A price tag for free play: Children's play as cultural capital

Year: 2012

Author: Bin, Wu

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


Play is held as the norm in current western mainstream early childhood education. While children across all cultures and times play spontaneously, different meanings have been aligned to children's play representing different philosophical conceptions as well as various political and economic agendas (May, 2009). Chinese immigrant families who come from different cultural and historical contexts tend to regard play differently from the orthodoxies of mainstream education. The variations have been commonly identified as 'cultural influences' in the current research literature.

This paper brings a new angle to understanding Chinese migrants' perspectives about children's play by applying Bourdieu's (1986) concepts of cultural capital. Cultural capital is a non-economic asset that, like financial capitals, can generate benefits which can be conveyed to the next generation, a situation called cultural reproduction. Bourdieu's nonspecific definition of cultural capital has caused various interpretations in empirical research. In this paper, cultural capital is defined as various 'evaluative norms' that produce symbolic power to execute inclusions and exclusions (Lareau & Weininger, 2003, p.598).

Multiple in-depth interviews are conducted with a group of Chinese skilled immigrant mothers in New Zealand. All the mothers realise the norms in western education ('their way') is different from the Chinese way. Although they do not always agree or understand 'their way', the mothers all admit it is desirable for their children to follow 'their way' so to be accepted into the dominant society. Therefore free play, the norm of the mainstream education is cultural capital for the offspring of these immigrants to gain acceptance and create cultural benefits in the future. However, the mothers also believe that due to their minority social status and cultural background, following the norms is not enough to ensure the best education for their children. To maximise cultural capital for their children, the mothers utilise other social and cultural resources to modify as well as compensate for what they see as lacking for their children in the mainstream play.

This paper demonstrates that ethnic minority mothers are active agents who are able to make conscious decisions for their children's best interest. It thus highlights the importance of viewing cultural diversity as a dynamic arena. By applying the concept of cultural capital, children's free play is problematised. The paper illustrates the conceptualisation of children's play is embedded in its socio-political and cultural stratifications;  it shows how social inequality is prescribed, reinforced, and resisted through daily interactions.