere. To my mind, strictly speaking a toy is an object that enables the child to go beyond the existing situation, to ‘become’ somebody else and to act on behalf of the latter by taking on a new image. Primarily, they are imaginative toys, to which characteristics of living beings can be attributed, which are capable of becoming animate and to which children can impart their experience and feelings. Other playthings, such as toy utensils, clothes, furniture and so on, merely serve to realize the wishes and meanings of the 'live' personage.
In developed role-play roles can be assumed without any special material support or else with the use of insignificant attributes (markers or role signs). However, at the initial stages of play-acting development and in cases of inadequate development material support is indispensable as an objective carrier of a new image (imaginative toys). Toys with a human image, that is, dolls are needed primarily. When playing with a doll, the child identifies himself with it and thus enters the world of human beings. He reflects his experience, especially what is bothering him, and enacts people he knows or fairy-tale characters in play. Two crucial processes centering on the doll take place simultaneously.
On the one side, the child expresses him/herself – his (her) knowledge, emotions and events of life and enacts imagined images. He (she) speaks for the doll, asks questions and gives answers for it, re-enacts past experience and, in a word, externalizes his experience and his own self. The child attributes his own words, thoughts and feelings to the doll, to its essence, which thus becomes an outward expression of the inner world of the child and his ‘mouthpiece’ of sorts. Such self-expression can be regarded as a form of spontaneous play reflection, through which the child begins to understand himself and events of his life. Children are known to enjoy reliving repeatedly momentous - happy or dramatic - events of their lives. With the help of toys they enact different characters and speak for them. All that, beyond double, enables them to place themselves outside a significant situation and, consequently, to take an attitude to it and to comprehend it. By observing how children play one can understand their inner world and what is bothering them.
On the other side, when playing, the child masters the world of human relations and ideas, in which he lives. Any toy is always charged with the spirit of its time and society, in which it has been made. Toys, made for kids by adults, always reflect the world outlook of those adults, their ideology, tastes, fashion, etc. That is why they help inculcate certain social and everyday notions in the child's mind and acquaint children with social and family mode of life. They have a certain influence on the child's socialization, his entry of a given society. It is common knowledge that every generation of children has markedly different toys (especially dolls, household utensils and vehicles). While using those toys, children, obviously, master different social models. Dolls set a human image that becomes a model for emulation for the child, and it is precisely through dolls that the child gets an idea of humans and relevant ethical and aesthetic categories, such as beauty and ugliness, good and bad, and good and evil. The doll's image has a formative effect on little children because, as has been observed long ago, when playing with dolls, children subconsciously take on their images and imitate them. They take on the doll's appearance and start moving in a characteristic manner and behaving in a certain way in everyday life. Neither adults nor children themselves notice how they absorb the doll's outward characteristics. Hence the danger of exaggerated character dolls especially for little children. Aggressiveness or complacency that may be found in certain toys may with the passage of time develop in children. At 7 or 8 years of age, when children already have a more or less stable idea of humans and relevant ethical and aesthetic views, they are capable of understanding and appreciating the exaggerated caricature nature of dolls, without taking on their characteristics. Preschoolers, on the contrary, are unable to distance themselves from what they are playing with, naturally get carried away by play, immerse in it, and therefore take on the nature of their toys. Although this phenomenon has been studied inadequately due to difficulties involved in getting the facts, some observations are quite indicative. Here is a graphic example.
A 4 year-old girl constantly showed signs of discomfort at the back of her head, rubbing her neck, scratching and complaining. Her mother was unable to realize what was wrong for quite a while, until she found that her daughter's favourite doll had a label at exactly that place. The girl stopped complaining of discomfort as soon as the label was cut off.
Examples like that show that children obviously identify themselves with their dolls.
Toy as the child's alter ego
For the child an imaginative toy is far more than just an object of play: it is a communication companion, friend and important figure of life. Many small children are known to have favourite toys, with which they never part: they talk to them, share their joys and thoughts with them, sleep and eat together with them, and take them along for walks or to the kindergarten. A poll conducted recently among grownups about their favourite toys has shown that toys had become engraved in their memory as communication companions. Those polled had diverse answers to the question 'What did you do with your favourite toy?' ranging from took along for a walk, slept with it and talked to it, to shared my problems and joys with it, in a word, they did 'everything' with them. Few said that they played with them.
People usually communicate with other people. However, preschoolers fairly often communicate with their toys, which serve as support for inner dialogue and as a life companion. In the overwhelming majority of cases dolls, teddy bears or doggies, that is, not imaginative toys become such companions. A close friend like that makes it easier for the little one to face danger or loneliness and gives a feeling of one’s usefulness and independence. Such favourite soft toys have a special role to play at moments of trial when children feel lonely and are in want of help and protection. This happens, for instance, when kids have to go to bed, are ill or when they find themselves in an unfamiliar situation or else when they are adjusting to a kindergarten. Teachers and psychologists have noted that during the early days at child care centres little children never part with their favourite toys. A special study has shown that children, who find it difficult to adjust and are obviously ill at ease, under stress and alarmed in a new situation, are especially in need of a soft toy. Such children constantly cling to favourite teddy bears or hares, getting a feeling of being protected and safe in the physical presence of a soft toy. Children find it easier to fall asleep, eat better, willingly get dressed and in general feel more confident in the presence of a favourite toy. As soon as children gain confidence in a new situation, they no longer need to have their favourite toys around.
To sum up, an imaginative toy may become a real communication companion for little children. They fairly often communicate with their favourite toys and ask them questions, which they themselves answer. They attribute their own feelings and worries to them. 'The kitty is crying because it's waiting for mommy to come and mommy is late,' a little girl kept saying, stroking her favourite toy. The child, as it were, transfers himself into the toy, which becomes its alter ego. At the same time the toy is no mirror nor is the child directly reflected in it. It is the child’s alter ego because any imaginative toy always has its own image. A conversation with a toy is thus a conversation of one ego with the other embodied in a material object.
