The Playworld Project and Perezhivanie
by Beth Ferholt, Brooklyn College, New York, and Monica Nillson, Jönköping University, Sweden, November 3, 2014

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Monica Nilsson and myself brought to the attention of Mike Cole, XMCA and LCHC a confusing event from a two year-long Swedish playworld (Lindqvist, 1995) research project, designed as a formative intervention. It is a project that is ongoing and which was brought into being through Monica’s work with Karin Alnervik and her Reggio Emilia-inspired preschools in Sweden. It appeared to us that the children in these schools were engaged in complicated play and symbolic thought at one and two years of age. This discussion led to Mike introducing our idea that perezhivanie might be possible in early childhood – a hypothesis which also came out of playworlds work in San Diego since 2004 (Ferholt, 2009) – on the Facebook page “Культурно-историческая психология / Cultural-historical psychology” in winter and spring 2014.

The following piece of writing is a first attempt to discuss perezhivanie using data from this Swedish playworld project. Data analysis is still underway for this project, so it took a while to find a good example to use for the discussion. In the meantime, and still, the meaning making across languages, cultures and disciplines (psychology and preschool didactics at least) has been as interesting as the shared meanings we are beginning to produce.

Here is where Monica and I began:

  1. Perezhivanie was not developed sufficiently by LSV to become a practical part of empirical methodology, implying that researchers need to take it further.
  2. Vasilyuk (1988), who took it further, called for ethnographers to empirically examine his understanding of perezhivanie.
  3. In the video that Jay posted of Fernando Gonzales Rey discussing perezhivanie (http://youtu.be/7F1UxiW8p9s) we are asked to think about what sort of methodology is needed to pursue empirical studies of perezhivanie.

Again, Monica and I are not offering evidence from a completed study in the field of psychology, but something that came out of an empirical study in process, a formative intervention in the field of preschool didactics, in which we used experimental methodologies such as film-play (posted earlier on the Культурно-историческая психология FaceBook page, Ferholt, 2010) and teacher-executed documentation in process (pedagogical documentation (Alnervik, 2013)) as well as more traditional ethnographic methods. We brought several events from this study to people’s attention because they appear to challenge the understanding we had of cognitive and emotional development from our studies of child development with Mike and others working in this tradition. We were not thinking to redefine perezhivanie, but rather to understand something about what was happening with these children, why what was happening looked like perezhivanie and post-play symbolic thought, if it was not.

That said, I (Beth) came away from Sweden wanting to be much more careful when I am choosing things to designate as ‘only possible in adulthood.’ This is because I now understand in a new way what we adults can foster in childhood if we do not underestimate children, and – this is circular, my being able to see children as this competent came from my being in these preschools ... – in part because I have been blown out of the water with what the children at these preschools are doing in so many areas: things I thought only adults could do. So I do want to challenge this idea that perezhivanie is only for adulthood, if not for psychologists, who may not be able to yet agree on the definition of the term, for early childhood teachers, many of whom appear to find it a tremendously useful term.

This in itself is fascinating: Why do people who live their lives with children, concerning themselves with their development and meaning-making, should find this term so liberating and “ringing true"? Maybe they, and hence Monica and I as well, are not talking about the same “perezhivanie” that is being discussed on this Facebook page, but it is too helpful to teachers to keep from them! Also, I wonder if this input from teachers will help us create the methodology that is needed to study perezhivanija empirically: Many of these teachers are, I do believe, artists – and many successful studies and discussions of perezhivanie – such as the one on this already posted on the Facebook page – depend heavily on art.

Working with teachers who are working with children who are regularly viewing documentation of their collaborative work, and who are working in an environment designed and redesigned continually for their particular capabilities ... we have not seen events which clearly follow Vasilyuk’s stages of fault, repentance, redemption, bliss, but we have seen events in which there develops “a form of inter-subjectivity in which we insert ourselves into the stories of others in order to gain the foresight that allows us to proceed”:

(We cannot upload any data to the internet (because of restrictions imposed by the Swedish Review Board) but will try to include photographs in something we'll write for MCA as quickly as possible.)

Helena and Maria, two teachers in a one to three year old group in the preschool, decided that while participating in a preschool-wide “light” project they wanted to take a look at the very small children’s, the one to three year olds’, exploration and learning. They asked themselves how they could support their learning. They gave the youngest children flashlights, first. They saw that the children were working with the flashlights, creating shadow and light, and they saw that the children experienced themselves as being within these events. Their shadow selves and lit bodies and own movements were within this exploration with light, and allowed them to experience themselves and the world in new ways. This continued, and they played peek-a-boo, and then they brought out the overhead projector and Isabel, the “atelierista” (artist in the preschool) documented what was happening.

Melissa and Lenus (both 1.5 years) interacted with the overhead a great deal. The teachers knew that both children had been in contact with the overhead before and particularly they knew that Lenus had encountered the overhead with his parents, so he knew about the button for turning the machine on and off. He was in charge of this button and Melissa was working more with the head/top part of the overhead. Melissa could control the light by moving the head. Melissa tried to get hold of the button but Lenus would not let her. She was very curious about what he was doing and their interaction was interesting, and mostly taking place with their eyes. Lenus showed her with his eyes to stay with the head while he was in charge of the button. The teachers said they were interested in the experience of the children of the light, and in documenting how Melissa understood how the machine worked.

