Cooperative play is when children play together under a common goal and mutually accepted rules. This type of play usually emerges around the age of 4 years old and can occur throughout the lifespan.
There are numerous benefits of cooperative play. For instance, language skills are exercised because cooperative play often involves a lot of communication.
Social skills are also improved because there is continuous give-and-take during play where children negotiate actions and learn to handle disputes.
Because they may not always get what they want and must engage in inhibitory control, children’s self-regulation abilities are enhanced.
Focus and attentional control are improved because children learn to stay on-task for the duration of the play session.
Cooperative Play Examples
- Children learn to wait in line and take turns going down a playground slide
- Young children helping each other put together a puzzle.
- Planting a garden as a class, with pairs of students assigned to take care of specific plants.
- Several children working together to build a hospital using large cardboard “bricks”.
- Playing outside with water and hoses and trying to understand how water flows.
- Participating in a three-legged race where pairs of kids have one of their legs tied to their partner’s leg.
- Children taking turns stringing large beads togetheror making arts and crafts.
- Two children putting together the pieces of a wooden racetrack and then deciding who gets to play with which super-cool cars.
- Any kind of role-playing game like playing house or hospital.
- Playing a board game that involves taking turns and everyone following the same set of rules.
- Pairs of students transporting a ball across a room with a towel.
1. Bounce Count
Bounce count is a great cooperative-play game that involves students using a parachute to make a ball go up and down in the air. The kids count the number of times they can do this successfully.
First, the teacher lays the parachute out on the ground. The students all take a seat around the edge. The teacher explains that the objective of the game is to see how many times the class can bounce the ball up in the air.
When the students pull the parachute outward in unison, it stretches tight and makes the ball go up. Each time the ball goes up the kids count in unison.
The teacher can make variations of the game by instructing the kids to make the ball go up very high, or a little low. This will help the students learn to cooperate as a group because they all have to work together.
If they don’t work together, the ball will not fly straight up. When it bounces out of the parachute it’s “Game Over” and the counting has to start over again.
2. Paper Bridge
This is a great cooperative-play activity for older kids. The goal is for the kids to work in small groups and build a paper bridge that will hold as much weight as possible. This will require the team to work together, discuss options and negotiate disagreements.
First, students form teams of 2-5 members. Each team is provided a stack of newspapers and scotch tape. The teacher can provide other items if they want, but it is important that each team is given the exact same amount of material.
The teams are given a specific amount of time to construct their bridge. When time has expired, each team will participate in a competition to see which bridge is strongest. The teacher will place weights on the bridge until it collapses. The bridge that holds the most weight wins.
There are several variations of this activity. For instance, each team can be required to make an architectural sketch of their design before construction. This can be as detailed as the teacher wants, including sketches that show different viewpoints.
Another version is to have students engage in a reflection exercise at the end of the activity. Each student identifies what they did wrong and did well, and what they would do differently next time. Or, each student rates themselves and their teammates in terms of cooperation and leadership.
3. Marble Run
Creating a marble run is one of students’ favorite activities that fosters collaborative skills. Students have to work together to decide on design ideas, negotiate with each other when there are disagreements, and learn not to blame others if the maze doesn’t work properly.
There are at least two basic versions of this activity. One is when the students buy a marble-run kit. These usually involve lots of plastic tubes and interesting parts that will make the marble go down funnels or spin wheels.
The other version of this activity is when the teacher provides lots of different materials, such as paper-towel tubes, cardboard boxes of different shapes and sizes, duct tape and straws, etc. The students use the materials to construct their own maze.
To strengthen the social-emotional educational value, the teacher can have the students do a self-reflection exercise at the end. This can involve a worksheet where students rate themselves in terms of their teamwork and leadership skills, and identify things they would do differently next time to be a better teammate.
4. Obstacle Courses
A lot of children these days spend way too much time sitting and not enough time moving. Physical activity is good for the bodyand good for the mind. So, anything a teacher can do to increase students’ motivation to engage in physical activity the better.
Having students design their own obstacle courses can make students feel more involved and motivated to participate. So, instead of the teacher laying out all of the balance beams, hoop stands, and hurdles before class, let the kids do it.
Because they’ll all want to make the course themselves, it’s better to form small teams and let each group take turns designing the course.
To add a little educational impact, each team can be required to draw a human body and identify the different muscle groups or parts of the body that are exercised on theobstacle course.
The degree of detail can vary depending the age of the students. Even very young children will be able to point to their legs for jumping or their arms for climbing over something.
5. Blindfolded Remote-Controlled Car Driver
Steering a remote-controlled car through a maze can be challenging in and of itself. But trying to do that while wearing a blind-fold can make the task super difficult.
In this cooperative play activity, kids try to drive a remote-controlled car through a maze. However, the driver is blind-folded and has to follow the instructions of their teammate, who is not blind-folded.
So, the driver has to listen well to their teammate’s instructions. They have to learn to trust what they say and follow those commands as precisely as possible. Of course, the teammate giving those instructions has to learn to communicate in a way that is clear and concise. They may need to offer a few words of encouragement as well when the car goes off-course.
If things go badly, then both teammates will have to practice a little self-regulation and not point fingers at each other. This can be a frustrating activity, but the kids will get better with practice and probably build a stronger bond with each other along the way.
One of the first formal studies of play, including cooperative play, was conducted by Dr. Mildred Parten (1932) who identified 6 stages of play during the first five years.
Cooperative play is a form of play that represents a key milestone in a child’s social and emotional development. It usually emerges around the age of four in most children.
Although it emerges in the early years of childhood, it is actually something that people do throughout the lifespan. As adults, people engage in a version of cooperative play called “work teams”and marriage.
Employees have to collaborate with colleagues, come to agreements on a wide range of project issues, and negotiate conflicts to make a project successful. People that are especially skilled at cooperative play may advance to positions of leadership and become hugely successful. But, it all starts at the age of four.
Gillies, M. R., & Boyle, M. (2010). Teachers’ reflections on cooperative learning, issues of implementation. Teaching and Teacher Education, 26(4), 933–940.
Parten, M. (1932). Social participation among preschool children. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 27(3): 243–269. Retrieved from: https://www.mcidenver.edu/childdev/SocialParticipationamongpreschoolchildren.pdf
Vygotsky, L. S.(1967).Play and Its Role in the Mental Development of the Child.Soviet Psychology,5(3),6-18. https://doi.org/0.2753/RPO1061-040505036
Vygotsky, L. S. (2004). Imagination and creativity in childhood. Journal of Russian & East European Psychology, 42(1), 7-97.