Every child in the world is a master of play. Play is part of the basic developmental experiences of human lives. Children learn about culture, social norms and language through play. Precisely because of its sociocultural nature, children in different cultures engage in play differently due to differences in language, context and social norms.
Parents in different cultures also perceive play differently. Some see children’s play as part of their natural learning process — “learning through play.” In other cultures, children’s play may be seen as just a pastime and separate from learning.
When children move to another culture and context, their experiences of play can be more complex than commonly thought. Play can be an effective and natural way for immigrant children learn to socialize with children in their new country. On the other hand, differences in context, language, social norms and parental perceptions of play may create social conflicts among children in cross-cultural contexts.
The living arrangements of families influence how children play in their new land. This week, Statistics Canada released new census data on multi-generational and multi-family dwellings. From 2001 to 2016, multi-generational households rose 38 per cent. The data also points to increasing settlement patterns of multi-family dwellings in several immigrant-rich cities such as Brampton, Markham and Vaughan on the northern edges of Toronto, and other suburban communities such as Surrey, near Vancouver. These trends, even though they’re likely due to financial reasons, may help immigrant families preserve and reconstruct play environments for their children in the new land.
Children-led play versus adult-supervised spaces
One of the major differences many immigrant children and their parents experience in Canada and the U.S. is the different contexts and social expectations of play. One example is the adult-controlled nature of play versus the child-initiated peer play in many other cultures. This can make common concepts such as the “play date” foreign to many immigrant parents and children.
The Sudanese and Vietnamese refugee families in my studies, for example, were accustomed to children playing freely with each other in their villages without adult organization or supervision. When they immigrated to an inner city in the U.S., they found this kind of play, without adult supervision, was no longer possible. Instead, they had to closely watch whom their children were playing with and where they played. Often, due to the unsafe environments of their neighborhoods, the children were confined indoors in crowded spaces.
Too many toys and too much screen time
Contextual differences can also be reflected in the materials available in the environment. A North American child’s upbringing is filled with toys and games (both electronic and non-electronic). It is reported that an average 10-year-old in a Western society can have as many as 238 toys. In pre-school in North America, 90 per cent of children’s play is toy-dominated.
In addition to toys, children in Canada and the U.S. are increasingly getting more screen time, a concern for many mainstream and immigrant parents. These differences in the medium of play available in the environment can have a significant impact on how children play cross-culturally.
Language and social norm differences
Another challenge is language and social norms that mediate children’s play. Children bring social language use into play. For example, in role-playing, children often imitate adult use of language and interpret social relations they observe in their culture.
Since language use and social relations are different in diverse cultures, children must engage in negotiating these differences in cross-cultural play. One researcher documented a newly arrived Korean boy who bowed repeatedly while pretending to be a postman, as this is how it was in his culture. His peers laughed at his behaviour and caused great distress for the boy who did not know what went wrong.
While language may be an apparent barrier for immigrant and mainstream children’s play activities, the more important layer is the socio-cognition, that is, the ways of thinking and behaving associated with language use.
One example is the well-cited story, “How to be happy,” about an anthropologist who asked the children in a remote African tribe to race for the prize of a gift basket of fruit under a tree. Instead of racing against each other, to the anthropologist’s surprise, the children took each other’s hands and ran together to the tree and enjoyed their prize as a group. These differences in socio-cognition or ways of thinking and behaving can affect how children from different cultures interact with each other in play.
Parental perceptions of play
Parental perception of play is also an important factor that affects how children play in cross-cultural contexts. Chinese immigrant parents from my studies, for example, often came with the perception that play is just for fun and for relaxing, and is not a learning activity.
Many Chinese parents believed that too much play is a waste of time for learning and therefore will not encourage play, and sometimes limit their children’s play time in order to maximize their academic learning time. Some parents even considered the mainstream ways of teaching — for example, “experiential learning” in school — as just play and not learning. To compensate, they tried to structure more organized learning periods at home or through community tutoring services.
One child in one of my studies said that his mom created a second “home school” immediately after his day school, with repeated learning sessions alternated by some playtime — often TV watching or game playing.
These differences suggest that play in cross-cultural contexts is complex and dependent on many sociocultural and sociolinguistic factors that stimulate or regulate children’s play activities. It’s important to note that there is no “normal,” “ordinary” or “right” way of play. These differences must be interpreted within the socio-cultural contexts and backgrounds that they come from.