Breaking Cultural Barriers is as Easy as Playing

By: Aurora Ortiz, Community Engagement Coordinator

We are lucky to live in a city that is becoming more diverse every year. The immigrant population in Pittsburgh continues to grow with more than 80,000 immigrants who now call our region home. However this diversity also brings new challenges and barriers we need often struggle to overcome. As an immigrant myself, I know first hand that there are many barriers that new Americans face in this country. The cultural differences, more often than not, make it difficult for organic interactions to take place between immigrants and U.S. born individuals and can lead to isolation and discrimination. One of the biggest barriers is the inability to communicate in the same language. When my family first arrived to York, a small town in Central Pennsylvania in 2007, we didn’t speak a word of English. I cannot explain how difficult it was not being able to communicate with others for my first few months in this country. My little sister, who was seven at the time, taught me one of the best ways to communicate with others without needed to speak the same language: Playing!


That’s right. Playing is one of the easiest way to connect with others without having to speak the same language. Is it possible to explain how to play with a soccer ball without using words? The answer is yes and in fact it is super easy. The very first friend my sister and I made after moving to the U.S. was a neighbor who brought over a ball and kicked it towards us. My sister said “¡vamos!” or “let’s go!” and ran for that ball. That one simple gesture led to an afternoon full of laughter and to new friendships being built, without a single word being spoken. The next afternoon, three of our neighbors knocked on our front door, showed our mom a ball and a couple of jump ropes, and asked us to spend an afternoon with them. Again not a single word was spoken. Playing truly is one of the most organic ways to break down cultural and language barriers. This might explain why children have an easier time befriending and understanding different cultures than adults. Not only can playing spark new friendships but it can also help begin to understand cultural differences.

There are many differences between cultures. Some of the most noticeable are language, food, and clothing. Not many people realize that play is also different across cultures. When I was younger, it never occurred to me that there could be different versions of the same game until I played hopscotch with the friends I’ve made since moving to the United States. In Mexico, we have a specific layout for our hopscotch and that is honestly the only way I know how to draw it. I have also learned to play at least three other versions of hopscotch, with different rules and layouts. This is true for any game; there are even games that exist in one culture and not in another. Some forms of play only exist among a group of friends who combined multiple games together. It is fascinating to learn new versions of a game, as well as witness the creation of new ones. These creations are, in my opinion, evidence of play bridging cultures. I have learned and changed a lot since my family decided to make a home in what once was a foreign country to us. I know that play is not the one and only way to overcome cultural barriers, but it is certainly a wonderful place to start.

We truly are lucky to be exposed to different cultures on a daily basis. However, cultural barriers can deter us from reaching out to someone who is different than us. I, like almost every immigrant in this country, can speak of the many struggles we face in the U.S. I can also speak to the fact that the cultural barriers that divide us can be torn down if we work, or play, together. So I would like to leave three pieces of advice: First, be open to new experiences. Actively look for cultural celebrations around our city and expose yourself to new food, new sounds, and new activities. Second, remember that no one is ever too old to learn from the children around us. After all, children often have clever ways to spark a silent conversation. Finally, keep in mind that play is a universal language. We do not need to speak the same language to kick a ball or draw a picture. Everyone, regardless of age, can benefit from play. So, let’s play our way through cultural barriers!