Playing Smart: Cultural Diversity for Kids
Exploring cultures with your child is fun and worthwhile, and it doesn’t have to be limited to learning about foreign countries and peoples. You can also investigate your own neighborhood, community and country – even explore your family.

“Culture” basically refers to commonalities that run through a group of people with a shared heritage. Your child probably believes that her culture – way of doing things – is the “right” one and that others are a bit “funny.” As you begin to look at other cultures with your child, aim for an appreciation of differences. Eventually, this will lead to an increased appreciation of the incredible variety of human attributes, flexible thinking, and less prejudice and stereotyping.

The following activities are highly adaptable. Take a hands-on approach with young children, and use these ideas as starting points for discussions with older children.

Learning About Arts, Food & Language
Holidays Around the World

Global Game–Playing

Learning About Arts, Food & Language

Music – Encourage your child to create and play homemade instruments that resemble instruments from other cultures.

• Make a xylophone styled after those found in Ghana: Set pieces of wood across a shoe box and play it with a pencil.

• Pot and pan lids can easily double as gongs like those used in Southeast Asia.

Panpipes used by Peruvian Indians can be approximated by joining together a series of different–sized tubes.

• Stretch a string across a board, raised slightly at the ends by bridges; this resembles the Appalachian dulcimer or the ancient Egyptian monochord.

Visual Art – The Islamic religion forbids the use of images of living creatures in art. That’s why much of Muslim graphic art consists of floral themes, geometric figures and Arabic script. See if your child can draw a picture using geometric figures and the shapes of letters in artistic ways.

Dance – Take your child to see a Chinese, Japanese or Hmong dance troupe. Many Asian dancers use facial expressions and hand gestures to communicate the message of the dance. Suggest that your child make up a dance in which facial expressions and hand gestures alone tell a story.

Food – Venture together into restaurants that offer authentic ethnic foods. Many kids have tasted egg rolls, tacos and spaghetti. Why not try something from Ethiopia, Thailand, India, Israel or Germany?

Language – Some languages have more than one word for what English speakers think of as a single entity. Since ice is so important in their lives, the Inuit people reportedly differentiate among the various kinds, from slush ice to black ice. Have your child choose something important to her – stickers, ice cream or telephones, for example – and make up words for different kinds.

Body Language – Nodding the head to signify “yes” is not a universal gesture. To some people from Greece, Turkey and various Middle Eastern regions, nodding means no. The way many Westerners wave good-bye is the same way people in some Middle Eastern cultures indicate “come here.” Suggest that your child make up some entirely new gestures, such as puffing her cheeks to indicate impatience.

Folklore – Each family has its own folklore, a set of beliefs, myths, tales and practices. Suggest that your child interview neighbors or relatives. Ask what region or country the family came from; whether they recall special holiday games or food from their childhood; whether they know any dances, songs or language from “the old days” and if they know of any special “family rules.” (For instance, one boy and his sister set the rule that you can only eat one piece of popcorn at a time out of the bowl.)

Holidays Around the World

York'">Your family might enjoy researching and adopting one or more of the following:

The Hindu Festival of Lights – Called Divali (also spelled Dipawali), this autumnal celebration culminates in a holiday that lasts nearly two weeks. Although the practices of Hinduism vary by region, most Hindus consider Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity, to be the reason for the festival. Believers build a temporary altar inside their homes, where they place coins and other symbols of wealth. Sweets are exchanged and lamps are lit both inside and outside homes.

The Chinese New Year – This traditional spring festival is celebrated by many people of Chinese descent. Find out what “year” it was when your child was born. For instance, 2001 ushered in the “Year of the Snake.” To convert from the Gregorian calendar (that’s the one we use) to the Chinese calendar, visit

Tet Nguyen–Dan – Meaning “the first morning of the first day of the new year” and frequently abbreviated to Tet, this is a seven–day celebration of the Vietnamese New Year. During Tet, many Vietnamese families plant a New Year’s tree called Cay Neu in front of their homes (a bamboo pole is often used to represent the tree). Leaves are removed from the tree so that it can be wrapped or decorated with red paper, which symbolizes good luck.

Other suggestions of ethnic celebrations to research and celebrate:

Japanese Girls’ Doll Festival (March 3)

Greek Independence Day (March 25)

Asian–Pacific American Heritage Week (the first week in May)

Cinco de Mayo (May 5)

American Indian Day (usually the fourth Friday in September)

Global Game–Playing

Latin-American variation on “London Bridge” – Each player is given the name of a fruit, which must be kept secret. The arch (made by players’ hands) is dropped on the person suspected of having the name of the fruit being sung about (“Here’s a woman selling apples, selling apples, selling apples … ”). If the guess is wrong, the player is released.

MaqThe name of this Inuit game from the Canadian Arctic means “silence.” Players sit in a circle. One player enters the middle of the circle and points to another player. That player must say “Maq” (pronounced “Muk”) and then remain silent and straight–faced while the person in the middle uses gestures and expressions in an effort to make the other person laugh. If the person in the middle succeeds, the one who laughed replaces him or her in the middle. Consider playing this game at your child’s next birthday party!

Continue for Resources: Books, videos, CDs and Web sites about cultural diversity. 

Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is the author of "Playing Smart: The Family Guide to
Enriching, Offbeat Learning Activities for Ages 4-14" (Free Spirit
Publishing, 2001), from which her columns are adapted. Check out Susan¹s Web
site at

For more activities, go to the Playing Smart Archive.