In This Issue

Cross-cultural relationship: Maternal acculturation, knowledge/beliefs on play and children’s play level

This study examines these relationships between English-speaking and Spanish-speaking mothers and children

By Adam N. Sempek, Lisa Kelly-Vance, PhD, and Brigette Oliver Ryalls, PhD

The act of play is one of the most imperative contexts of a developing child’s life across all cultures, and is enhanced by his or her mother’s knowledge/beliefs and level of acculturation. Vygotsky (1966) once said, “A child’s greatest achievements are possible in play” (p. 549). The act of play falls into two broad categories: exploratory (sensorimotor), physically experimenting with the function of toys; and pretend (symbolic), incorporating imitations witnessed in the child’s environment (Athanasiou, 2000; Frost, Worthham, & Reifel, 2005; Thyssen, 2003). Play is a part of every culture and allows children to learn/enhance skills (i.e., cognitive, emotional, and social skills), test hypotheses, learn about their culture and have fun (Bergen, 2000; Frost, et al, 2005; Garbino, 1989; Smilansky, 1968). Play is intrinsically motivating, pleasurable, nonliteral (i.e., make-believe), physical/psychological, and possible in any setting with any population (Athanasiou, 2000; Frost et al, 2005; Hughes, 1999; Thyssen, 2003). Enhanced skill development occurs under the presence of the child’s mother and is malleable under her knowledge/beliefs.

The values, knowledge and beliefs of the mother are influential in molding her child’s play skills (Damast, Tamis-LeMonda, & Bornstein, 1996; Fisher, Hirsh-Pasek, Michnick-Golinkoff & Glick-Gryfe, 2008; Gleason, 2005; Tamis-LeMonda, Shannon, Cabrera, & Lamb, 2004). The greater the level of maternal knowledge and beliefs concerning 2 the developmental importance of play, the more likely the mother is to promote higher levels of play and have children who engage in higher levels of play than those lacking knowledge (Cabrera, Shannon, & Tamis- LeMonda, 2007; Gleason, 2005; Tamis- LeMonda, Shannon & Spellman, 2002). Mothers’ values, beliefs, concepts, behaviors, characteristics, demands and parental expectations can vary greatly across cultures and are subject to social interpretation.

An act or characteristic said to be typical in one culture can be atypical in another culture (Weiss, Chaiyasit, Weiss, Eastman, & Jackson, 1995). These cultural differences apply to parental knowledge/beliefs concerning the developmental importance of play as children in every culture engage in play, and cultural norms dictate whether play is stimulated or neglected (Drewes, 2005; Frost et al, 2005; Roopnarine, Johnson, & Hooper, 1994). Research indicates that in India and Mexico, play is seen as a form of enjoyment, whereas Taiwanese and Americans see play as important to a child’s development. Hispanic children tend to play in a more realistic and functional fashion and American children tend to play in a more fantasy-oriented fashion. Asian children tend to play alone and engage in less pretend play and played less often than American children (Farver, 1993; Farver, & Howes, 1993; Frost et al, 2005). When acculturation was factored into the equation of play and maternal beliefs/knowledge of play, play mirrored the culture of destination (Euro-American). The higher the level of maternal acculturation for Japanese and Argentinean mothers, the greater number of symbolic play acts promoted by the mother and elicited by the child (Cote & Bornstein, 2005). Similarly, the more acculturated Korean mothers were into the Euro-American culture the more likely she was to have positive attitudes about the importance of children’s play to development.

For the purposes of the current study, acculturation is defined by de Ramirez and Shapiro (2005) as, “The process through which immigrants and their subsequent generations adapt to the norms, attitudes, values, and behaviors of the host culture” (p. 269). Maternal knowledge of play is defined as a mother’s ability to rank children’s play acts in a developmentally sequential order. Beliefs concerning the importance of play to children’s development is defined as how important or not a mother views play to various developmental aspects of her child’s life. Lastly, culture is represented through language. The current study will examine the relationships between maternal acculturation, knowledge/beliefs concerning play, and children’s play by corroborating the results of previous research and expand upon the literature by examining the variables intertwining relationships between Englishspeaking and Spanish-speaking mother/child dyads.



Thirty-two participants, 16 mothers and 16 children (nine English-speaking and seven Spanish-speaking) partook in the study. The nine English-speaking children consisted of four males and five females; the seven Spanishspeaking children consisted of four males and three females. The average age of the children, in months, was 53.22 (English-speaking) and 51.29 (Spanish-speaking) with equal enrollment in Head Start and Title I. The ethnic breakdown of the children was six Caucasians, three African-Americans, and seven Mexican-Americans. The only exclusionary criterion was if the child was not between 18 and 60 months. Age data was only collected for the children. All of the children were born in the United States.

