The Lost Art of Play: Crossing cultures to build connections

For kids from immigrant families who are settling in Canada, play can be a way to fit in and adapt to a new home. But some parents worry that these new ways of playing mean their children are losing touch with their family’s cultural heritage.

Play is a way to fit in but some immigrant parents worry it means losing touch with family heritage

Guofang Li says it's important to instil a sense of cultural pride in children through play and she does so with her three children by taking them to Chinese community events. (Guofang Li)

Moving countries generally means learning a new language, making new connections and, for children, learning new ways of playing.

For kids from immigrant families who are settling in Canada, play can be a way to fit in and adapt to a new home. But some parents worry that these new ways of playing mean their children are losing touch with their family's cultural heritage.

Omar Chab is from the Berber community in Algeria but moved away when he was in his early twenties. He has strong memories of how he grew up playing in Algeria with his five brothers and three sisters.

"We were not allowed to come home, we had to go outside and play all day," he said. "By the time you come back at six o'clock, you feel like the days are so long and unfinished. I had the best childhood in terms of playing."

Different society, different ways of playing

In Vancouver, Chab said, the way children are playing and growing up is vastly different from his experience. He has a 10-year-old daughter, Leena, and said he is concerned that she is not getting the same opportunities to play and socialize as he did.

"Society here in Canada is completely different," he said. "There is a certain freedom that has been taken away from the children, compared to back home."

Every year, he takes Leena to Algeria so she can learn more about her family roots and socialize with other Algerian children.  

"Every time I take her out there, I see her growing up and I see her [become] more relaxed," Chab said. "Children, when they get together and they are outside playing together, you'd be shocked at how much they share together."

Three immigrant parents talk about how play crosses cultures in the fourth part of the Lost Art of Play series. 8:59

Playing to fit in

Guofang Li, a professor in the Language and Literacy Education department at UBC, works with immigrant families.

For some children, it's a struggle to adapt to a new culture but for others, it comes much more easily. In either case, she said, play has a role.

"On the one hand, play can be a way to integrate," Li said. "But for some children, it creates conflict because there are differences between how mainstream children and how immigrant children play."

Yalda Hosseini, 19, was born in Iran but moved to Canada at a young age. Her younger brother, 13-year-old Arvin, was born here.

Both of them say that play is very different in Iran — they notice it immediately when they go back to visit — but the differences don't affect them.

"I'm sure we've picked up on a lot of Canadian, or westernized, games," said Yalda. "We've grown up here."

Leila Khosravi teaches her children, Yalda (middle) and Arvin (left), the games of her childhood and says sharing stories of her childhood brings the family together. Father, Mikael, is pictured on the right, holding his nephew. (Leila Khosravi)

For their mother Leila Khosravi, though, it's important to tell her children about the games she used to play.

"I would like to pass it to them, what we would do when we were kids," Khosravi said.

Sharing stories of her childhood is a way for the family to connect; they'll sit around the table, turn off all distractions and tell stories as they play board games.

Preserving play

Li, the UBC professor, said it is common for immigrant parents to pass on a sense of cultural identity to their children through play because it is a way to transmit a set of beliefs and traditions in a fun, engaging way.

"A lot of the immigrant parents rely on ethnic social networks and communities to preserve that part of play," she said.

Li, who is originally from China and is a mother to three young children, said she knows firsthand how difficult it can be to cross cultures. She wants her children to have the best of both worlds and so makes an effort to share songs, games and stories of her childhood with them.

"Raising children in cross cultures is hard work," she said. "Parents need to not think only of integration but it's also very important to preserve the language and culture, to foster an ethnic pride."

The lost art of play

The story is part of a series called The Lost Art of Play that explores how play is changing and why this loss matters.

The five-part radio series, which airs on radio from July 17 to 21, is produced by Clare Hennig, this year's recipient of Langara College's Read-Mercer Fellowship.

Tune into On The Coast on 88.1 FM or 690 AM, weekdays from 3 to 6 p.m., to hear the series.