This article provides a critical overview of research on play and cognitive development and an analysis of the two major theoretical frameworks that have informed it. Until recently, the dominant influence in this area has been that of Piaget, whose approach to play formed an integral part of his larger theory of cognitive development. Although the Piagetian research program is far from exhausted, the absence of a sociocultural dimension in his approach created a space for the influence of Vygotsky, whose developmental theory has increasingly emerged as the major alternative framework. However, this second stream of research has thus far taken up the Vygotskian ‘inspiration’ in a limited and inadequate way. In particular, it is too narrowly focused on interaction and does not address the wider sociocultural elements that define and shape the play context. The article concludes by suggesting the outlines of a more powerful research perspective. Among other sources, this approach builds on some of the unexplored possibilities within the Piagetian and Vygotskian perspectives themselves – in part by reconnecting certain elements in these perspectives with their roots in Durkheim and Freud – as well as drawing on the approach to cultural interpretation championed by Geertz.

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