What Is Cooperative Play For Children?

Ask The Doctor > Children's Health > What Is Cooperative Play For Children?

Collaborative play, sometimes also referred to as “cooperative play”, is a style of play where children are encouraged to divide their efforts so as to reach a common goal. This is not the same as children merely playing together, or engaging in a group activity; many group activities children commonly engage in are competitive in nature (e.g. the classroom environment, competitive sports, most video games), whereas collaborative play is not. In collaborative play, children are instead engaged in solving a problem by working together, in a system that lacks “winners” and “losers”.

What does it mean to foster collaborative play?

To put it simply, it means to encourage cooperation over competition wherever possible. Parents, educators, and caregivers should emphasize the benefits of teamwork and give children activities where their shared efforts will result in tangible success.

In the home, collaboration should be encouraged in general, to get children thinking in a team-oriented manner. For example, rather than comparing children (e.g. their grades, how much they have done around the house) or trying to get them to compete in order to get them to finish chores faster or do better at school, ask them to help one another with tasks around the house and reward them for helping one another with their homework.

How do we instill good collaborative play habits within children?

Cooperative behaviour doesn’t come naturally to all children, but a positive group environment can usually be created through the following tactics:

• Make sure children share with one another and that there is enough of whatever objects or materials that are required for the group activity for everyone involved. Most competitions between children start over resources.

• Make sure all children present are fully included in the activity. Children who feel left out (understandably) don’t tend to wish to cooperate with their peers.

• Mediate. If children are having a hard time getting along due to differences in opinion, step in and help them to see that each of their unique traits brings something positive which may benefit the group effort as a whole if they learn to compromise.

• Teach children why teamwork and fairness are beneficial. It’s not enough to tell children to work together and share because it’s “good” or expected of them; children need to know whythese behaviours are useful and relevant to them.

Why does it benefit children to play together?

Children learn through play; before we had organized school systems, children emulated the adults around them through play as a means of learning the skills they would need in later life. Today, play remains one of the most important vehicles for physical, cognitive, and social development in children, and it is of profound therapeutic benefit as well. Play gives children a safe way to express and cope with feelings, allowing them to simplify complex emotions and act them out through a variety of characters as a means of processing troubling events.

As collaborative play requires children to interact, it facilitates them expressing their thoughts and balancing them with the perspectives of others, which both helps them deal with their own feelings and promotes social growth and sharing. As there is no sense of competition with collaborative play, but rather a recognition that everyone has value, it’s also an excellent way to boost a child’s confidence.

What activities are best?
When encouraging collaborative play, one has a wide range of potential activities to choose from, such as:

Outdoor activities: Children can work together to rake leaves into piles in the fall (the reward being getting to jump into them when finished) and cooperate to build snowmen in the winter. In the spring, they can work on planting a garden, and in the summer, they may be encouraged to build forts.

Object-oriented activities: Working with shapes, building blocks, puzzle pieces, etc. to construct something, such a picture or building.

Group creative/dramatic play: Having children get dressed up and put on a small “parade”, fashion show, or miniature dramatic “play” (based on a nursery rhyme, for example) is an excellent way to build on children’s natural desire to role-play while also having them work toward common goals.

Quest-based play: Scavenger hunts where children are encouraged to work together to find a set of items within a certain time frame are another excellent means of getting children to work together in a way that is challenging but not competitive.

What other skills can enhance a child’s development?

Just like adults, children have subjective preferences and different needs; introverted children should be challenged to push their boundaries socially, but only in ways that are not overwhelming to them and which emphasize the social experience as something enjoyable, rather than forced.

Outside of collaborative play, children should be encouraged to engage in activities that help them to express themselves and grow. A shy child might, for example, be able to express his or herself emotionally through writing or drawing when play becomes too much, and reading books is an excellent way to absorb valuable social lessons without having to actively socialize.

Remember that all children, like adults, need some “alone time” in which to reflect—it’s then that they process what they have learned and reach insights about their inner selves.

How can we all, not only children, benefit by working with others?

One of the best parts of teaching children the value of collaborative play is that it in turn teaches us how to better cooperate with others. As teamwork is at the core of most modern workplaces, bettering our cooperation skills can go a long way toward enhancing our careers. Plus, on a personal level, having a talent for compromise and fluent communication skills is sure to make all of your relationships run far more smoothly.

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Dr. Jimmy Obaji M.D.

Dr. Jimmy Obaji completed his residency in Family Medicine at the University of Manitoba. He currently operates a walk-in-clinic in downtown Toronto.

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