Parent-Child Play Across Cultures - Advancing Play Research

by Professor Jaipaul L. Roopnarine and Kimberly L. Davidson

In this article, the authors argue for a greater understanding of children’s play across cultures through better integration of scientific thinking about the developed and developing societies, through consideration of socialization beliefs and goals, and, finally, through the use of more complex models in research investigations. They draw on theoretical propositions in anthropology and psychology to describe and interpret the meaning of parent-child play activities in the context of everyday socialization practices in societies in various stages of economic development.

Theoretical Considerations and Cultural Perspectives

Two theoretical perspectives on psychocultural processes in childhood socialisation that have been useful in studying and interpreting play phenomena in diverse cultural settings have their roots in both psychology and anthropology. The early twentieth-century Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky and the American anthropologists John and Beatrice Whiting were forerunners in stressing the primary importance of the social context and cultural processes (e.g., parentchild practices, belief systems) in interpreting the meaning of children’s social activities and play behaviours (Vygotsky 1978; Whiting and Edwards 1988; Whiting and Whiting 1975).

Vygotsky’s cultural-historical approach emphasises the use of mental tools or tools of the mind (e.g., using lists to remember everyday tasks) in the development of higher-level mental functions (e.g., focused attention and use of memory strategies that are learned; Vygotsky 1997). These cultural tools assist children in the mastery of skills at the interpsychological or social level between people and then at the intrapsychological or individual level. For Vygotsky, play was central to the development of mental functions during the preschool years (Vygotsky 1967).

Like Vygotsky, the Whitings highlighted the underlying role of social context in the processes of learning and development. By coding the social interactions of young children through detailed field observations in Khalapur, India; Okinawa, Japan; Nyansongo, Kenya; Tarong, Philippines; New England, United States; and Juxtlahuaca, Mexico, the Whitings were able to demonstrate the wide variations in interaction patterns of children and their parents as well as contextual factors that influence them within and across these cultural settings.

Their model emphasised the environment and history, maintenance systems (e.g., subsistence patterns, modes of production, etc.), learning environment of the child (e.g., settings, care givers), behavioural tendencies and beliefs of the adult, and projective-expressive systems (e.g. religion and ideology) in shaping parental involvement with children and childhood behaviours (Whiting and Whiting 1975). Super and Harkness (1997, 2002) expanded on the original theoretical propositions of the Whitings, specifically those of the physical setting and learning environment of the child.

Super and Harkness focused on parental psychology or ethno-theories, customs and practices, and setting as key features of the developmental niche within which children are socialised. Their propositions have been used to discern cultural-developmental patterns in children’s play behaviors in developed and developing economies (see Bock 2002; Rogoff et al. 1993; Roopnarine and Jin 2012).

CREN fishingWhen playful interactions occur within the context of a democratic parenting style, they encourage the development of agency (e.g. self-reliance, independence) and communion (prosocial skills such as helping, sharing). Photo credit: Cecil Cuthbert

A Need for Indigenous Views and Universal Integration of Knowledge on Play

The field of play research needs to further tease out what culture brings to the parent-child equation. As cross-cultural psychologists continue to espouse the need for indigenous perspectives in studying and interpreting behavioral phenomena (Jahoda 1993), there are increasing attempts to construct conceptual frameworks for analysing behavioral processes that originate from within the culture (see Kakar 1992 on developmental processes in East Indians) and to examine the applicability of popular frameworks developed by researchers in North America and Europe (e.g. individualism-collectivism, parenting typologies; see Omi 2011; Roopnarine et al. 2013) for assessing the development of behaviours (e.g., autonomy, obedience) in cultural settings in the developing world.

For example, in cataloging the socialisation patterns of Turkish mothers, Kağitcibaşi (2007) discovered that urban families incorporated the need for autonomy (independence) and strong interpersonal relationships (interdependence) into child rearing, an adaptive process for meeting the contemporary needs of children that is a departure from the more universal, dichotomous application of individualism and collectivism (Oyserman, Coon, and Kemmelmeier 2002).

Likewise, Roopnarine, Krishnakumar, Narine, and Logie (2014) examined the validity of using dimensions of warmth and behavioral control to describe early socialization in English-speaking Caribbean families. A primary goal of these investigations is to underscore the culture-specific beliefs and the seminal properties of parent-child activities endemic to a particular community or diverse communities within a society. Parallel strides to shape (or reshape) the more dominant discourses on play are modest at best and remain on the fringes of theory development.

Parent-Child Play

The focus on mother-child and father-child play does not discount the importance of multiple kinship and nonkinship individuals who are involved in the socialisation of children in other societies, nor should it signal that we endorse a mother-father model of socialisation or that the heterosexual couple model is the ideal for child rearing (see Goldberg, Kashy, and Smith 2012 for data on gender-typed play in gay, lesbian, and heterosexual families). Rather, we conveniently focus on mothers and fathers because they constitute the early nucleus of the economic and social lives of young children in most cultural communities and for whom data are most available.

At the same time, we acknowledge that marriage and mating systems vary widely around the world and that alloparenting is common in many cultural communities where siblings, aunts, grandparents, and other biological and nonbiological care givers may engage in more play and play-like activities than do fathers (see Flinn 1992 for an account of early care-giver interactions in Northern Trinidad; see Marlowe 2005 for care interactions among the Hadza of Tanzania). The investment of these other care givers may increase or decrease in a proportionate manner with those of mothers and fathers during the early-childhood years depending on the age of the child and the nature of relationships within families (see Sharma 2003).

