Children's play and culture

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Robyn M Holmes (2013), Scholarpedia, 8(6):31016. doi:10.4249/scholarpedia.31016 revision #133749 [link to/cite this article]
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Curator: Robyn M Holmes

The connection between play and culture has an illustrious past. In 1950, the classic play theorist Johan Huizinga articulated the position of play as a cultural phenomenon, one that humans share with animals. In this work, he introduced the defining criteria of play and its relationship to other higher forms of human activity such as art, law, and philosophy. Several years later in 1959, Roberts, Arth, and Bush introduced a classification scheme for games that drew attention to the relationship between the prevalence of games in a culture and cultural complexity. Since that time play research has always been mindful of the connection between play and culture.

For example, although play researchers share membership in The Association for the Study of Play, the association is rather diverse in the disciplines represented and affiliated publications have consistently included studies that employ a cultural lens (Roopnarine & Johnson, 1994). In concurrence with Brian Sutton-Smith’s (1986; 2001) view, play is thought to reflect cultural mastery and in a bidirectional relationship cultural values guide and shape the expression of play, time allotted for play, and attitudes towards play (Lancy, 2002). Almost two decades ago, Roopnarine et al. (1994) illuminated the need to account for the cultural variability in children’s play. They drew attention to the inaccuracies that arose when applying Western values and interpretations of play in non-Western settings. Interesting, there is still inequitable treatment in the play literature regarding the role of culture in interpreting and understanding play (Gaskins & Miller, 2009). This is true despite the fact that there is ample empirical evidence to support the contention that children in all societies engage in some type of playful consumption (Gosso, 2010). As Lancy (2002) noted, children engage in playful activities whether the culture in which they are socialized acknowledges, supports, or sets aside time for play. Thus the contemporary view of play is that it is both a universal and culture-specific activity (Brown, 2009; Lancy, 2007). Within the past decade, there has been increased attention to the role of culture in children’s development in general and play in particular.

For example, Gaskins and Miller (2009) recently supported the criticism that Western thinking and Western European children are the standard in play research. They believe that this position is responsible for the scant literature on studies that examine the influence of culture on play (see also Holmes, 2011; 2012). The current work provides an overview of this literature including both historical and contemporary projects. The focus is upon unstructured children’s play activities situated in particular cultural contexts – parental attitudes towards play, the relationship between play and education, and playfulness are not addressed in this work.


Ethnographic/Culture Specific Works

Early works on the relationship between children’s play and culture concentrated on compiling descriptions and classifying children’s free time activities. Opie and Opie’s (1969) classic work on children’s street and playground games is exemplary. This work focused upon the play of school age children through the United Kingdom with an emphasis upon England, Scotland, and Wales. The text is rich in descriptive detail and provides the reader with rhymes, chants, and folk terms that accompany the types of recorded play. The text is arranged by game type and ranges from chasing games to dueling games to pretend games. The reader is treated to an interdisciplinary approach to children’s unsupervised play that includes historical, ethnographic, and folklore traditions. Schwartzman’s (1979) anthropology of children’s play provides a theoretical, anthropological, and historical view of this phenomenon. In the work, she explores how children at play and the researchers who study them construct their interpretations. Attention and material covered is worldwide as are different historical periods. It is an extensive treatment of children’s play and focuses upon both play and players to move beyond the simple texts and contexts in which they co-exist, are constructed, and performed. In contrast to previous works that compiled descriptions of play, she emphasized the cultural construction of play and the transformations that take place within them.

