Culture and Development in Children's Play

[From: Hyun, E. (1998). Making sense of developmentally and culturally appropriate practice (DCAP) in early childhood education. New York: Peter Lang. Chapter 2. All rights reserved]

Children's play has been recognized as the major agent in young children's development and learning. Play also serves as an enculturative mechanism (Schwartzman, 1978). Through play children learn societal roles, norms, and values. Despite the limited and narrowed focus of the literature on children's play, several researchers and educators have recently proposed that children's play differs across cultures and socioeconomic status (Roopnarine & Johnson, 1994). As a fundamental concept for developmentally and culturally appropriate practice, we need to understand the dynamics of cultural influence and child development on children's play, particularly in the contexts of family ethnic culture. In this chapter I discuss the inseparable and culturally grounded relation between children's development and their play.


Culture Shapes Sense Making of the Phenomena

The eyes of looking at and interpreting children's play is different from culture to culture. Individuals with a strong influence from Euro-American cultural heritages look at, interpret, explore social phenomena on an individual basis. Especially when a person is raised by a Euro-American nuclear family, individualism is more apparent than when a person is raised by an extended or multigenerational family. The Euro-American ethnic perspective usually perceives that a family is composed of a few individuals.

In this context, individual independence, self-reliance, self-help, and autonomy are respected and encouraged (Becerra, 1988; Devore & London, 1993; Kain, 1993; Kitano, 1988; Locke, 1992; McAdoo, 1993; Min, 1988; Mindel, Habenstein, & Wright, 1988; Sanchez-Ayendez, 1988; Slonim, 1991; Staples, 1988; Stewart & Bennett, 1991; Szapocznik & Hernandez, 1988; Tran, 1988; Wilkinson, 1993; Williams, 1970; Wong, 1988). This individually oriented cultural mind-set shapes the researchers', practitioners', and parents' approach, understanding, and description of child's play phenomena within that paradigm. It also leads them to see interaction with the child based on that culturally shaped mode. For example, they are looking at whether the child can be in control of the play object, whether the individual child realizes that there are other individual(s), whether he or she is able to interact with them, how much same-age peer interaction occurs; or whether the individual child is able to negotiate with other individual(s) in a group play (Howes, 1980; Parten, 1933).

Psychologist Mildred Parten (1933) recorded the changing nature--"development"--of young children's play from age two to age five. Parten's categories of children's social play have been frequently used since then. We still view her categories of child's play as a meaningful framework within which to examine the increasing social maturity of the child (Hughes, 1995). Her theory was based on the following developmental stages: (1) Solitary play. It is the lowest level of social play. The child plays alone and independently even if surrounded by other children. It is mentioned as typical of two-year-olds play; (2) Parallel play. The child plays independently at the same activity, at the same time, and in the same place. The child is aware of the presence of peers but each child plays separately; (3) Associate play. It is described as a common among three- and especially four-year-olds' play. The child is still focused on a separate activity but there is a considerable amount of sharing, lending, taking turns, and attending to the activities of one's peers; and (4) Cooperative play. It is described as a high level of play that represents the child's social and cognitive maturity. The children can organize their play and/or activity cooperatively with a common goal and be able to differentiate and assign roles.

Influenced by Parten's theory, Howes (1980) and Howes, Unger, and Seidner (1989) present a similar developmental theory of child's social play: (1) Parallel play. Children engage in similar activities but do not pay any attention to one another; (2) Mutual regard. The child has an awareness of others but shows no verbalization or other social behaviors. The child only engages in a social act in similar or identical activities by making eye contact; (3) Simple social exchange. The child engages in similar activities along with other social behaviors such as talking, smiling, offering toys to peers; (4) Complementary play. The child shares common fantasy themes or engages in joint activities with a common goal, but makes no effort to integrate his/her own activities with another's; and (5) Reciprocal complementary play. The child begins to show a differentiation of complementary roles. One child is the leader in an activity, and one is follower (Johnson, Christie, & Yawkey, 1987; Hughes, 1995).

