Lev Vygotsky was an early 20th century developmental psychologist who developed a sociocultural theory of child development designed to account for the influence of culture on a child's growth and development. 

Professional Life

Lev Vygotsky was born into an art- and literature-loving family in what is now Belarus on November 17, 1896, and he was raised in Gomel. Vygotsky began studying at the University of Moscow in 1913, though his course options were severely restricted because he was Jewish. Vygotsky elected to study law, and he graduated in 1917.

Back in Gomel, Vygotsky taught logic and psychology at a local college. In 1924, he wowed the Second All-Union Congress on Psychoneurology with his speech, and he was subsequently invited to join the Moscow Institute of Experimental Psychology. At the institute, Vygostsky served as a teacher and researcher for nine years. Vygotsky was an innovative psychologist who made significant advancements in the field of child development. Vygotsky’s short career focused on child development, developmental psychology, and educational philosophy. 

Contribution to Psychology

Vygotsky theorized that children develop their behaviors and habits from their cultures and through interpersonal experiences; he referred to this phenomena as cultural meditation. He argued that higher thinking developed as a result of sociocultural interactions and referred to shared knowledge of a culture as internalization. For example, a child who knows that using the toilet is a private activity has internalized a cultural norm.

Vygotsky's zone of proximal development (ZPD) remains a popular theory within the field of developmental psychology to illustrate a child’s learning process. The zone refers to the span of time it takes a child to proceed from the early stages of learning a new task to the point at which the child can complete the new task independently. Vygotsky claimed that children learned to achieve more challenging tasks with the aid of someone more knowledgeable. Vygotsky referred to this form of social support as scaffolding: the process of helping a child do something without actually doing it for him or her. Scaffolding practices must be constantly adjusted to meet a child's new capabilities. For example, a four year-old's zone of proximal development with regards to learning the alphabet might include knowing the alphabet song independently, but pointing to and identifying letters is something he or she might need scaffolding to achieve. As the child learns to recognize letters, his or her parents or teachers might scaffold the child into reading or writing. Many contemporary parenting books advise scaffolding children.

Vygotsky drew a connection between language and thought processes and believed that internal speech developed as a result of exposure to external language. He cautioned, however, that internal speech had much different content and character than external speech. Inner speech serves as a way for a child to control and direct her own actions, while external speech plays a significant role in social and emotional development.

Vygotsky also conducted extensive research into play. He discovered that play serves a key role in learning and that children often learn concepts based upon make-believe play. Play can take on symbolic meaning, such as when a child tells an adult that a stick is actually a snake. He argued that cultural norms, rules for behavior, and social skills are frequently learned through play. Consequently, play is an important activity that enables children to learn to modulate and control their own behavior.

Selected Works by Lev Vygotsky

  • Educational Psychology (1926)
  • Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology (1927)
  • Thinking and Speech (1934)
  • Tool and Symbol in Child Development (1934)
  • Mind in Society (1978)
  • Thought and Language (1986)


  1. Bryant, P. (1996). Lev Vygotsky: Revolutionary Scientist. British Journal of Psychology, 87, 350. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/199581362?accountid=1229
  2. Harwood, R., Miller, S. A., & Vasta, R. (2008). Child psychology: Development in a changing society. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  3. Lev Vygotsky. (2013). Encyclopedia of World Biography, Vol. 33. Retrieved from http://www.gale.cengage.com/InContext/bio.htm