Transitionality, Playing, Identification and Symbolization: Winnicott and Vygotsky

JPR Vol 10 #9

Author: Julián Andrés Naranjo Orozco.

[email protected]

Historical – cultural psychologist.

Master in Psychoanalytic Treatment, PhD. in Research in psychoanalysis. Centro Universitario Emmanuel Kant.


Psychological problems  can be classified into two large groups: those related to cognition and “learning” and those related to  affect and the notion of “reality”. It seems that both groups of problems were destined to be treated separately due to epistemological differences of the currents that have dealt with one or the other. This article describes  an epistemological and methodological convergence between Winnicott and Vygotsky regarding the notions of transitional space and playing respectively.   The foundations of an integrative treatment of the two main  groups of  psychological problems are proposed, based on the use of play  as a usable transitional space in the field of  psychological treatment.

Keywords: Transitional space, transitional objects, Identification, symbolization, playing.


When we take a look at history or what our own life has been, we can easily be surprised about human works, even human omissions, but we should be more surprised about what transpires between one work and another and, also, between the self and the other, namely, these “between” areas  which  define  “transitional space”.

What should focus our attention the most on “human nature” in  transitional space. This is a proposal by Donald Winnicott that we find at the beginning of his writing “Transitional objects and transitional phenomena”, in the section entitled “The inadequacy of the habitual formulation of human nature” (Winnicott, 1953/1971).

What most characterizes the human is his particular relation  with respect to the object, to the other, and to himself. This particular relation implies the constant production of our world and ourselves, that is, the constancy of products and transitional space. The latter is at the same time the space of culture, symbolism, art, religion, identification. It is the space of human acts and actions.

Although we are always immersed in  transitional space, it is also true that different individuals differ in the level of investment   in this space. The greater the investment in   transitional space, then the greater , is the creativity and well-being of an individual.  The greater the impoverishment  of the transitional space, the greater the pathology of the  individual. This is so from an affective as well as a cognitive perspective, from a psychoanalytic perspective as well as from a perspective of historical-cultural psychology proposed by Vygotsky.

Lev Semionovich Vygotsky (1896 – 1934) was a Belarusian-born psychologist who argued for the cultural origin of psychological processes and disagreed with the prevailing physiological reductionism of Pavlovian reflexology.

Historical-cultural psychology deals with the transitionality of elementary psychic processes towards higher psychic processes (Vygotsky, 1979). The proper objects of elementary processes are of one type , the proper objects of higher processes are of another type  and, of course, the proper objects of a certain transitional space are transitional objects as such. Vygotsky dealt with transitional objects with a view to further cognitive development, while Winnicott dealt with transitional objects with a view to greater well-being from a psychoanalytic perspective.


Playing, transitional objects and transitional phenomena: Winnicott and Vygotsky


At the beginning of life, there is  no exchange between the baby and the mother since, in psychological terms, the baby feeds on a breast that is part of him, and the mother gives milk to a baby that is part of her (Winnicott, 1960/2016). From Winnicott’s perspective, the mother must offer the newborn the opportunity to feel that the breast is him, thus we have what has been called the subjective object that is:

“The product of an experience of omnipotence that allows the baby to create exactly what was already created and put there to be found by him, a situation that implies an omnipotent and magical domain of objects. This experience is the basis of the baby’s primary creativity, creativity that Winnicott sees inextricably linked to the condition of feeling alive”(1)

But a “good enough” mother should not limit herself to this, since although she must thus delude her little son or daughter, she too, little by little, must disappoint them . This must be the case for her to break the psychological unity of mother and child.

At  the beginning of life, Vygotsky points out how in the baby there is a fusion between perception and motor reaction. All perception causes  activity.

“From the moment that a situation is communicated psychologically through perception, and that perception is not separated from motor and motivating activity, it is totally understandable that, with knowledge structured in this way, the child is limited because of the situation in which he is positioned”(2)

It is desirable that this fusion of perception – motivating activity – motor activity is present, but at the same time,  good development of the infant implies that this fusion is gradually ended.

Those units or mergers that Winnicott and Vygotsky tell us about will have to be broken gradually, the cuts that are desirable to occur should be preceded by the transitional phenomenon, according to both authors.

On the transitional phenomenon, returning to Winnicott we have :

“The appropriate mother is the one who moves away gradually and without violence (from the baby), the one who tolerates and makes tolerable a certain amount of disappointment, the one who knows how to return and offer appropriate substitutes with which to favor the gradual and trusting libidinal investment of objects, which in this way begin to function as transitional objects”(3)

In this way, the transitional objects are the separation from the mother, as well as the union with the mother. The subjective object was dominated by the baby in a magical way, but the transitional object entails its manipulation, the beginning of the instrumentalization of objects; here the child experiences the pleasure that muscular eroticism offers and the exercise of coordinated action. The use of transitional objects encloses the union of two now separate things, baby and mother, at the point of time and space of the initiation of their state of separation. In the transitional space, Winnicott locates playing; for Winnicott, playing is a creative way of living that extends into the cultural experience.

