by Kathy Eugster, MA
Play is a universal, natural, and pleasurable experience. Children in all societies engage in play. Psychologist and play therapist Athena Drewes (2005) states that the nature of children’s play across cultures can be reduced to four major types: (1) play as imitation of and/or preparation for adult life, (2) play as a game or sports activity for physical skill, (3) play as a projective or an expressive activity, and (4) play as a pastime.
However, because play is linked to major characteristics of all cultures, such as history, religion, ideology, environment, levels of subsistence, learning environment, social complexity, and child-rearing customs, the way play looks across cultures can be different (Whiting & Whiting, 1975). Thus, the contemporary view of play is that it is both a universal and culture-specific activity.
Play reflects culture
Diverse cultures communicate and explain things in different ways and children learn how to act by interacting with their parents, meaning the parents’ cultural background influences a child’s behavior. Children incorporate their culture’s values, roles, and activities into their play (Holmes, 2013). For example, in pretend or imaginary play, children often imitate adult use of language and social relations they observe in their culture.
Physical settings and materials available in the environmental also influence play across cultures. In some cultures, children are provided with numerous manufactured toys, whereas in other cultures, children use whatever is available in their environment for play (Holmes, 2013).
Parents’ support of children’s play
Roopnarine & Davidson (2015) have found that parents across cultures may invest considerable time in supporting their children’s play interactions in multiple ways by being around their children, taking them outdoors, and engaging in play activities with them. One factor that will determine the amount of time children engage in play is the parent’s belief in the significance of play for child development. For some cultures, play is considered as an important foundation for learning. In other cultures, it is seen only as a casual activity or pastime.
Professor Guofan Li (2017), Department of Language and Literacy Education, University of British Columbia, states that when children move to another culture and context, their experiences of play can be more complex than commonly thought. Although playing with other children can be a wonderful way for newcomer or immigrant children to socialize with children in their new community, the differences in the social norms and perceptions of play may be difficult for some families.
Children from different cultures may engage in play differently due to differences in language and social norms. While language may be a barrier for some immigrant and mainstream children’s play activities, it is often the differences in social norms that are more important to consider. One of the major differences many immigrant or newcomer children and their parents experience is the different contexts and social expectations of play (Li, 2017). Children must negotiate these differences in play, meaning cross-cultural play can be complex for some children. It is important to note that there is no “normal,” “ordinary,” or “right” way to play. Differences in play must be interpreted within the socio-cultural contexts and backgrounds that they come from.
Teaching diversity and respect
It is important to teach children to respect cultural diversity. The United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulates that all children have the right to feel accepted and respected. A child’s culture is an essential component of the development of a child’s identity.
Here are some parent-child activities that will encourage your child to acknowledge and respect different cultures:
- Investigate, learn about, and celebrate your family’s cultural history. Learn about your different traditions and customs and where they have originated.
- Research Indigenous peoples in your area to understand their history and contributions to society.
- Read multicultural children’s books. Read nursery rhymes or folk tales from different cultures.
- Listen to music from different countries and cultures. Learn songs and dances of different cultures.
- Cook or serve different types of food from different cultures.
- Play games from different cultures.
- Have fun with a world globe or atlas. Find where you live. Fine where your relatives live. See how many countries you can count. Find the hottest country or the coldest country.
- Learn how to say “hello”, “goodbye”, and “I love you” in different languages.
- Attend a cultural festival.
- Go to a museum.
- Set a good example by welcoming newcomers into your community.
You can teach your child to respect cultural diversity and at the same time to recognize universal traits we all share. Help your child develop an understanding that every family has their own traditions, beliefs, values, and culture and regardless of our origins or beliefs, we should treat each other with respect.
Drewes, A. A. (2005). Play in Selected Cultures: Diversity and Universality. In E. Gil & A. A. Drewes (Eds.), Cultural issues in play therapy (pp. 26–71). The Guilford Press.
Holmes, R. M. (2013). Children’s play and culture. Scholarpedia, 8(6):31016. http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Children%27s_play_and_culture
Li, G. (2017). Immigrant children’s play can clash with mainstream cultures. The Conversation, Canada, Published Aug. 9, 2017. https://theconversation.com/immigrant-childrens-play-can-clash-with-mainstream-cultures-81927
Roopnarine, J. L., & Davidson, K. L. (2015). Parent-child play across cultures: Advancing play research. American Journal of Play, 7(2), 228-252. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1053428.pdf
Whiting, B. B. & Whiting, J. W. (1975). Children of Six Cultures: A psycho-cultural analysis. Harvard University Press.
Copyright Kathy Eugster, MA, 2023.
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