Children grow exponentially over the first several years of life. By the time children reach age five, they have already learned the basics of how to walk, talk, play, communicate, and express themselves. When it comes to growing up and engaging with peers, children go through the six stages of play: unoccupied, solitary, onlooker, parallel, associative, and cooperative play.
Join Blue Squirrel as we discuss cooperative play in depth. We will also explain when it develops, its benefits, some examples, and how to encourage this style within your family.
What Is Cooperative Play?
Cooperative play is when children play in a group setting, they will do activities or play games together and work towards the same goal. In cooperative play, children will directly communicate with one another about the rules of the game and the game’s goals and will problem solve as they go.
Oftentimes, when children first begin to pick up cooperative play, there will be interpersonal conflict. Cooperating with peers is a rather advanced skill that will only improve with time and experience (sometimes adults don’t get it right all the time!).
As such, children will usually have a hard time learning how to share, take turns, or allow others to take control during activities. Don’t worry, this is normal. However, if the children seem to be having too hard of a time with it, you can step in and show them how to respond properly to frustrating situations.
When Does Cooperative Play Develop?
Cooperative play typically develops around the age of four, but it can start a little sooner or even as late as the age of six. As a reminder, every child is unique and will develop at their own pace. If your four-year-old has not developed this skill yet, they still have plenty of time.
Cooperative play is the last stage of the six stages of play. It builds upon the foundations laid before it in the previous stages, but most specifically with associative play.
In associative play, children will play with the same toys and communicate with each other, but they are not actively working towards the same goal. Instead, they are simply using each other for inspiration and collecting new ideas for future activities.
Cooperative play builds upon this as now the children are actively helping one another towards one common objective. This is where conflicts may arise, but they will not hinder any development your children make.
Like the other stages of play, cooperative play never vanishes from your child’s development. Instead, it’s the next building block in your child’s social foundation for future endeavors. Cooperative play is still used by kids and adults alike when doing any kind of group work or project. It is what helps build proper cooperation beyond the formative years.
What Are the Benefits of Cooperative Play?
When children are encouraged to engage in cooperative play, they must communicate and work with their peers harmoniously.
They are only able to do this if they are actively monitoring their own behavior and adapting to the needs and expectations of others. Ultimately, this is what helps the children meet their common intention and makes the activity a success.
The more time children spend in cooperative play, the more chances they have of improving their social skills. When they engage in cooperative tasks, they significantly increase language development and the ability to self-regulate and use positive coping mechanisms. Their confidence in involving themselves in group classroom activities rises.
During this stage of play, children begin to develop fuller relationships with their peers. They are beginning to discover what they have in common, what they agree on, and how to cooperate. Building and maintaining relationships through cooperative play has the added benefit of children becoming more aware of their emotions as well as those of others.
Examples of Cooperative Play
Essentially, anything that requires children to cooperate is a good activity for cooperative play. Simple examples include having children build a robot or a tall tower using building blocks, playing dress-up, playing house, or even coloring or painting the same picture. Playing in specific play areas are also ripe for cooperative play, including play kitchens, restaurants, playgrounds, and ball pits.
Any formal game is also a great opportunity for cooperative play, especially in older children aged seven and up. Tag, hide and seek; red light, green light; musical chairs; and freeze dance.
Team sports are ideal cooperative play activities because they require children to work together while still providing a challenge that encourages replicability. To keep team sports interesting, try switching up the teams after each game. This will also encourage children to interact and cooperate with peers they may not normally seek out.
Three Cooperative Play Style Games
Three examples of games well-suited to encouraging cooperative play include:
- Follow the leader: each child will have the chance to both lead and follow. They can learn the importance of doing both while getting the chance to create an imaginative dance or action for their friends to follow.
- Parachute games: One popular game is bouncing a beach ball around in the parachute without letting it escape the parachute. They can also throw the parachute in the air and take turns running underneath it before the parachute touches the ground again. These games require cooperation from each player to succeed.
- Relay races: the children get assigned teams where they have to take turns running through a race of their choosing. The first team to have all of its members finish the race first wins.
How Can Caregivers Encourage Cooperative Play?
The best thing to do to encourage cooperative play is to provide as many opportunities to your children as you can to play with their peers. Have them go to a friend’s house or invite their friends over, schedule play dates, or encourage your children to join a club or sport. The more chances they get to interact with others, the better they will get with cooperation.
Set Up Interactive Spaces and Activities
During free play, the best way to encourage interaction between children is to provide specific play spaces. In this case, fewer but larger spaces are encouraged as it will incentivize children to play together in one area rather than by themselves in multiple places.
In this same vein, provide a variety of toys or materials for the kids to play with. Make sure that there are only a few of each item so that the children are more likely to share and take turns.
Teaching and Modeling
Not every skill comes through experience. In fact, most interpersonal skills are learned through imitating someone who has already mastered the skill.
With cooperative play, you should consider teaching and modeling these skills, which can include:
- Speaking and listening respectfully
- Providing positive feedback when things are going well
- Expressing your feelings when things go wrong
Try to demonstrate the rules to formal games as it helps children’s comprehension when they can see and hear the instructions. The same goes for showing kids how to take turns. Rather than expecting kids to simply understand it by a brief description, modeling the directions sets the children up for success when they begin the activity or game on their own.
The Foundation for Future Skills
Cooperative play is the final stage of the six stages of play. It succeeds in associative play and builds upon the foundations that it establishes. This means that children are not simply playing with the same toys.
They are now working towards a similar goal, whether it be in a specific activity or a game. Children can now talk to each other and discuss the best ways to meet their end result and complete it together.
It is incredibly important to encourage cooperative play as it is yet another foundation for interpersonal skills. You can prompt them by setting up specific play activities that require children either to share materials or talk through the process.
You can also encourage cooperative play by modeling the behavior that you want to see. Talk your children through the process of expressing their emotions about specific tasks and behaviors. Show them how to handle unexpected obstacles and how to share with others.
With these invaluable skills in your pocket, your children will have a great time while they don’t even realize that they are learning and developing, growing into lifelong learners before our very eyes.
The power of play – Part 1: Stages of play | Michigan State University
Promoting Associative and Cooperative Interactions | Metro Nashville Public Schools Pre-K Partnership Project
The Impact of Social Play on Young Children | Murray State University
Teaching Cooperative Play in Prekindergarten | Edutopia