Diverse beliefs, practices and purposes of children’s play in different cultures call for skepticism that Euro-American approaches to child development are best everywhere.
Our knowledge about play should sound a loud warning to policy makers, educators and parents: don’t presume that there are single pathways to optimal child development or that one culture’s practice – particularly the West’s – is best. There are many effective pathways and practices to achieve child development, some better suited to particular cultures than others.
Three factors underscore this call for cultural humility, policy diversity and academic scepticism. First, play has greatly varied significance for child development across cultures. In some, it’s considered a pivotal building block. In others, it’s viewed merely as an incidental activity.
Second, the childhood practice of play differs greatly. In some places, it’s a highly practical imitation of adult work. Elsewhere, it can be a distant abstraction of everyday life, often taking place in fictional worlds.
Third, given play’s varied forms, many contexts and diverse attendant belief systems, we are far from sure about causal links between certain types of play and child development. We’re even further from proving the primacy of any particular approach. So be careful what you preach. Avoid one-size-fits-all prescriptions and universal theories for child development, parenting and education. Be sure to recognise the cultural limitations of existing evidence.
Narrow cultural focus of play research
Contemporary thinking about play is largely based on research in European and European-American middle-class families. This research emphasises play’s role during the early years in developing cognitive, social and emotional skills, and in preparing children for school and for operating in technology-based societies. Given childhood play’s perceived role in laying the foundations for lifelong economic success, it’s highly valued in these societies.
“Be careful what you preach. Avoid universal theories for child development. Recognise the cultural limitations of existing evidence.”
Elsewhere, however, play has different forms, functions, prevalence and significance. Who plays with children also varies considerably – be it mothers, fathers, siblings or others – and so does the importance that play may have in building relationships, particularly in securing child-parent attachment.
Non-Western cultures have different attitudes
In our global review of evidence, we found that mothers in a Mayan community in Guatemala see play as perfunctory to childhood development. They are amused at the suggestion of playing with young children. Such attitudes, which are also found in other cultures, contrast sharply with the highly involved practices of ‘helicopter parents’ and ‘tiger moms’.
Mothers in Papua New Guinea say that children learn through work, not play. In many agrarian or foraging societies, children learn subsistence skills and domestic tasks though early participation in these activities via a combination of work and play. For example, a study of Baka foragers in the Republic of Cameroon recorded 85 different types of play by young children, including hunting (making a trap), gathering (insect collecting) fishing (with baskets), playing house (play cooking with inedible materials) and creating clothes (making eyeglasses out of vines).
These traditional approaches to learning-by-doing or imitating adults are important. They offer significant contributions to contemporary thinking about how children learn best. They speak, for example, to the debate that pits didactic, instructional children’s education against approaches that focus on active self-education.
Roughhousing with dad is important for child development
Cultural variations in play practices – and their impact – are prominent around children’s interactions with their fathers. Research into European and European-American families ascribes an important role to the kind of roughhouse play that is prevalent between Western fathers and their young children. This type of play is considered to be a pathway both to child-father attachment and to helping children regulate their emotions and social relationships.
Fathers behave differently in some cultures
However, in many societies, fathers don’t do roughhouse play. Yet their children have close, well-attached relationships with them and also learn to control their feelings and manage social relationships. A good example is the Aka hunter-gatherer community in the Central African Republic. In this collectivist, egalitarian culture, fathers don’t roughhouse with their young children. Nevertheless, Aka fathers are reckoned to have the closest child-father relationships in the world – they are very gentle caregivers, holding their babies 22 per cent of the time, according to Barry Hewlett’s research. No need to teach Aka dads to roughhouse – they clearly have different pathways to successful child development.
Cross-cultural research also leads us to question the universality of another often-held view about child development – that parent-child play helps progress with cognitive development. We conducted a study, involving 50,000 children in 18 African countries, where we looked for links between parental engagement in play and children’s literacy skills. We also looked for connections between parents reading to their preschool children and later literacy skills. We found that parental reading did indeed predict literacy skills. But parental play was rarely linked to literacy skills in these contexts. Oral storytelling by parents was more predictive of literacy skills.
Too much faith in universal theories of child development
When we presented this evidence to an audience of British academics, they didn’t believe us, reflecting a deep faith in the universality of child development pathways discovered in Western countries. Western academics have particular confidence in play as a route to cognitive development, a link not always found in other parts of the world. Yet, even in Western societies, questions have arisen about whether the links we have been observing between play and cognitive development and social skills represent correlational or causal relationships.
“Different cultural practices of child rearing should be considered in developing advice to parents as well as in making policy.”
I believe in play. Children obviously benefit from it. But we still don’t know the mechanism through which they do so. Is play itself the vital component, or is the display of parental sensitivity the active ingredient? Play does encourage children to acquire social skills. It helps them adjust their thinking and their social relationships. They probably also learn empathy through play. But there are clearly many more pathways for these forms of child development. So we should be skeptical about imposing what works in the West on others.
Cultural beliefs about play may influence impact
Why is it that play seems to have big impacts in some places and, apparently, not in others? We can’t be sure. It may be that where parents believe play is frivolous, mom and dad don’t play much or in a really engaged way. So their children do not gain many benefits. Beliefs about play may be crucial in determining the impacts it has on childhood outcomes.
Diversity in other fields of child development
Play isn’t the only area where we see widespread variations in child development practice. Breastfeeding is generally accepted as a good thing. It is considered important everywhere. But weaning varies hugely. In the United States, six months of exclusive breastfeeding is recommended. But some children are breastfed until three years old and weaned gradually. In some cultures, as another baby is born, the previous child is weaned abruptly. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), the newborn is passed around to be suckled by a number of women. We don’t know which practice, if any, is best for child development.
The takeaway message to policy makers is that they should consider diverse cultural practices of child rearing when developing advice to parents as well as in making policy. This is particularly important in countries with culturally diverse populations.
Parents in different cultures have different goals. For example, in technological societies, we socialize children to think in complex ways about technology. That might not be best in countries that lack the same technological resources.
We should also be willing to learn from other cultures. Capitalism, which drives so many Western attitudes to child development, is only a few hundred years old. It’s worth looking at other societies, less influenced by these values. We are beginning to recognize that they could teach us a lot about how to rear children.
Header photo: thaths. Creative Commons.