Vygotsky also saw a transitional phenomenon in playing. In playing the child creates an imaginary situation and it is precisely in this that the two great stages of playing are characterized. At the beginning of the playful activity, the game is presented with an obvious imaginary situation and certain little obvious game rules.  Later the stage of playing entails  manifest rules and little obvious imaginary situations. In every game the child sees one thing, but acts regardless of what he sees, “the game provides a transitional stage when an object (for example, a stick) becomes the starting point for the separation of the meaning of the word horse from  the real horse ”(4)

“The creation of an imaginary situation is not a fortuitous event in the child’s life, but rather the first manifestation of his emancipation from situational limitations. The first paradox of the game is that the child operates with an alienated meaning in a real situation. The second is that in the game the little one adopts the line of least resistance – he does what he most pleases, because the game is related to pleasure – and, at the same time, learns to follow the line of greatest resistance by submitting to certain rules and renouncing what they want, since subjection to the rules and renunciation of impulsive action constitute the path to maximum pleasure in the game ”(5)

The child’s play is the beginning of the disintegration of the perception – motivating activity – motor activity fusion. During play, the infant operates with meanings separate from its objects and customary actions, however this is only possible in connection with the actual situation of the moment and retaining the properties of the objects. For example, a stick could be a horse in the game, but a postcard could not be. For an adult a postcard can be a horse, he can use the postcard to symbolize the horse if, for example, he wants to show the situation of something. Furthermore, the child makes a horse out of the stick insofar as this is linked to the real situation at the moment of play. Playful activity is not, therefore, symbolization, but is the transitional stage towards symbolization. “This characterizes the transitional nature of the game, it is a stage between the purely situational limitations of early childhood and adult thinking, which can be totally free from real situations.” (6)

For Winnicott, the transitional object is a transition towards symbolization, towards the internalization of the mother (Winnicott, 1953/1993). This symbolization and internalization of the mother is achieved together with that of the father from the Oedipus complex, but this will never be possible if there are failures in the transitional stage, in the transitional object. It can be affirmed that for Winnicott, as for Vygotsky, the objects of playing are transitional objects, however, the object that Winnicott has always highlighted as properly transitional has an even greater function than that of other game objects; When the beginning of the mother-child separation occurs, the transitional object allows the child  to retain in this separation, crack and hiatus, a part of his own being and allows him to endure those moments of separation until the subsequent reunion with the mother. If game objects are to have certain properties, the great Winnicottian transitional object must even have special properties that other game objects would not have.

The omnipotent magic of the subjective object is the basis of the child’s subsequent capacity for illusion, for dreaming, if development goes well. In order to cover an object of reality with illusion, the child “needs to have sufficiently well established and discriminated the category of the external and the real, as well as to take sufficient distance from the full, primary belief in the omnipotence of his thought.” (7)

It is the great Winnicottian transitional objects that are clothed with illusion, with reverie, rather than with imagination, which is what the remaining game objects are clothed with. Winnicottian psychoanalysis was dedicated to the study of creativity, illusion, dreaming, while historical-cultural psychology focused on imagination. Both, reverie and imagination, are equally essential potentialities for man, for the proper development of him. This being clarified, the Winnicottian transitional object is not actually above the other objects in the game; I only used these terms to explain the distinction between one and another transitional object. A perspective placed only on creativity, dreaming, is as incomplete as a perspective placed only on imagination; But the great thing is that the two perspectives presented here are incredibly coincident and at the same time integrative. Both perspectives can form a non-eclectic treatment where the approach to mental and / or physical disabilities is not divorced from the approach to neuroses, psychoses or perhaps depression; moreover, a treatment where these approaches are not divorced from the search for authenticity (if we want to use a Winnicott term). As  has already been glimpsed throughout this article, the basis of this integrative treatment is playing.


Playing, identification and symbolization


Vygotsky conceived  playing as a great transitional space in which the treatment of cognitive and physical disabilities is framed, and which, of course, are linked to cognitive ones.

Vygotsky discovered that every psychic process,  before being an internal process, was an external activity. Psychic processes correspond to the symbolization, of external processes through the mediation  of language (Vygotsky, 1934/1995).

Within the framework of the therapeutic interventions of historical-cultural psychology, acquiring a new  psychological skill becomes, as  a first step, the use of a game.  This is delimited by a previous analysis of what these game components  must  be in order to acquire the new objective skill. The playful activity is carried out by communicating to the patient that the objective of the game is the development of pertinent psychological skill. The toys are the original transitional objects that are used  with   and are accompanied by  the external verbalization of the playing patient, while the external verbalizations by  the therapist allows the regulation of the game. External verbalizations will enrich the patient’s own verbal thinking.

This play  activity with verbal accompaniment will also be carried out by substituting the original  toys with  other external symbols (for example, tokens or points drawn on a sheet). The play procedure can be reproduced verbally with the presence of the original  toys, but without physically manipulating them. Finally, the new skill acquired with a task or game analogous to the one used initially and with the verbal accompaniment of the child, will be evaluated. This genetic method – modeling of new skills or psychological processes (Galperin, 1982), operates with the detachment of meanings of his real objects, characteristic of the game, and with more transitional objects analogous to the initial ones, all summoned under the mediation of language. This results in a symbolization of external objects and operations.