Following Parten's, Howes' and others' work, practitioners, educators, and parents who are from families with a strong influence of Euro-American culture tend to stress the cognitive benefits of child's play or the acquisition of individual independent social skills through play. They show thoughtful appreciation for child's play as a chief aspect of young children's everyday cognitive and social experiences that are individually oriented, independently based, or toy- or object-oriented (Johnson, Christie, & Yawkey, 1987).

Families with a strong African-American, Asian-American, or Hispanic-American background tend to be somewhat more group-oriented in their understanding of social phenomena compared to families from Euro-American cultures. There is a high tendency to have extended or multigenerational family structures. The individual is recognized as a member of the family group. They perceive family as composed of group members rather than individuals (Becerra, 1988; Devore & London, 1993; Kain, 1993; Kitano, 1988; Locke, 1992; McAdoo, 1993; Min, 1988; Mindel, Habenstein, & Wright, 1988; Sanchez-Ayendez, 1988; Slonim, 1991; Staples, 1988; Stewart & Bennett, 1991; Szapocznik & Hernandez, 1988; Tran, 1988; Wilkinson, 1993; Williams, 1970; Wong, 1988). Within these cultural contexts family interdependence and family reliance are highly encouraged and expected. Thus, researchers from these cultural contexts focus on: whether the child receives frequent multi-age family interactions; within the family interaction, whether the child is emotionally happy and enjoys the play; whether the child is psychologically safe and relies on the family members in various forms of play. Based on this cultural frame of observing child's play, researchers report that during infancy and toddlerhood and even up to preschool children receive frequent child/parent, child/adult, multi-age child/child or child/children play opportunities within one's own family culture. The very young child is often in the middle of attending multi-age family-member play interactions, various forms of physical play with parents or multi-age family members. There is much eye contact, offering and receiving of toys, sharing, lending, turn-taking, and even organized cooperative play, which is all categorized by the Euro-American perspective as a high level of child's play and occurs in preschool years or older (Roopnarine, Hossain, Gill, & Brophy, 1994; New, 1994). Non-European researchers, teachers, and parents are somewhat more people-oriented, socioemotional, and multi-interactional rather than, individual-, sociocognitive-oriented.

Researchers and teachers with a strong Euro-American perspective tend to make sense of child's play and development based on how or what the child can do sociocognitively for oneself as an individual in the social context. With Asian-, African-, or Hispanic-American perspective the focus is on how the child can socioemotionally interact with family members and others as a group member. Therefore, these culturally different perspectives create a somewhat different line of understanding in child's play and their development. Even further, they value child's play and the developmental phenomena in culturally different ways.

We all have a culturally shaped frame of mind set. This culturally grounded phenomenon tends to lead people to believe that their ways of looking at things are universally acceptable, which may not be true. Thus, we all can become culturally blind.


Contemporary Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Children's Play

How we interpret child's play and development differs from culture to culture. Even defining child's play and a child's other activities differ depending on one's culture. For example, many families with Asian ethnic cultural influences tend to see play and academic activity separately. In contrast, from an Italian perspective, as in the Reggio Emilia schools in Italy, there is little distinction between play and child's other activities, and rather a strong emphasis on social-interaction in child's play (New, 1994). Many U.S. educators and researchers with Euro-American perspectives strongly believe that child-initiated play and other experiences are already related to the child's development of later academic experiences.