Mothers whose native language was either English or Spanish were recruited through fliers sent home with all Head Start and Title I students under the age of 60 months. The language breakdown of the mothers was nine English-speaking and seven Spanish-speaking. Two Spanish-speaking mothers stated that they were bilingual. The educational level of the mothers was as follows: English-speaking mothers had a mean educational level of “Some College,” and Spanish-speaking mothers had a mean educational level of “High School.” The average family income for the Englishspeaking participants was $40,001 to $50,000 and $30,001 to $40,000 for the Spanishspeaking participants. Ethnicity and language data was collected only for the mothers. (Table 1).


The children were enrolled in an elementary Head Start or Title I classroom within a Midwestern suburban district. Data collection occurred within the classrooms during “freeplay” centers time. The Title I and Head Start classrooms consisted of 16 and 18 children respectively. Both classrooms had two teachers and two paraprofessionals. Title I provides instruction in math, reading, and language arts. Head Start promotes schoolreadiness (i.e., cognitive and social development) and parental involvement.


All forms were available in English and Spanish and translated/back-translated by a state certified translator: A demographic questionnaire, the Parental Play Questionnaire, The Short Acculturation Scale for Hispanics, and The Parental Play Task. The demographic questionnaire contained items concerning family make-up (i.e., number of children, children’s gender, ethnicity of family members, parental education, familial income, child health/behavioral issues, birthplace, employment).

The Parental Play Questionnaire (PPQ), a modification of Rothlein and Brett’s (1987) questionnaire, asked mothers to rate the importance of play in ten domains of development (i.e., Cognitive, Physical, Social) on a five-point Likert Scale and answer three questions to gauge their beliefs concerning the importance of play and her play interactions with her child: “How do you define play?”; “What do you do to promote or encourage play in your child?”; “How do you play with your child?”. Due to the newness of this scale, there is no reliability or validity information available.

The Short Acculturation Scale for Hispanics (SASH) developed by Marin, Sabogal, Marin, Otero-Sabogal, and Perez-Stable (1987) is a 12- item scale broken down into three categories (Language, Media and Ethnic Social Relations) designed to measure level of acculturation on a five-point Likert-scale. Internal consistency on the SASH is high (r = .92). Norming included Mexican and Central-American Hispanics. Mother’s level of acculturation was calculated by dividing her overall score by 12. The mother was said to be more acculturated (Euro-American) if her score was above 3.00. The SASH was given to all mothers, regardless of ethnicity.

The Parental Knowledge Task (PKT), based on 6 a scale designed by Tamis-LeMonda et al. (1994), which asked mothers to rank-order 24 play actions that fell under three categories: exploration, nonsymbolic and symbolic. The mothers mean ranking was .87. The PKT asked mothers to rank-order the 13 levels of the Play in Early Childhood Evaluation System (PIECES) Core-Subdomain. The mothers were informed that children develop play-skills at different rates and their child may not have reached certain levels (i.e., displayed the exact play act) and to rank acts on how they believed “any child” would progress. Each item ranged in score from 13 to zero. The score was derived by calculating the deviation from the correct answer and dividing the overall average by 13. Due to the newness of this scale, there is no reliability or validity information available.

The PIECES, an observation of preschool age children during free-play, was used to encode and score the developmental behaviors of children (Kelly-Vance & Ryalls, 2008). The PIECES consists of one Core-Subdomain that examines a child’s exploratory and pretend play and five Supplemental-Subdomains assessing different areas of cognitive development. Only the Core Subdomain was utilized. The Core-Subdomain was scored on a 13-point scale, one being the simplest and 13 being the most advanced forms of play the child can exhibit compared to age-based norms. Reliability for the PIECES is moderate to high. The test-retest reliability correlations were r = .58 for exceptional children and r = .48 for typically developing children. Similarly, the inter-observer agreement reliability was found to be 100 percent for exceptional children and 90 percent for typically developing children (Kelly-Vance, & Ryalls, 2005).


Fliers (English/Spanish) sent home with all three and four-year-olds in Head Start and Title I classrooms invited mothers to participate in a study concerning their child’s play. Hourlong meetings were held in the morning and afternoon to accommodate schedules. At the beginning of each meeting, the researcher and translator explained the forms the mother would need to complete. The researcher and translator were present to answer any questions the mothers had concerning the study and/or to help read forms. Childcare was provided during these meetings. The mothers completed the forms in the following order: demographics, PPQ, SASH and PKT. When the mothers completed the forms their folders were collected and they were offered refreshments and door prizes.