A 'dialogue' with a toy is an important phase of the development of inner dialogue, which will subsequently transform into inner speech, a chief means of human thought and consciousness. It is a sort of a transition stage between the social (separated between the child and the adult) and the psychological (inner) form of action, when the child shares his life and feelings with something he himself animated. An imaginative toy may become a pillar of the child’s emergent inner world and a subject of his mental life. Animated by the child, the toy appeals to the child, turning its requests, observations and emotions to him, and thus enabling the preschooler to become cognizant of himself and his behaviour and to transform both himself and his behaviour. In this sense imaginative toy is, beyond doubt, a psychological tool for the child.
In addition to imaginative toys, the so-called role attributes, which are meant to help the child take a new role position and feel he is a different person, may likewise have an instrumental function. According to Vygotsky, 'the child learns his own self in play'. By imagining points of identification the child singles out himself and masters his own ego. Preschoolers, as it were, correlate themselves and their wishes with the fictional ego (that is, role), while simultaneously identifying themselves with their alter egos and distinguishing themselves from them. Certain toys that become symbols of certain human qualities or roles both in play and beyond facilitate role adoption and retention.
For instance, a 4 and a half year-old boy kept carrying a plastic sword around for a long time. He would take it to the kindergarten and out for a walk, go to bed together with it, have it around at meal time and so on. The sword became a symbol of courage for him, making him braver, stronger and armed (naturally, in the psychological sense of the word).
The toy thus had a purely psychological effect, which was directed to itself rather than to the play companions and, consequently, became a psychological tool for the boy. Certain elements of dress or objects of role actions may have the same function of a tool by acquiring the symbolic meaning of role and helping the child to adopt and retain it.
However, the possibility for a toy to become a psychological tool largely depends on the toy’s qualities that may either facilitate or interfere with their performing their basic function.
Qualities of toy as psychological tool
For the child to get the meaning of relations between people, play activity should be conventional. The more detailed is an action in practice, the more compressed and subconscious is the role relations plan. In child play the conventional or detailed nature of a practical action largely depends on whether the toy is simple or complex, realistic or not. For this reason objects used in role-playing should not be actual copies of real things. They are not to monopolize the child's attention but to stick instead to the conventional designation of things. The fact that play actions are generalized and contracted (i.e., made conventional) shows that the inner game plan, that is, relations between people and their emotional experience, has become important to the child.
A good toy ought primarily to be open to the different actions and emotions of the child. Toys should make it possible for children to impart their own activity – their voices and movements - to it. To remain being media, toys should not impose themselves nor suggest concrete actions. Only this way can toys become psychological media rather than merely an object of manipulations.
Role attributes as specific things should likewise not monopolize the child's attention. They are needed to enable children to feel they are somebody else and to retain that feeling rather than to impress or surprise. Their function is to become conventional yet commonly recognized role signs.
The same is also true of objects of role actions that are needed for role-playing. All sorts of realistic toys (flat irons, weights, automobile parts, construction tools and so on) are frequently used to develop new useful skills, etc. However, role-playing is not an exercise in some particular function. When playing the role of a driver, doctor or hairdresser, the child gains no useful skills. Yet, although he does not learn how to drive a car, treat the sick or make hairdos, he gets something more important and essential to the development of his personality – he grasps the meaning of human activity and relations between people and develops a wish to become a grownup, that is, to become stronger, cleverer and better.
Therefore, the key requirement to role-playing toys is that they ought to be laconic and conventional.
Meanwhile, the toy market develops along the lines offering no chances for toys to become both a plaything and a psychological tool. Toys are increasingly becoming self-sufficient things meant to evoke surprise, admiration or curiosity instead of becoming media. Kids no longer have to animate dolls that can talk, sing, dance and so on. A toy flat iron can hardly be a vehicle of play, if it functions as a real thing. Instead of stimulating children to play, such toys encourage them to consume toy qualities and soon lead to satiety. As a result the very possibility of independent creative play is nipped in the bud. The child, as it were, becomes a toy accessory guided by the toy instead of the other way round.
Whenever toys have intricate technological equipment and impose certain modes of acting, they inhibit not only imagination in children but also their inner psychological life. Such toys dictate children what to do with it.
A good toy should leave room for the child's fantasizing and enable children to generate their own ideas and to implement them, that is, it should be open to play. By making the task easier for children and confining their play to monotonous stereotype movements, adults limit their capacities for independent meaningful actions and therefore inhibit their development.
Under the circumstances it is extremely important to have toys examined by qualified experts from among psychologists and educators from the point of view of not only possible health hazards but also psychological effects on child development.
To solve these crucial social and educational problems pertaining to child play, the Мoscow State University of Psychology & Education has founded a Play and Toys research centre. The main task of the centre is to develop a concept and methods of examining toys by expert psychologists and educationalists and to evaluate the developmental qualities of concrete toys. The given examination by experts is based on the possibility for toys to become a real psychological tool and, consequently, to promote the development of not merely concrete psychological functions and abilities but the child personality as a whole.
Vygotsky, L.S. Orudie i znak v razvitii rebyonka (Tool and Sign in Child Development). Collected Works, Moscow, Pedagogika Publishers, 1984, vol. 6
Vygotsky, L.S. Igra i eyo rol’ v psikhicheskom razvitii rebyonka (Play and Its Role in the Psychological Development of the Child). Psikhicheskoye razvitie rebyonka, Moscow, Eksma Publishers, 2003, pp. 200-224
El’konin, D.B. Psikhologia igry (Psychology of Play). Pedagogika Publishers, 1978