Contemporary works on children’s play also focus on the cultural construction of play. For example, Gosso’s (2010) work is a major contribution to children’s play in traditional societies. Using an ethnographic lens, she focuses upon children’s playful consumptions among the Parakanā hunting and gathering society in Brazil. In agreement with Lancy (2002; 2007), these children engage in pretend activities that imitate and mirror adult subsistence activities. For example, indirect observations of adult role models serve as material that children recreate in their play. This includes boys playing with bows and arrows imitating hunting actions and girls grinding flour into tacos and making baskets as their mothers do. Similarly, Long, Volk, and Gregory’s (2007) ethnographic study of children’s pretend play illustrates the contemporary view that children are active agents in their own socialization and play is culturally constructed. Working with pairs of children from different cultural regions (London, Iceland, and the US) they explore how children adopt the roles of teacher and learner in acquiring and sharing cultural routines. Similar to Lancy’s (1996) work “playing on the mother ground”, these researchers concluded that play takes place in comfortable settings where children acquire universal skills such as sensitivity to others’ needs and culture-specific routines. They recommend that their findings may have applied value and be beneficial to early childhood educators to meet the needs of young children in these settings.

As a participant observer, in a non-Western setting, Holmes (2012) explored children’s play preferences across generations. Her work situated in a Pacific Rim community on the Hawaiian Island, Lanā'i supports the notion that play and culture are intricately linked and that playful outcomes are dependent upon a variety of factors that include economic, technological, cultural, and historical factors. For example, she found that contemporary children prefer more technologically advanced toys that are played primarily indoors whereas past generations of children played more outdoors. Also, some trends remained consistent across generations. In her sample, children of both generations preferred sex-stereotyped play activities and toys.

Also in the Pacific Rim, Goldman’s (1998) ethnographic work focuses upon children’s play among the Huli of the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. His work emphasizes unsupervised children’s play as it takes place within a broader cultural context. He draws attention to how children incorporate their culture’s roles and activities into their play. Focusing upon pretend play he illustrates how play serves to help children construct and mediate their daily social and linguistic interactions. He concludes that imaginative play promotes cognitive development as it provides a medium for children to become knowledgeable members of their culture. Other works in the Pacific Rim include Itsumi-Taylor’s work (2006) on the play of Japanese children and the influence of the setting on their playful outcomes. Additional ethnographic works on islands in the Pacific have examined the play/work dichotomy. For example, Watson-Gegeo (2001) explored Kwara’ae children’s daily activities that include play and work. Her work illustrates the notion that in many cultures children contribute to the economic health of their families and spend much of their time in work related activities. She found that young children are able to construct their identities and navigate the roles they are expected to play in different contexts. For example, when young children are playing they are situated in “child mode” and their behaviors are reflective of this; when they engage in work related activities children shift into “adult mode” and behave accordingly.

Some play researchers have explored children’s play on the continent of Africa. For example, Salamone and Salamone (1991) employed both an anthropological and ethnographic lens to study play among Hausa children in Nigeria. They focused upon “pure” play and its social, cultural, and psychological implications. In their work on children’s games, they included the underlying culturally specific criteria that are necessary to classify an activity as play and noted that when adults intervene in children’s play it is no longer fun and enjoyable. In essence, it ceases to be play. In North Africa, Rossie’s (2005) ethnographic work focuses upon children’s play in Morocco. This work discusses a variety of subtopics including the source of children’s play scripts, toys, and the emergence of creativity in children’s play activities. In the Middle East, Rivka Eifermann's (1971; 1979) work on Israeli Arab and Jewish children's games is one of the intensive observational studies that highlights how children's games are embedded in the macro culture in which they are performed. She employed multiple observers who collected voluminous amounts of raw material in addition to comparative information on locale, socioeconomic status, and ethnicity. Her work is also regarded for its contributions to children's folklore. Jones and Hawes' (1987) work on African American children's play focuses upon the relationship between music and playful activities. Her work on African American culture in the South draws attention to the position of music, song, and play in children's daily experiences as a means of having fun and coping with life's pressures and stresses. Her meticulous attention to details helps situate this work as an outstanding contribution to the literature on play, folklore, and American history.

Finally, some contributions to the literature on children’s play and culture address the therapeutic value of play. In a recent work, Brown (2012) writes about the play of Roma children in Transylvania. This is a substantial contribution to the literature on children’s play and culture as the Roma children are incredibly impoverished and live in deplorable conditions often without sanitation, electricity, heat, and running water. Despite these inhumane living conditions, Brown discovered that these children are not play deprived – rather than engage in playful consumptions in all available spaces and with all available materials. Their play is rich in imagination and creativity and fundamentally does not differ from the play of children in other settings.