When a year had passed and Melissa and Lenus were 2.5 years old, there were new children in the group and one of these new children, Kevin, a one year old, pushed his cart into the room. He looked at Melissa and Lenus who were working with the overhead projector. Then the teachers asked Melissa and Lenus to show Kevin documents from last year of their work with the projector, when they were also new to using this machine.

Melissa took Kevin in her lap for the viewing (of the above-described event from a year ago) and with her support, from her viewpoint, they looked at the photos together.

Then their teachers ask them to show Kevin how the projector worked. Lenus showed Kevin how the button worked and then Lenus took a car and drove it on the light board. Melissa said, “Kevin, Kevin, hedo, hedo!” = “shadow, shadow!” (which means, the teachers think; “Look at shadow on wall from the car!”).

Melissa pointed to the shadow to show it to Kevin, but Kevin was looking more often and more intently at Lenus and Melissa than at what they were showing him, more at them than at what they were communicating about and with rapt attention.

Then Kevin took his cart and left the room.

After a while Kevin came back into the room and turned on the overhead. He went directly over to the overhead and pushed the on/off button to turn it on. When the light went on an expression of bliss covered his face.

Kevin then took the prisms from the light board and put them on bench below the shadow on the wall. Somehow he connected them with the light, perhaps? Then he took them back to the overhead and then put them in his cart and then looked at the overhead head projecting part and touched it, trying to move it. He was blinded by the light and turned it off, and he then left the room with the prisms in his cart.

The following list of qualities of perezhivanija is taken from a chapter forthcoming in a book by Susan Davis et al., Dramatic Interactions in Education: Vygotskian and Sociocultural Approaches to Drama, Education and Research:

• revitalizing autobiographical emotional memories by imitating another’s (or a past self’s) physical actions

Kevin revitalizes his autobiographical emotional memory of doing something he wants to do / making something happen in the world according to his intent by imitating Lenus’s actions, but really some sort of Lenus/Melissa combined action that replays what he saw in the video. We might even be able to say that he remembers with Melissa by watching the video with her and from her lap.

• cognition and emotion are dynamically related

Kevin does not just understand that his action with the button made the light come one he feels this as bliss.

• the relationship between individual and environment is the event

Kevin’s sitting on Melissa’s lap or his rapt attention to the older children in their action of explaining to him how the machine works or his actual relationship with the button – all make up the perezhivanie.

• a form of inter-subjectivity in which we insert ourselves into the stories of others in order to gain the foresight that allows us to proceed (in the face of despair)

Kevin inserts himself into the story of Melissa, or Melissa and Lenus. You can feel it in his posture in Melissa’s lap and see it in his gaze as he watches the older children ... I do not think you can call his feeling of powerless over his environment in a new space away from home something other than despair, but again, I do not know how to argue this.

• an internal and subjective labor of ‘entering into’ which is not done by the mind alone, but rather involves the whole of life or a state of consciousness

Kevin enters into Melissa with his mind somehow while he is away but also with his body in her lap and when he returns to push the button.

• another person is needed for this experience

Melissa (and Lenus) are these other people.

• experiencing the self, not directly but through the medium of experiencing the others (and through ‘twice-behaved behavior’ – )

Kevin experiences his own understanding through watching the older children come to understand the machine, then through watching them explain how the machine works to him, and then through his own working of the machine.

• the eclipse is the ‘present moment,’ the synchronic ecstasy, the autotelic flow, of liminal stasis: no-one can keep it for long

This is the bliss Kevin expressed when he flips the switch and turns on the lamp.

The above is all what we intuit to be accurate about this event, but we understand that the younger you go the more is speculation – or at least the harder it is to document such phenomena.

Three final questions / comments –

  1. If perezhivanie is overcoming despair – and I do believe that children experience and overcome despair that is not qualitatively different than my own, but maybe this is where I am wrong – then how do they overcome despair?
  2. I think that our examples offer an answer to the question that came up earlier on this facebook page of “Who will teach a child perezhivanie?” Maybe the answer is: “Most often other children,” —although with the support of adults.
  3. We think that what we described above is very, very young children working together with their bodies, minds, memories and emotions to connect to each other and circle back to see themselves as if from above, taking a new perspective and moving forward.

And a resting point:

Can we somehow hold on to differences between adult and child perezhivanie, and also revise our timetable for the emergence of perezhivanie?

Plus a note:

One note about the “100 Languages” (the concept which guides these Swedish preschools, from the Reggio Emilia influence): This is generally a new concept for people from CHAT but we think Jay described it in prose perfectly (it is originally from a poem of the same name):

“Hence the methodological problem: we know how to recognize perezhivanie and other instances of higher functioning in adults and older children because we can use criteria from meaning based in verbal language (and some emotional expression) to do so – but we may well have missed earlier instances of higher functioning and perezhivanie in younger children because we do not have the equivalent skills for the more multi-modal, proto-systems that are operational before full verbal language, etc. become more developed and more differentiated.

But we do have some tools for doing this, of which face-to-face, over-time participation and observation is perhaps the most important. Despite the gap between ourselves and young children in terms of experience, acculturation, and semiotic differentiation, evolution provides us with some capacity to intuit children’s meanings and feelings ... “

Thank you,
Beth and Monica.


Alnervik, Karin, et al. Ljuspunkts: barns relation till fenomenet och begreppet ljus, for more images

Lindqvist, G. (1995). The aesthetics of play: A didactic study of play and culture in preschools. Uppsala, Sweden: Uppsala University.

Vasilyuk, F. (1988). The psychology of experiencing. Moscow: Progress Publishers.