Immigrant children’s play can clash with mainstream cultures

August 9, 2017

By Guofang Li, The Conversation |

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.

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