In a related work, Berinstein and Magalhaes (2009) explored the playful consumptions of children in Zanzibar, Tanzania from the perspective of occupational therapy. Using what they term “photovoice”, they analyzed photographs and categorized children’s play experiences. These included: creative play, physical play/games, football and equipment play. Their work highlights how tradition, culture, and poverty impact children’s play outcomes and they address the factors that lead to opportunities for play in different cultural settings. Their study has applied value and is beneficial in improving children’s life experiences. For example, they encourage the occupational therapy profession to examine the opportunities for play for children living in developing countries. They also suggest a cultural specific approach in the meaning of play for children and play’s curative value for children who have experienced stressful and harmful events.

Cross-Cultural/Comparative Works

Roopnarine, Johnson, and Hooper’s (1994) edited volume contains ethnographic studies on play from geographic areas that include Western (Italy) and non-Western (Taiwan, Japan, Polynesia, the Arctic) cultural groups. The importance of this text is that it was one of the first book length treatments to address the role of culture in shaping children’s play. The text highlights the fact that play is both a cultural universal and culture-specific phenomenon. This work presents individual ethnographic descriptions of children at play in diverse settings which ultimately form a cross-cultural comparative work. Thus the reader comes to experience how setting guides the children’s play that takes place within it as well as the similarities and differences that surface among this phenomenon. Inclusive chapters also share a common theme: play is viewed as both a reflection of cultural mastery and play serves as a mechanism through which children acquire the cultural values with which the construct and reconstruct their daily interactions. For example, deMarrais, Nelson and Baker’s (1994) work on Yup’ik girls’ storyknifing clearly illustrates the role of this activity in the cultural transmission of essential skills and abilities which will teach these girls what they need to know to be competent Yup’ik women. Similarly, Martini’s (1994) work emphasizes how children acquire cultural values through their social interactions within a Marquesan peer group. She draws attention to how collectivist values shape children’s daily interactions and how these values are embedded in children’s peer play interactions.

Most recently, Singer, Singer, D’Agostino, and DeLong (2009) conducted one of the most comprehensive cross-cultural comparative works on children’s play and experiential activities. In this project, they collected information from mothers in 16 different nations located on five different continents. Controlling for socioeconomic status across countries in North America, South America, Europe, Asia, and Africa they found many similar trends. This is interesting given that there were significant differences in language, geography, culture, history and religious beliefs across their sample. For example, mothers believed that both free play and experiential learning opportunities were eroding for children. Similarly, when children have free time most of it is spent watching television. In these caregivers’ views, television was an acceptable alternative as children had few safe places to accommodate outdoor play activities. They also found that imaginative and pretend play was rare in comparison to other play activities and that setting influenced play. For example, children in industrialized nations (US, UK, and Ireland) engaged in pretend play whereas children in rural and suburban areas engaged in more creative activities such as painting, drawing, and toy play compared with their urban peers.

In their cross-cultural comparison, Nwokah and Ikekeonwu (1998) focused upon children’s games in the cultural settings of Nigeria and the United States. This work is important as it drew attention to the scarcity of comparisons between African children’s games and children’s games elsewhere in the world. This study produced incredible amounts of observational material on children’s games in these diverse cultural settings which revealed cultural similarities and differences in those games. They found that physical settings and available environmental materials influenced play as did cultural values. For example, although children utilized toys in both settings, Nigerian children used resources in their setting as toys whereas American children utilized manufactured toys more. Also, although winners were treated similarly, cultural norms shaped the way losers were treated. In agreement with Vygotsky (1978), they concluded that children’s games provided a social context for cultural learning.