There is a cultural tendency of many families with Asian backgrounds to perceive child's play as a subject in itself rather than as a means for supporting academic experiences when the child becomes a kindergartner. Children tend to spend a great deal of their time in activities known as academically oriented experiences in their daily schedules (Pan, 1994; Takeuchi, 1994). These phenomena are highly valued and encouraged by the ethnic culture. In Spring of 1997, I did phenomenological interviews as well as field observations with Korean parents in Seoul, Korea and with Korean-American families in the New England area. Not surprisingly, these parents tend to strongly believe that academic activities are more highly valued than play, but within an academic activity the parents believe that children can enjoy it as a kind of play; "Academic activities are more important than play. Even if they are doing an academic work, they are still in a kind of play because they make it as a playful or fun study (interview with a Korean-American mother, Durham, NH, March 1997)." Even though their three-year-old child is engaged in an academically oriented activity--scribbling Korean and English alphabets, counting and scribbling numbers--once the child seems to be enjoying him/herself, parents join the activity with their child as a family activity. Many parents see it as a "Kongboo [study or academic activity]" that is fun and they highly encourage this kind of behavior as a "good" play. This kind of phenomenon can be easily observed in many families from Asian-American ethnic backgrounds throughout the United States.

As a cross-cultural phenomenon in child's play, children in contemporary industrialized social cultural contexts tend to spend a great deal of their play time in viewing television and performing often sedentary, individually oriented indoor activities (e.g., computer games, Nintendo), more so today than ever before (Takeuchi, 1994). These socioeconomical changes influence the children's traditional divergent play forms and affect whole aspects of children's developmental characteristics, particularly their socioemotional cognitive development and physical development. At the same time, each family creates somewhat new or different family values and practices in their child's play and is concerned with how to enhance or discourage play that would affect the child's development. These areas of study need to be as explicitly explored as other cross-cultural perspectives on play.

Many of these cross-cultural studies and theory developments were based on middle class populations using well-nourished children in controlled early childhood education settings. All children were assumed to be well-nourished not only physically but also spiritually and emotionally (Bloch & Adler, 1994). I am not sure whether these assumptions would be helpful in studying children from diverse socioeconomic contexts. Many children who are in poverty, homeless, and at risk may not follow the same developmental play stages as Parten's or well-nourished middle-class children. Their play-- its conditions, style, themes, and materials--is extremely diverse. How much do we know about these phenomena? Some early childhood monocultural teachers who are working with these culturally diverse children have a hard time in helping them. The teacher may even perceive that these children do not know how to play. She believes that one of her responsibilities is teaching the children how to play (see Ayers, 1989, Darlene's case). We need to investigate historically and socioeconomically underprivileged children's social and cultural conditions and their forms of play. Early childhood preservice and in-service practitioners need a fundamental framework that would guide them to see and understand diverse child's play. This area of study has not been explored.

The increasing number of multiethnic marriages and same-sex marriages, with children, has also created new and unexplored ethnic family cultures that affect child's play and development. If we are willing to accept the notion that culture shapes human growth and learning, we urgently need a contemporary cross cultural framework of understanding child's developmental changes and play that includes these emerging cultures. It would guide us more fairly and cross-culturally to understand child development and learning. It would also allow early childhood practitioners to interact with children in culturally relevant and congruent modes.


Limits on the Preexisting Notion of Child's Play

We have recognized the values of play, including play-oriented learning and experience, that are culturally contextualized. However, as I have noted, knowledge about child's play and approaches to understand child's play (Howes, 1980; Howes, Unger, & Sieder, 1989; Parten, 1933) have been mainly based on single-ethnic perspective which is variously called as Western middle-class, European,or Euro-American perspective. Roopnarine and Johnson (1994) point out that Euro-American mainstream ideas about play and early childhood education have not thoroughly considered certain cultural imperatives.

For more than six decades in the fields of social developmental psychology and early childhood education, researchers have been referencing Parten's or Howes' theory whenever they attempt to explore, understand, and assess young children's sociocognitive development through play, mostly within a single-age or same-age group setting. However, their conclusions are no longer accepted without question (Hughes, 1995). According to Parten, cooperative play begins to occur during the preschool years. Are all toddlers really unable to play cooperatively? It has been reported that children as young as eighteen months can sometimes cooperate in play with other peers, as when they play peek-a-boo or take turns by running after each other (Brenner & Mueller, 1982; Howes & Matheson, 1992).