Thus, the field of action of cultural-historical psychology on transitional space is defined under the title of symbolization. It is the path to the symbolization that characterizes the imagination.

Winnicott discovered that playing is not mere sublimation, play is beyond that. For Winnicott, playing is not the mere equivalent of the free association of the adult in the child (Winnicott, 1971).

Sublimation leaves the individual in a certain passivity in the transformation  of sexual and death impulses, while in play the individual is much more active in this psychic resignification. Playing is not a mere means of “revealing the unconscious” but involves elaborations on the part of the patient; It implies re-symbolizations that refer to the resignification within  the patient’s own psyche. These concern his identification, his notion of himself, through playful acts and actions (Winnicott, 1971). This implies a more active re-identification and, therefore, is more in accordance with the true self than with the false self (Winnicott, 1960/2016). Playing for  Winnicott is a transitional space of self-creation and, therefore, the field of action of psychoanalysis in the transitional space is defined as a process of  identification. It is the path to identification that characterizes the reverie.

It is important to clarify that symbolization encompasses the passage from the particular and situational of  actions and objects towards the generalization of these actions and objects that are now represented internally by symbols. This generalization and establishment of symbols is achieved through the timely mediation of language for external activities designed for each of the cognitive or physical skills to be achieved.


Identification involves symbolization but it is characterized in a special way by referring to our notion of ourselves, to the recognition that is also linked to the fact that we are recognized by  the other. We recognize ourselves appropriately or not, as we have been recognized by others appropriately or improperly. The Winnicottian transitional objects function as our first non-self objects, as transitional objects toward self-symbolizing ourselves with reference to others. We self – symbolize ourselves as an ideal image based on the other  (ideal self) and we symbolize the other  as an ideal to be achieved by us (Ideal that concerns the self). The Winnicottian psychoanalyst serves as a subjective object, by favoring the emergence of Winnicottian transitional objects that the patient lacked, to favor a resignification of the patient’s self more on the side of the spontaneous gestures (true self) than on the side of his struggle to agree with a hostile environment (false self).

Of course, the Winnicottian game is also accompanied by the external verbalizations of the patient and the psychoanalyst. The latter encourages the re-identification of the patient. The Winnicottian game is not a game only for children but is a game for all insofar as it involves the patient’s regression as a precondition and involves working with the early transference and Winnicottian transitional objects that the patient lacked in his childhood (Winnicott, 1953). 1971).


Final thoughts


The epistemological correspondence between Donald Woods Winnicott and Lev Semiónovich Vygotsky regarding transitional space is evident. It is the same in terms of considering playing as part of the transitional space and its use in the field of treatment. Regarding the latter, each of the authors focuses on different topics, but both are equally essential for humans.

With all the preceding  I find no difficulty in proposing an integrative treatment, using play, that addresses the problems of symbolization and identification in  the same patient, namely, their problems from the perspective of historical-cultural psychology and from the perspective of psychoanalysis. The treatments from  historical-cultural psychology seem to be more similar to the type of games with evident rules and implicit imaginary situations, while the treatments from the psychoanalysis perspective seem to be more similar to the games with evident imaginary situation and implicit rules. But, after all, as was maintained  by Vygotsky himself, both types of games are essential. Finally, it is worth expressing that neither historical-cultural psychology nor psychoanalysis deal with the  grounds for their own grounds, that is, not for  symbolization itself nor for  identification itself, but rather  in both disciplines the central and defining axis  is placed on the transitional.


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(2) Vygotski, L. El desarrollo de los procesos Psíquicos superiores. Editorial Crítica S.A. Barcelona, 1979, pág. 147

(3) Zak de Goldstein, Raquel. Donald Winnicott en América Latina (Teoría y clínica psicoanalítica).  “El objeto transicional de Winnicott, ¿una nueva categoría objetal en la teoría y en la clínica?”  Coor. Outeiral, J. &Abadi, S. Colección de psicología integrativa, perspectivista e interdisciplinaria. Argentina, 1999, pág. 194.

(4) Vygotski, L. El desarrollo de los procesos Psíquicos superiores. Editorial Crítica S.A. Barcelona, 1979, pág. 149.

(5) Vygotski, L. El desarrollo de los procesos Psíquicos superiores. Editorial Crítica S.A. Barcelona, 1979, pág. 151.

(6) Vygotski, L. El desarrollo de los procesos Psíquicos superiores. Editorial Crítica S.A. Barcelona, 1979, pág. 150

(7) Zak de Goldstein, Raquel. Donald Winnicott en América Latina (Teoría y clínica psicoanalítica). “El objeto transicional de Winnicott, ¿una nueva categoría objetal en la teoría y en la clínica?”  Coor. Outeiral, J. &Abadi, S. Colección de psicología integrativa, perspectivista e interdisciplinaria. Argentina, 1999, pág. 188.




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