Information was gathered on exploratory and pretend play skills for all the children during free-play time using the Core-Subdomain of the PIECES (Kelly-Vance & Ryalls, 2008; Kelly- Vance & Ryalls, 2005). The raters observed the children during free-play time (centers) and in the child’s respective classroom for 30-minutes, and his/her play was recorded and the highest level of play determined. The children were allowed to play with any/all materials in the classroom. The raters did not interact with the children during the free-play time. If the rater was approached by a child and asked to play the rater responded with, “I am just watching” or, “Show me what you can do with (name of toy).” The child’s teacher was asked to confirm whether or not the observed child’s play and highest level observed was “typical” or “atypical” for the child.


The analysis of the mother’s answers to the three open ended questions revealed the following. English-speaking mothers defined play as “creative,” “learning,” “understanding” and “exploring.” To define play, Spanish-speaking mothers used “challenge,” physical activity” and “distraction.” “Play with my children” and “provide an example” were statements used by English-speaking mothers, while Spanish-speaking mothers said, “play with their brother/sisters” to describe how they promoted/encouraged play in their child. When asked how they played with their child, both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking mothers described exploratory-play acts (e.g., board-games, painting/drawing); however, only the English-speaking mothers described pretend-play acts (e.g., playing doctor, building forts).

A means comparison of PKT scores revealed the English-speaking mothers (M=11.29) were more knowledgeable than the Spanish-speaking mothers (M=8.96) when asked to rank-order children’s play acts developmentally. (Table 2). An independent samples t-test of PPQ scores indicated the English-speaking mothers rated play as more important on all domains/themes than did the Spanish-speaking participants. These results were significant on the physical (t=1.39, p<.01), emotional (t=.176, p<.01), and social (t=1.84, p=.03) domains/themes. (Table 3).

Pearson’s correlations were used for the following comparisons. The correlation between maternal knowledge (M=10.27, SD=1.52) and children’s level of play (M=10.06, SD=1.56) indicated the more knowledgeable a mother was concerning children’s play the more likely her child would engage in higher levels of play (r=0.903, p<.001). Maternal knowledge of play and children’s level of play were significantly related for both English-speaking mothers (r=.852, p<.05) and Spanish-speaking mothers (r=0.690, p<.05). (Table 4). A means comparison of PIECES scores indicated the children of English-speaking mothers (M=11.11, SD=0.60) engaged in developmentally greater acts of play than the children of Spanish-speaking mothers (M=8.71, SD=1.38). (Table 5).

Each domain/theme of the PPQ (i.e., social, reading) were correlated separately as there was no overall score for the PPQ. The results revealed the social domain/theme (M=4.62, SD=1.02) was significantly correlated to children’s level of play (r=0.513, p=.042).The more important a mother rated play to the social development of the child, the more likely the child was to engage in higher levels of play. When the participants were divided by language, no significant correlations were found. (Table 6).

A significant relationship between maternal knowledge and maternal level of acculturation (M=3.29, SD=1.21) was found, indicating the more acculturated a mother was into the Euro- American culture, the more knowledgeable she was concerning children’s play (r=0.813, p<.001). Similarly, there was a significant correlation between maternal level of acculturation and children’s level of play, meaning that the more acculturated a mother was into the Euro-American culture, the more likely it was that her child would engage in higher levels of play(r=0.848, p<.001). (Table 7).

An independent samples t-test revealed the following: The children of English-speaking mothers played at significantly developmentally higher levels of play than the children of Spanish-speaking mothers (t=4.70, p=.026); English-speaking mothers displayed greater knowledge on the development of children’s play than Spanish-speaking mothers (t=4.69, p=.05). (Table 8).


The current study adds to the literature by corroborating past studies indicating relationships between maternal acculturation, 10 knowledge/beliefs concerning play, and children’s play; and the importance of continuing research on the variables intertwining relationships. English-speaking mothers believed that play was important to development, while Spanish-speaking mothers considered play to be a form of entertainment (Frost et al, 2005; Roopnarine et al, 1994). Both the English-speaking and Spanish-speaking mother’s knowledge of play was related to their child’s knowledge of play indicating the higher a mother’s knowledge on play, the higher the child’s play. Mothers of both cultures were able to order children’s play tasks in a developmentally increasing order, though the English-speaking mothers displayed greater knowledge than did the Spanish-speaking mothers (Tamis-LeMonda et al, 1994). The greater the mother’s knowledge about children’s play, the more likely her child was to engage in higher levels of play (Damast et al, 1996; Tamis-LeMonda et al, 2002; Tamis-LeMonda et al, 1994) This was true for all mothers, regardless of language spoken. If the mother was considered acculturated into the Euro-American culture she displayed a greater knowledge of children’s play (Cote & Bornstein, 2005; Farver & Lee-Shin, 2002). Research examining the knowledge of mothers on the sequential ordering of play-acts between Englishspeaking and Spanish-speaking mothers were lacking, particularly when acculturation was a factor.