In some family cultures, playful social exchange occurs as an inherent family interaction with their young child. A family with extended family members or a multigenerational family frequently has multi-age interactions. Within this sociocultural context, cooperative social interaction and social exchanges have been pervasive in the family culture. Becoming a cooperative player within a multigenerational and multi-age family environment and developing that kind of sociocognitive schema may be an inevitable developmental phenomenon. In this cultural context, the young child may first explore more about others than about self. Mentally visualizing play with others, observing others' intercommunicative expressions, being aware of the existence of family members or others in a play context are common phenomena that this young child has been receiving ever since birth. Thus, physically visualizing and cognitively realizing others during the early periods of childhood may be more apparent than the realizing of self as a single organism in such a child's developmental changes. Even though many European child development researchers have developed the theory that knowledge of self comes prior to knowledge of other, in this ethnic cultural context, knowledge of other may occur prior to knowledge of self. Realization of self may be a developmental phase that requires some degree of reflection of self with culturally shaped cognitive function because of the sociocultural influences. If we follow Parten's theory we may continuously underestimate or misunderstand the diverse young child's developmental abilities and potentials. More critically, we may be using some limited or culturally blind hypotheses to interpret the child's developmental changes and play behaviors.

On the other hand, if the child is from a nuclear family, particularly with a strong Euro-American cultural background emphasizing individualism, self-reliance, individual problem-solving, self-help, and autonomy, then interaction tends to be more object-oriented than multigenerational/multi-age people-oriented. Children have numerous opportunities to manipulate objects--functional and fully finished commercial toys for example--and discover properties and relationships. In Euro-American cultural contexts, the child may have a great deal of experience exploring objects and the relations between self and objects. Mentally visualizing play with toys and other objects and observing physical relations and the consequences may be phenomena that the child is cognitively facing. Thus, realizing and using one's autonomy may occur before the child is able to interact with peers or others of multi-ages. Parten's theory may be a culturally congruent framework to use in the study of child's play in Euro-American cultural contexts.

In addition, Parten's developmental framework has led researchers, educators, and parents to see solitary play by an older child as evidence of social immaturity. Yet, if we consider contemporary industrialized social culture, we realize there are various forms of child's play that are purely designed for solitary play. Are we still considering the seven- or eight-year- old child who daily plays computer games alone as socially immature? If we still follow the traditional approach to child's play, the framework is not only culture blind but historically out of date. Exploring and creating new understandings of child's play, deconstructing the old conventional orientation of child's play, and developing multiethnically and contemporarily relevant frames of reference for understanding child's play are urgent tasks for early childhood practitioners and families.

As an implication of this debate, early childhood teacher educators can give several exploratory assignment to the students. For example:

- Graduate level students: Conduct an ethnographic study of a contemporary multiethnic family's childrearing practices and their play interactions which affect the young child's developmental changes, growth, and learning.

- Undergraduate level students: Conduct formal or informal observations and interviews with historically and socioeconomically underprivileged families. Write a reflective and observational report on the experience and share it within a cooperative small group discussion.


A Story from the Field

Play is biologically based and is kept alive as an evolutionary contribution to human development and changes (Roopnarine & Johnson, 1994; Schwartzman, 1978). No matter how you define play, it is a dominant activity of children's daily life in all cultures. Children's play always portrays and reflects their own social values and family ethnic practices. Children play out personally meaningful experiences through their physical environment in their own way, while at the same time the sociocultural environment shapes children's play in its unique way (Erickson, 1963; Vygotsky, 1977). Play is an expression of a particular culture, including the child's own ethnic family culture; play is an important context or vehicle for cultural learning and transmission, as well as an indicator of child developmental changes and a reflection of their experiences (Schwartzman, 1978, 1983).