In her cross cultural comparative study, Edwards (2000) revisited and reanalyzed the material collected for the historical Six Cultures Project (Whiting &Whiting, 1975). The raw material supports that cultural norms and physical and social settings were linked to the kinds of play that were observed. Given the ethnographic present, many of the children used toys in their available environments with the exception of Orchard Town in the US. These children exclusively had toys, games, and art materials. In agreement with Roberts, Arth and Bush (1959), they found that games with rules were observed in more complex societies and competitive games took place at school rather than in the neighborhood. Role play was common across cultures, however many of these activities were imitative of adult activities.

Some studies have focused upon particular types of play. In their recent study, Gosso, de Lima Salum e Morais, and Otta (2007) compared the pretend play of Brazilian children from five different cultural groups within the same country. These included: children from Indian ethnic heritages, the coast, and from urban areas of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. Using naturalistic observation and content coding they focused upon the content and the meaning of symbolic transformations in pretend play. They found that although pretend play occurred in all groups, high and mixed SES urban children engaged in more pretense than the other groups. They concluded that all children universally engage in pretend play and the differences among cultural groups were expressed more in the content than in the structure of pretend play. This study uniquely contributes to our understanding of the intercultural variation that exists in children’s play.

In some cultures children's play incorporates elements of music and singing. A particular noteworthy contribution is Kathryn Marsh's (2009) extensive cross-cultural work on children's musical play including hand clapping and singing games. The text highlights children's active role in shaping their play, the relationship between culture and play, and how children pass along these traditions to each other. Similar to Eifermann's (1971; 1979)work, Marsh's (2009) work also makes an outstanding contribution to children's folklore. Campbell and Wiggins' (2013) recent international work on children's musical cultures emphasizes the connection music, play, and children's daily experiences. The text includes chapters that address issues of gender, socialization, setting, historical change, and the experiences of children in stressful environments.

Finally, Darian-Smith and Pascoe's (2013) work is one of the most recent texts that addresses the relationship between children, constructions of childhood, and cultural heritage. Of particular relevance are the chapters that respectively explore the changing nature of children's playlore in Australia and the lore and language on the playground. Both of these chapters illustrate how play reflects cultural values and traditions and the position of cultural heritage in shaping children's play.

Theoretical works

In his work on the variability of mother-infant play, Lancy (2007) examines psychological and anthropological interpretations on the role and distribution of mother-infant play. He contends that psychological perspectives on mother-infant play lead to conclusions of play as necessary for normal development and important for its positive outcomes. In contrast, anthropological interpretations focus upon the fact that this type of play does not appear with great frequency worldwide and that there are other factors which guide whether this play is supported in a culture. Drawing upon a cross-cultural sample from various geographic regions these factors include: temperature, climate, individuals involved in the socialization process, and cultural subsistence patterns.

In another work, Lancy (1996) draws upon his fieldwork with the Kpelle of Liberia to illustrate how children acquire cultural patterns and meaning through play. The Kpelle culturally value play and expect their children to play "on the mother ground" – cultural spaces and territories in which adults engage in activities related to work. Situated in close proximity to adult role models, children indirectly observe the work that adults do. These cultural routines and scripts serve as a mechanism by which children learn about their culture. Lancy argues that such child rearing routines observed in the Kpelle village are universal and not limited to traditional societies, though they may vary by culture. This theoretical work is supported by ethnographically thick and rich detail. It provides empirical evidence to support the cultural variability of play and calls for the need to consider culture based or folk theories of child development.


As Lancy (2002) and Gosso (2010) noted, children worldwide engage in playful activities. This is true whether cultures acknowledge, condone, support, and set aside time for play. However cultural variability in play also exists (Lancy, 2007) and empirical evidence clearly supports a relationship between play and culture (Goncu, Gaskins, & Haight, 2006; Holmes, 2012). The studies that appear in this work illustrate the role culture plays in shaping and guiding children’s play activities and interactions. In play, children acquire cultural values, skills, and abilities which are embedded in children’s everyday experiences including play with peers and interactions with teachers and caregivers. This literature has evolved from the simple compilation and categorization of children’s play activities in different cultural settings to acknowledging the role of culture in children’s cultural constructions of play. Given the recent attention to this relationship, the future of children’s play and culture studies looks promising.


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