The current study ties all of the previous research together by examining the relationships between maternal acculturation, knowledge/beliefs concerning children’s play and children’s play and their effects of each other simultaneously. The study demonstrates that previous evidence concerning the intertwining relationships holds true between an English-speaking and Spanish-speaking population and shows the ability of Spanishspeaking mothers to rank-order play-acts. The information presented can be utilized in multicultural parental education, designing/using play interventions, and creating an optimal play environment. Parents, early-childhood educators, and school psychologists are instrumental in the development of young children and should work together to create an optimal environment for the development of children from all cultures.

Table 1: Sociodemographic characteristics of the participants
      English-speaking Spanish-speaking
Child     9 7
  Male   4 4
  Female   5 3
  Age (months)   53.22 51.29
    HS 4 4
    TI 5 3
  Birth Order      
    First 5 0
    Second 2 5
    Third 1 2
    Fourths (more) 1 0
  Number of Siblings      
    Brother 7 9
    Sister 5 5
Mother     9 7
    Caucasian 6 0
    African American 3 0
    Hispanic 0 7
    None 0 1
    High School 1 4
    Some College 4 1
    Associates 1 1
    BA 3 0
    Graduate 0 0

$0 - 10,000

  1 1

$10,001 - 20,000

  0 0
  $20,001 - 30,000   2 2
  $30,001 - 40,000   2 0
  $40,001 - 50,000   1 0
  $50,001 - 60,000   1 0
  $60,001 - 70,00   1 0
  $70,001 - 80,000   0 0
  $80,000 - 90,000   0 0
  $90,001 or above   0 0
  Don't know   0 3
  Prefer not to Answer   1 1
Table 2. Parent Knowledge Task (PKT) Scores for English- and Spanish-speaking mothers
  English-speaking Spanish-speaking
PKT 11.29 .584 8.96 1.34
Table 3: Differences in maternal beliefs concerning the importance of play to children’s development (PPQ) between the English-speaking and Spanish-speaking participants
  English-speaking Spanish-speaking  
Variable M SD M SD t p
Cog 4.77 .449 4.42 1.51 .663 .107
Phys 4.89 .333 4.14 1.57 1.39 .004
Lang 4.77 .449 4.42 1.51 .663 .107
Emo 5.00 .000 3.71 2.21 .176 .001
Soc 4.88 .333 4.29 1.49 1.84 .033
Read 4.44 .882 4.71 .756 -.645 .303


.333 4.42 .756 -.894 .053
Ind 4.77 .441 4.71 .487 .273 .599
Rules 4.77 .441 4.71 .487 .273 .599
Enjoy 4.88 .333 4.85 .377 .178 .727
Table 4: Correlations between Maternal Knowledge of Play (PKT) Scores and Children’s Level of Play (PIECES) scores
  All Participants English-speaking Spanish-speaking
PKT .930** .852* .690*
**Correlation is significant at the p <.001 level
*Correlation is significant at the p< .05 level
Table 5: Play in Early Childhood Education Scale (PIECES) scores for the children of English- and Spanish-speaking mothers
  English-speaking Spanish-speaking
PIECES 11.11 .600 8.71 1.38
Table 6: Correlations between maternal beliefs concerning the importance of play (PPQ) scores and children’s level of play (PIECES) scores
  All Participants
Cog .430
Phys .367
Lang .430
Emo .181
Soc .513*
Read .075
Behave .474
Ind .309
Rules .404
Enjoy .140
*Correlation is significant at the p < .05 level
Table 7: Correlations between Maternal Level of Acculturation (SASH) scores, Maternal Knowledge of Play (PKT) scores and Children's Level of Play (PIECES) scores
  All Participants
PKT .848**
**Correlation is significant at the p < .001 level
Table 8: Difference between Spanish-speaking participants and English-speaking participants on Maternal Knowledge of Play (PKT), Maternal Level of Acculturation (SASH) and Children’s Level of Play (PIECES)
  English Speaking Spanish Speaking    
Measure M SD M SD t p
PKT 11.29 .58 8.98 1.34 4.69 .050


4.28 .32 2.02 .46 11.27 .092
PIECES 11.11 .60 8.71 1.38 4.70 .026


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About the author

Adam N. Sempek, EdS, NCSP, is a graduate of the school psychology program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Mr. Sempek earned his EdS in summer 2011. Mr. Sempek is currently working on his Doctorate of Education in educational administration and supervision at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and is a school psychologist for Educational Service Unit Two in Nebraska. The following study was conducted through the University of Nebraska at Omaha during Mr. Sempek’s time in the school psychology program.