Children' s ethnic family culture always interweaves directly in their play and peer interactions. Culture is the contextual factor that influences all forms of adult-child, child-child, and child-children play. The story that follows shows how a family's ethnic culture influences a teacher's thinking and action and children's play behavior. It is a story from an early childhood teacher's first-year experience. I met the teacher at a local private day care in Las Vegas, Nevada in 1988. The teacher's story is about a child name Eunjoo:

Eunjoo is a Korean-American four-year-old girl. Every morning when the child comes into the classroom with her mother or her father, she and her parents bow to the teacher. Even though the teacher is not close by, they look for the teacher and once they have an eye contact with the teacher they all bow together to the teacher.

The first time they did that I thought, something must be wrong on my classroom floor. So I was a little panicked and rushed near them to check the floor but nothing was wrong on my floor. Later that day, I found a very interesting behavior of Eunjoo's. Several children were in the block area playing. Eunjoo just joined in the area. At the beginning she simply looked around, looking at others play and their block constructions. In the meanwhile she gradually moved one block to another from the shelves and began to build her own construction. At the moment I found out, I think I guessed that she was searching for a curve shape. So I found one and gave it to her. When she received the block, she was bending over her upper body looking at the block and the floor again. I was a little panicked again and thinking what's wrong on my floor. Right that moment, I looked at Eunjoo's face. She was smiling at me and saying something in Korean with another bending-over behavior. Finally, right that moment I realized that she was bowing as her expression of thanks. I guess bowing is a socially very important behavior in their culture. After I figured it out, I was no longer panicked about my classroom floor whenever she and her parents bowed. Remember, this was my first week of my first job right after I finished college. I was nervous about everything. I guess, it was one week later,... in the morning after Eunjoo's father dropped her off and left the classroom, four boys in the class surrounded her and were following her and kept bowing at her. At first I didn't pay much attention. A couple minutes later Eunjoo came to me and tried to say something in English which I was not able to understan, what she was trying to say, but by looking at her sad face I could tell the boys made her unhappy and uncomfortable. I talked with them not to follow her anymore. Later, it was almost the end of free play time, I heard a loud crying at the housekeeping area. Eunjoo was crying. The four boys were laughing at her. One boy told me that they delivered mail to her in her house play. "When she received the mail, she bowed again so we laughed. Then she started crying." Oh poor Eunjoo! I had to help her. I really cared about her emotions right that moment. But I felt that I had no idea how to communicate it with her. She and I, we were so helpless. But we did have a very serious class group discussion talking about Eunjoo and her family's bowing practice being the same as when we say "thank you." I don't know how I actually led the discussion, but since then there have been no more happenings like that. Once in a while I saw other children bowing to each other with Eunjoo. She had a big happy smile. I guess I survived, and so did Eunjoo.


Without some knowledge and understanding of each other's family ethnic cultural backgrounds, we can easily and unconsciously face a culture conflict. It creates an early childhood classroom culture that is somewhat unfair to all of the members of the classroom.


Critical Issues to Examine

I attempt to challenge early childhood practitioners to think and analyze Eunjoo's case from different perspectives in order for us to be able to expand our DAP to DCAP.

Was the teacher fair to herself when she interpreted the family's bowing practice as a way of greeting or "thank you"? Was she able to make sense of their behavior in a culturally congruent way not only to herself but also to the family? At first she was only able to make sense of this bowing behavior in her own culturally congruent way in the context of object-based sociocognitive analysis, and affected by her nervousness as a new teacher. Was she also able to reflect upon her own behavior from the parents' perspective? In other words, did the teacher put herself into the family's shoes to make sense of this situation properly and fairly? And what could she do creatively to expand and enhance the culturally different children's pretend/dramatic/role play so that it becomes individually and culturally appropriate, fluent, and flexible? The teacher's first-person or single-ethnic perspective-taking led her to be culturally congruent only to her own experience. It created a limited, culturally blind, ethnocentric understanding of both the child's play and the teacher-parent interaction.

