Culture is the culmination of beliefs and conduct humans learn from their society. It is through culture that human evolution takes place. Adapting to environmental changes is largely determined by the culture an individual lives in. Culture encompasses learning and thinking represented by symbols and artifacts (Park, 2008, p65). Culture is important to the field of anthropology. The basis of a culture is viewable in the playgrounds of its children.
Other animals, including our distant primate relatives, exhibit behaviors similar to culture. These animals do not depend on culture for survival. Much of the animal kingdom depends on instinct and natural, inborn resources to survive. The human species is perpetuated by learning from, following and changing our culture. The complexities of the human species are beyond biological. They lie in our beliefs, our thoughts, our differences and similarities.
On a summer Wednesday morning MacArthur Mall in Norfolk, Virginia is sparsely occupied. The mall is high-end with stores like Nordstrom, Nine West and Coach. The third floor houses the movie theater, food court and the children’s play area. Right at the entrance to the stroller parking area stands a Starbucks kiosk displaying giant cookies, glazed scones, Fiji water and prominent menus of caffeinated beverages made to order.
The stroller parking area holds only four strollers at 10:00 a.m. this morning. The strollers vary in color and cost. There are two Graco brand strollers that have a design strictly sold at Walmart. One stroller proudly displays a Bugaboo label and the fourth a Jeep logoed jogging stroller with all-terrain heavy-duty wheels. At the end of the stroller line-up is a female security guard in her sixties. She stands beside the self-locking security gate entrance to the enclosed children’s area, opening and closing it for those coming and going.
There is a huge mural on the back full wall of a shipyard with Looney Tune characters scattered about it. The whole area is Looney Tune and shipyard inspired. There are various sizes of climb on fixtures. There are cargo truck shaped pieces with back ramps as slides. Cargo boats are hollowed to provide tunnels. Small fixtures look like coiled rope piles and pier logs. The sizes allow for children of all ages to have something to climb. The largest fixture is a tug boat captained by Bugs Bunny in the middle of the floor. It is hollowed out with stairs and a slide tunneling through.
All of the climb on fixtures are super shiny and have the look of brand new hard plastic. At the touch it is found that all the fixtures are soft. They are padded to allow give and there are no sharp edges or corners in the whole area. The carpet in the play area is also extremely padded giving way to each step. The theme of shipyard carries into the carpeting, which shows pier paths and water beneath the themed climb on toys.
There are five adults and three children at the start of the observation. One mother in her mid-twenties sits with her sixty-something mother. Both of them are of what seems to be Asian descent with dark hair, almond eyes and yellow toned light skin. A two and a half year old girl paces in front of them. A blonde haired blue eyed woman in her mid-twenties follows at a slight distance from a 15-month-old girl actively wandering throughout the play area. There is a couple, a man and a woman, in their fifties trailing after an 18-month-old. They follow her closely with video camera and two digital cameras.
At one point, the 15-month-old wanders near the two and a half year old who attempts to hit the her. The woman with the baby says ‘be nice’ and redirects the baby to walk the other direction. The mother of the two and a half year old gets up only to ask if the toddler had hit the baby then exclaims the toddler is ‘really two right now.’ The toddler’s mother does not at any point tell the toddler not to hit or to be careful.
Many more people are entering the play area only 15 minutes into the observation. There is one father in the play area that has a 5-year-old boy and a 7-year-old boy. He sits on the wall bench checking his cell phone and peeking up to watch the boys. The boys jump off everything. The father gets up now and then to stand near them and watch them play. When the boys start to get pushy on a toy he calls them down and tells them to wait their turn. He tells them there are a lot of little kids here and to watch where they jump. The boys of the father check in to ask if they did a good job taking turns and if he saw their super jump now and then.
There are three large white women in their thirties that do not speak to one another. Each brought a toddler into the area and one holds a newborn. None get involved with the children playing. There are two thin women who look polished sitting together chatting. Each has a preschooler and toddler. One has an infant in a baby carrier. Each waves their children away when they attempt to communicate. The infant is given a pacifier at first sound.
The kids run into each other, climb over one another and intermingle regardless of age or size. Some are pushy and louder than others. Some are more observers perching on top a toy and watching, getting down when it gets crowded. Some tactful climbers suddenly clamor for attention by calling out for help only to climb a taller toy and jump off without hesitation. The majority of the adults sit on the sidelines while the kids play. A few parents / nannies follow a little distance behind and partake in the fun. In some instances even if a child falls the parents don’t get up to check.
At first there does not look to be much diversity. The majority of the people are light-skinned women aged mid-twenties to forties. The closer look shows the difference in ages, body shapes, ethnicity, gender and even socio-economic status. The line-up of strollers is much more diverse when the play area is full. The outfits range from sweat pants to Dockers to pearls.
America prides itself on a bilateral philosophy, meaning an equal distribution of work or responsibilities between both sexes. On the contrary, bilateralism ‘gives rise to…potential for inequality…between men and women (Park, 2008, p. 277).” The American society has for some time followed the division of men’s work and women’s work to perpetuate a meek image of a woman. A man went into the world and a woman stayed home and raised children. The scene at the play area shows a slight shift toward a more equally bilateral society. The father in the play area represents men taking part in child rearing. The nannies at the play area represent working mothers and / or parents.
Language, being such a major aspect of culture, can be viewed everywhere. The play area observation gives insight into the difficulties children may face when communication is not open between themselves and their caregivers. In instances when parents ignored or rejected a child, that child became frustrated and acted out. In instances where a caregiver did not address an indiscretion, the indiscretion was repeated. Those children whose caregivers addressed indiscretions and received encouragement seemed eager to show they could correct themselves and follow the rules.
The concept of American worldview is seen in the safety devices in place in the play area. The padded carpet and padded climbing toys prevent injuries. The locking gate prevents children running out of the play area without an adult. The security guard deters pedophiles and gives quick access to help in an emergency. In watching the movie Babies, a viewer accustomed to these play areas may be horrified at the play areas represented in Africa and Asia. The documentary shows an African infant playing in the dirt while wearing and loin cloth and carrying a stick he found. In Asia, a baby shares his play area with the goats and animals his family keeps (Balmes, 2010). These cultures viewing America’s super safe play areas find humor in our paranoia.
The concepts of urbanism and materialism are seen in the creation of an indoor play area situated on the third floor of a high-end shopping mall. To get to the play area, individuals must pass many stores and ads attempting to entice a consumer. Most individuals toting kids to a play area would design a play area on a first floor level away from enticing sales and close to the parking area. The ulterior motive sticks out like a sore thumb. The smell of French fries at 10:00 a.m. only further proves the point. Detecting such motives and seeing the dynamics of culture at play in even a simple activity like getting the kids out of the house both fascinates and disturbs. We are so much more than just ourselves. We, as humans, are our surroundings. We are our culture.
Balmes, T. (Director). (2010). Babies [Motion picture]. United States: Focus Features.
Park, M.A. (2008). Introducing Anthropology: An Integrated Approach, 4th Edition. New York, NY: TheMcGraw-Hill Companies.