Definitions and norms of play established in Western industrialised economies have not always been useful or adequate for interpreting the parent-child play activities of families in different communities around the world. As several scholars have suggested (e.g. Göncü and Gaskins 2011), play is culturally situated, and mothers and fathers support play interactions in multiple ways across cultures and time.

For instance, play-like activities may include humour, shaming, status leveling, or even work-related activities, as in some hunting and gathering societies (Gray 2009). Furthermore, the meaning attached to involvement in these playlike activities is driven by cultural beliefs and practices developed and shaped within the ethos of parental socialisation goals and expectations for children (Göncü and Gaskins 2011; Greenfield et al. 2003; Roopnarine 2011).

Parental Levels of Investment

In developed societies, opportunities for playful interactions with parents are valourised by psychologists, pediatricians, and early-childhood educators as essential for the development of attachment bonds (Paquette 2004), the maintenance of physical health (American Academy of Pediatrics 2006), timely development of language (Tamis-LeMonda et al. 2004), and appropriate social adjustment in children (Kelley et al. 1998). Furthermore, when playful interactions occur within the context of a democratic parenting style in which parents offer a good deal of nurturance and support to young children, they encourage the development of agency (e.g. self-reliance, independence) and communion (prosocial skills such as helping, sharing, etc.; Baumrind 1996).

By contrast, the lack of opportunities for playful interactions and sensitively attuned, stimulating activities in low social capital neighborhoods marred by crime and violence, poverty, and citizen insecurity (see, for example, the UNDP Caribbean Human Development Report 2012) can undermine developmental outcomes in children (Krishnakumar et al. 2013).

So what do levels of parental investment in play look like across cultures? Are there some universal patterns?

Despite claims about the lack of parent-child play in most cultural settings and assertions that parent-child play is a more recent phenomenon (e.g., Lancy 2007), field observations and estimates obtained through interviews and self reports indicate that mothers and fathers invest considerable time being around children, taking children outdoors, and engaging in play activities with them.

In an examination of socio-emotional and cognitive care giving among one hundred twenty-seven thousand families in twenty-eight developing countries, Bornstein and Putnick (2012) found that, across all countries, taking children outdoors and playing were the most predominant activities. Across the twenty-eight countries, 60 percent of mothers reported playing with their young children (under five years of age); 64 percent reported taking them outdoors; 25 percent reported singing; 35 percent told stories; 25 percent spent time reading; and 47 percent spent time in academic activities such as counting, naming, and drawing with their children in the previous three days.

These estimates are below those obtained for children in the United States, where 95 percent are read to and 83 percent play outdoors (DYG 2000) and those in an Australian sample, where 75 percent of fathers read stories and played with four- to five-year-olds mostly outdoors three or more days a week (Baxter and Smart 2010).

Small-scale, cross-cultural comparisons showed that mothers in the United States acted as playmates to children 47 percent of the time compared to 7 percent of the time in Guatemala and 24 percent of the time in India (Rogoff et al. 1993). Other comparisons of children’s play across cultural communities indicated that children played with one adult 17 percent and 16 percent of the time in two communities in the United States (Massachusetts and Utah), 4 percent of the time among the Efé of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and 3 percent of the time among the Mayans of Guatemala (Morelli, Rogoff, and Angelillo 2003).

Among groups in central Africa, Aka fathers’ relative time investment in play with infants was 23 percent compared with emotional care giving (e.g., displaying affection), 27 percent; soothing, 18 percent; and physical care (cleaning), 15 percent. Mothers’ relative time investment in play was 13 percent compared with emotional care giving (e.g., displaying affection), 4 percent; soothing, 12 percent; and physical care (cleaning), 5 percent (Hewlett, 1987). In the sympatric communities of Efé foragers and Lese farmers, Efé fathers were within proximity of infants 40 percent of the time observed, and Lese fathers 15 percent of the time. However, Lese fathers spent more time in play (18 percent) than Efé fathers (7 percent; Fouts 2013).

A series of studies have asked parents in different cultures to provide estimates of the overall time they engaged in care giving and play activities with young children. Mothers in Jamaica spent significantly more time in holding or playing with infants than fathers (Roopnarine et al. 1995), and this was also the case for families with infants in rural Malaysia, where mothers spent significantly more time in play than fathers—possibly a result of the greater involvement of mothers in the basic care and nurturance of children during the infancy and preschool years (Hossain et al. 2005).

Similarly, mothers in Estonia, Finland, Russia, Brazil, United States (African Americans), and a setting in South Korea engaged in more play with young children than did fathers (Tudge 2008). By comparison, there were no mother-father differences in overall levels of play in Kadazan families in Malaysia (Hossain et al. 2008)—a pattern noted for families with older children in southern Brazil (Benetti and Roopnarine 2006) and the United States (Yeung et al. 2001).

In the face of patriarchal traditions and filial piety in a number of these cultural settings, there is little evidence of the differential treatment of boys and girls during play interactions. As has been stated elsewhere, the differential treatment of boys and girls in more traditional societies may become more visible as children move into early and middle childhood (Jankowiak, Joiner, and Khatib 2011; Roopnarine 2011).


Article excerpted from: American Journal of Play, volume 7, number 2 © The Strong. Contact Jaipaul L. Roopnarine at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Excerpted from The Handbook of Play Studies, copublished by The Strong and Rowman & Littlefield. © 2015 by Rowman & Littlefield. 

This excerpt has been published with the kind permission of Jaipaul L. Roopnarine.

You have no rights to post comments.
Create an account to post comments.