Were the boys fair to themselves when they made fun of Eunjoo's bowing behavior? How much and in what ways were they creative and flexible about their cooperative role play? With a limited knowledge and understanding of their own taken-for-granted cultural practices and their new peer's different sociocultural behavior which was also culturally limited, their creative peer interaction and cooperative play were problematic. Can these preschoolers become knowledgeable and analytical about their own and others' cultures using their metacognitive thinking? (In this case realizing that Eunjoo's bowing is the same as when others say "thank you.")

Was Eunjoo able to understand fairly why the boys made fun of her in the middle of play? Did Eunjoo know the fact that her teacher and peers in the classroom were not familiar with the bowing practice, but instead used verbal expressions such as "thank you" or "good morning"? Can Eunjoo process these cultural differences cognitively? How does she deal with the two cultures' mismatch and her resulting inner conflict regarding the bowing practice? At home bowing is highly valued, respected, and encouraged social behavior that affects Eunjoo's positive self-esteem, family-esteem, and self-identity; in the classroom, however, it is misinterpreted, disrespected, or ignored. How can the teacher and the parents help the young child to become an empowered bicultural and bilingual individual in that context?

Were Eunjoo's parents fair to themselves when the teacher looked at the classroom floor instead of responding (culturally) properly to their respectful bowing? Did Eunjoo's parents know that the teacher was not familiar with their ethnic family cultural practice? The parent and the child were also not likely to realize that the children in the classroom and the teacher would benefit in learning about some of their family ethnic cultural practices that are different from the teacher's and the other children's in the classroom.

The point here is that we all see, interpret, understand, and make sense of diverse social interactions based on a limited knowledge of self and each other. Thus, we are unfair to ourselves and limited in our lives which leads us to be first-person perspective-takers or single-ethnic perspective takers; one can only be culturally congruent to oneself.

There is a critical danger here especially to individuals in the education profession. The basic responsibility of education practitioners is to provide an equal and fair learning environment to all learners. In order for teachers to be able to create and maintain an equal and fair classroom culture for all, so that teachers' practice is not only equal and fair but also culturally congruent to all, the teacher should be a process-based practitioner who uses his/her own multiple and multiethnic perspective-taking. Is this possible? If it is, how? Is there a clear guide in that regard in NAEYC's product-oriented DAP framework?

What would be both a developmentally and a culturally appropriate approach to solve this limit, and prevent this kind of cultural conflict in children's play and early childhood teachers' practice in the classroom? The key is the teacher. I suggest the following questions for early childhood teachers' process of decision making in their DAP work so that their practices actually become DCAP--that is, individually oriented and culturally congruent to all:


- What do I see? What do I hear?

- How do I interpret the situation (or the thing)?

- How can I be sure that my understanding of the child's behavior is culturally fair and appropriate to him/her?

- What leads me to think, interpret, and interact in that way (or mode) for the child? What are my cultural references on that matter?

- What leads the child (the parent, the children) to think, interpret, and behave in that way/mode? What are their cultural references on that matter?

- Is this a fair understanding for all of us about the conflict? Do all of us have enough knowledge of oneself and each other to understand the situation and solve the problem and conflicts that would allow us to create and maintain a culturally congruent and fair classroom cultures for all?

- How should we go about gathering and expanding our knowledge of oneself and others in this context to solve the conflict?

- How should we share the new necessary knowledge of this context and use it properly to solve the conflict and create a fair classroom culture for all?

- In what ways can I promote the children's play using the new knowledge so that all children become flexible and fluent in infusing all different cultural practices, while remaining free to enjoy their own cultural congruency within their creative play context.


Children's play is a universal phenomenon in human growth and change that is culturally grounded and oriented, and it is a core of early childhood education. How can early childhood practitioners incorporate this important notion into their everyday DAP, so that their DAP becomes a process-oriented DCAP for all culturally diverse individual children? Examining one's own family ethnic culture and perspective is the most fundamentally needed action with which we all need to start. Chapter 3 discusses this matter in more depth.


[From: Hyun, E. (1998). Making sense of developmentally and culturally appropriate practice (DCAP) in early childhood education. New York: Peter Lang. Chapter 2. All rights reserved]