How kids creative play helps cross cultural boundaries


Play – specifically creative play – may be the key to crossing cultural and ethnic boundaries among children, according to a Building Bridges study by LEGO Australia.

The findings reveal three in four Australian parents already believed socialising with children from different backgrounds had psychosocial benefits for their children; however, one in three told LEGO Australia say their child lacks exposure to other cultures and were unsure how to facilitate that exposure.

Meanwhile, one in four Aussie children live with a diversity of cultural influences and 16 per cent live with a disability.

Creative play helps build bridges between cultures

LEGO Australia’s Social Play Experiment, led by child psychology expert Dr Penny Van Bergen, was to bring together children who had not met and were of varied backgrounds across cultures, abilities, and ages and to separate them across two different rooms – one was devoid of play or stimulation, the other was an environment filled with toys and joyous scenes.

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The results of the social play experiment were clear: play united children of differing backgrounds.

The researchers noted that in the blank room, “the children were awkward and shy, avoiding interaction, sitting in uncomfortable silence, visibly unsure how to interact with the others around them”.

However, in the room where the children were encouraged to play, researchers say their behaviours transformed.

“The children introduced themselves to one another for the first time, collaborated on building projects, and came alive over their shared passion for creative expression.”

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Stretching young imaginations

Dr Van Bergen says play is critical for many aspects of children’s development.

“One reason is that creative play is unscripted, so children have the opportunity to interact with others, to observe how others think, and to engage together with the world around them. It’s those experiences that help children to bond and connect,” she told EducationDaily.

“A second reason is that creative play is fun. When children experience positive emotions together, any differences between them really melt into the background.

“When children play with others, they have fantastic new opportunities to practise their social skills, stretch their imagination, develop empathy for others and co-create new inventions they might not have thought of alone.

Observing how quickly the children transformed when they were given the opportunity to play together in the Social Play experiment was, Dr Van Bergen says, “fascinating”.

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Unstructured play enhances social skills

Two in three parents in the study reported saying creative play is the most effective form of play to improve the understanding of children with different cultural backgrounds or abilities compared to role-play and pretend play, sports and music, and digital play.

And almost 100 per cent of parents, grandparents and carers surveyed believe play is important in developing social skills.

“As a society, we want to continue to look for opportunities to bring children together. Creative play is such a valuable way of doing that because it allows unstructured interaction and bonding,” Dr Van Bergen told EducationDaily.

“Schools and early childhood centres offer a perfect environment for interacting with children from different backgrounds and offering opportunities to work towards a common goal.

“Children may naturally gravitate to their closer friends, so it can be helpful to also mix up groups for small-group activities and to offer opportunities for interactions in larger groups.

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“Within families, although there is less diversity of background, there are valuable opportunities to connect across generations. Making time for play as a family is hugely important.

“Unstructured play activities, such as play with LEGO bricks, recycled boxes, dress-ups, and outdoor play, are all fantastic ways of unlocking the power of play.

“These activities offer children a creative outlet, while fostering understanding and collaboration.”

Bringing children together

Dr Van Bergen says parents should use their intuition to decide whether they should guide play with new playmates or allow them to be alone.

“Sometimes, if you think a child might misunderstand another child or inadvertently leave them out, it can be helpful to offer some gentle guidance,” she told EducationDaily.

“This can be as simple as explaining how someone is different but also how they are similar and thinking together about how they might like to be treated. Very often, this won’t be needed, though. Children naturally want to play together.”

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