Risë VanFleet

Play and Culture


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When trying to help parents or other professionals understand play therapy, I’ve often guided them as they examined how their own culture or subculture has viewed play.  Although I’m sure some cultures may be more lighthearted and others more serious, since play is a universal phenomenon among children, there’s usually something to be learned from examining its role in one’s own upbringing and/or social world.
There are many different ways to think of culture. Different countries have different cultures. “Culture” can be strongly related to one’s race, religion, ethnic heritage, and even generation or age. But there is often great diversity within these broader categorizations of culture. Each family has its own customs, beliefs, and practices that could be viewed as the “culture of that family.” Families are embedded in neighborhoods and communities that have cultural influences. Even our socio-political environment affects culture. In graduate school, I was deeply influenced by a child development course in which we examined the “culture of childhood” that shows how some games and practices are passed along from one generation of children to another without adult intervention! In this brief article, I am thinking of culture from these broader perspectives. 

One of my great joys in life is getting out into wilderness areas and hiking or photographing wildlife in their natural world.  That interest, plus the fact that some of my favorite relatives live there, has taken me to Alaska on many occasions.  I have been fortunate to learn a little about the Native Alaskan cultures and heritage there. Several years ago, I had the unique opportunity to attend one of the Inupiaq Eskimo shareholders’ meetings in March.    Prior to the business meeting, several hours were spent in playful activities and games including dogsled races and Eskimo football (a game in the snow for men and for women that seemed to me to have one primary rule—players must wear mukluks!). The games involved the entire community from children to elders.  The sense of community and celebration was wonderful to me, and that cohesiveness then seemed to carry over into the business meeting that entailed discussion of some very serious and difficult topics. 

On another winter trip, I took part in a traditional blanket toss.  In their native language, they began by saying something like “we are the community” (they translated from their native tongue for us non-natives).  They taught us that the object of the blanket toss was to get the person high into the air and then help them land on the blanket (actually a hide) on their feet.  That happens only if everyone is cooperating.  Everyone must pull the “blanket” back with the same amount of energy.  If one side is pulling harder than the other, it’s likely that the person being tossed will lose their balance when they land.  If everyone pulls together more equally, a successful landing on the feet is much more likely.  The tosses are accompanied by noisy encouragement as everyone learns to work together for the same goal.  Success in this “game” requires cooperation rather than competition.  And that value seems to parallel that of the Native Alaskan cultures for thousands of years, where survival in a harsh environment has depended upon cooperation and sharing.
I was given a poster entitled “Our Inupiaq Way” that I have framed in my house.  It details the cultural values of the Inupiaq people.  Consider the examples of play that I’ve shared above in light of these: 

Responsibility to tribe
Knowledge of language
Respect for others
Respect for elders
Love for children
Hard work
Knowledge of family tree
Avoid conflict
Respect for nature
Family roles
Hunter success
Domestic skills

As a Filial Therapist, I was struck by the consistency of these values with those of the Filial Therapy method! We have similarities and differences with all of our clients, and it is through respectful dialog with our clients about their cultural experiences and their attitudes toward play that we can develop a therapeutic partnership that is much more likely to serve our clients well. It has been enjoyable and informative for me to learn more about families’ play experiences, and I believe their reflections on the topic have helped them understand more about the value of play in their children’s and their own lives. I would recommend the work of Dr. Brian Sutton-Smith to those interested in this general topic!

It can be an interesting and informative journey to explore the development of one’s attitudes about play.  Taking the time to do so in the context of the parents’ own experiences and family’s culture and heritage can help them understand why play therapy might be a beneficial treatment for their child or family.  It can also help us to understand our clients’ uniqueness and the special experiences–good and bad–they bring to the therapy process.

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