Encouraging Cooperative Play
By Marie E. Cecchini, MS

By definition, cooperative play involves the division of efforts among children in order to reach a common goal. This is not an innovative idea, though one might think so given grading systems and sports rankings that seem more concerned with where children stand among their peers. Competitive play involves “winners” and “losers.” Cooperative play is concerned with solving a problem by working together to achieve a common goal. In cooperative play, everybody wins.

Play is how young children learn. Through play, children develop the skills they need to expand their physical, emotional, social, and cognitive abilities. In effect, play = learning.

As children grow and develop, they move through six stages of play, though they may not progress in a linear fashion. Instead, their progression may involve engaging in different stages at different times depending on the physical environment and their individual temperament.

Stages of Play:

1. Unoccupied Play: This stage of play involves random exploration, where children are allowed to learn through personal interaction with people and objects within the environment.
2. Onlooker Play: At this stage, they watch other children, but do not interact with them. It is a time to learn about social interaction through observation.
3. Solitary Play: When children choose their own toys and bring them to play near, though not with, others, they are engaged in solitary play. It can be a way to play “with” others without experiencing rejection.
4. Parallel Play: In this form of play, children will play with the same materials, such as building blocks, in the same area, but they will be working as individuals rather than as a pair or group. There may or may not be social interaction.
5. Associative Play: This stage of play involves a group of children participating in a mutual activity, such as playing with clay or painting, though they are not working toward a common goal. This stage invites social interaction as children find the need to share tools for their activities.
6. Cooperative Play: This stage of play focuses on working together. For instance, some children with trucks may deliver blocks to those who wish to build.

Children learn to play and play to learn. Each stage serves a purpose as the child moves toward more socialized play.

In addition to the stages of play, there are also several types of play in which all children will participate at one time or another. These are socialized forms of play which early childhood teachers can use to foster cooperative play experiences in the classroom.

Fostering Cooperative Play

Physical Play: This type of play usually involves a lot of large motor activity, is very social, and sometimes very loud. To encourage physical cooperative play, an early childhood teacher might try the following:

Outdoor Seasonal Activities: Have the children work together to rake leaves, and then jump in the piles, in the fall, work as a group to build a snow family in the winter, use teamwork to plant and care for an outdoor spring garden, and fill a small pool and gather toys for water play in the summer.

Timed Playground Play: Involve several small groups of children in playing in separate areas on the playground, such as the swings, the slide, the jungle gym, etc. Encourage working together so all have play opportunities within a given time frame. When the time is up, move each group to a different play area.

1. Manipulative Play: This type of play places an emphasis on the manipulation of objects, such as shapes, puzzle pieces, small building blocks, etc. To encourage cooperative manipulative play, an early childhood teacher might try the following:
a. Story Building Blocks: After sharing a story with the group, encourage the children to use small building blocks to construct buildings from the story. Provide several copies of the book for the children to use for reference.
b. Community Play: Engage groups of children in cooperative community play, focused on such things as a doll house with furniture and people or a garage with fuel pumps and vehicles.

2. Symbolic Play: Symbolic play involves pretending as opposed to reality. For classroom purposes, we will refer to this as Dramatic Play. To encourage cooperative dramatic play, an early childhood teacher might try the following:
a. Dress-Up Parade: Provide the class with several boxes of dress-up clothes and accessories. Encourage them to work together to create costumes for each other and to help each other get dressed. When everyone is dressed, line up in parade fashion and march around the room to music or visit another classroom to show off your costumes.
b. Nursery Rhyme Plays: Choose several nursery rhymes for the children to act out and divide the class into groups accordingly. For instance, to act out “Little Miss Muffet” you would need two players, one to play Miss Muffet and another to play the spider. Work with the children and hopefully adult volunteers to help the groups practice their plays. Perform in front of parents or video tape the plays to show to the class later in the day.

3. Games: This kind of play usually involves activities governed by rules. Games can involve physical play and large muscle movement, or quiet play such as with board and card games. To encourage cooperative game play, an early childhood teacher might try the following:
a. Target Toss: In this game the children will take turns tossing a bean bag onto a floor target. Each ring on the target will represent a certain number of points. Children will not be working on individual scores however, they will be each be contributing to the total of class points, hoping to reach 100 points by the time each has had one turn. If not, begin again from zero and try a second time.
b. Scavenger Hunt: This can take place indoors or out. The object is for the class to work together to find all items within a given time frame.

Cooperative play allows children to interact with others, express their thoughts, and try out new ideas. It also promotes social growth and sharing. It is a way to help children recognize that they have personal worth independent of whether or not they win a game or contest. If classroom teachers can contribute to a more considerate, caring generation, then we will all be “winners”.
Marie Cecchini is a teacher who has written five books and hundreds of articles on education, parenting, and writing. Her passion is helping children learn through crafting and poetry.