The Cultural Construction of Play

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Play is most commonly conceived of as an intrinsically motivated, universal behavior of children, not only present but also qualitatively similar in all cultures. This conception of play has limited play theory because of the tendency to see the play of children of highly educated Euroamericans as representative of all children’s play (Gaskins & Göncü, 1992; Lancy, submitted). This chapter presents an alternative conception that play is a culturally structured activity that varies widely across cultures (as well as within them) as a result of differences in childrearing beliefs, values, and practices. It is argued that play varies across cultures not only in its content, in the types of social interactions experienced during play, and in the resources that are made available for play (including material objects, space, and time), but also in the relation play has to other everyday activities. Ultimately, to the extent that both the quantity and quality of play varies across cultures, one must question the role of play in promoting universal developmental outcomes.

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