Cooperative play is a play-based learning approach that is widely used by early childhood educators to help children develop cognitive, social, emotional and physical skills in an active learning environment. It is often seen as the opposite of solitary play.
The 5 key features of cooperative play are:
- Social interaction.
- Shared goals.
- Language use.
- Agreement over rules.
Cooperative play is the sixth and final form of play outlined in Parten’s six stages of play, emerging shortly after the ‘parallel play’ and ‘associative play’ stages of play. Parten argues it can be observed in early childhood from around 4 ½ years of age and up.
- Read Also: The 17 Types of Play based Learning
Definition of Cooperative Play
Cooperative play involves children playing together on a shared game. It is the only type of play in Parten’s 6 stages of play where children share common goals and objectives during play (as directly opposed to parallel play and associative play). Children can be observed sharing resources, assigning roles, sharing ideas, and coming together to agree upon the rules of the play scenario. During this stage of play children learn significant social skills.
1. Social Interaction
Social interaction involves engaging other children in conversation in order to succeed in a game.
The previous versions of play in Parten’s theory such as parallel play involve gradual steps toward more integrated social play. Previous versions of play in Parten’s stages involved children talking, asking questions and observing one another. However, cooperative play is the first (and only) form of play identified by Parten that is fully socially interactional.
The defining features of social interaction during cooperative play include:
- Assigning roles to one another
- Working together for the good of the group
Social constructivists such as Lev Vygotsky and Jerome Brunner believe group work is incredibly important for learning and child development.
It helps children because:
- Conversation helps children see things from others’ perspectives or incorporate other people’s ideas to improve their own thinking on a topic.
- It can be more engaging and stimulating than solitary play, onlooker play, and unoccupied play.
- Children learn from more knowledgeable peers who help them come up to their level.
- Language is modeled and practiced during play.
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2. Shared Goals
Another key feature during cooperative play is the focus on a common goal. Children do not share their play goals in any other stage of play in Parten’s theory.
Shared goals (or ‘a common goal’) may require:
- Children to work together on cooperative games to agree upon the game and what success looks like in the game.
- Children to work together to build a structure with building blocks or sticks outdoors.
- That children learn about taking turns when they work together.
- Children to work on different aspects of a task but linking them together in the end to achieve a common task.
- That children play a competitive game such as board games with clearly set rules so players are ‘on the same playing field’.
To have a common goal, students need to work together and demonstrate group work skills such as negotiation, collaboration and positive communication. Here, it’s evident that cooperative play helps children to work on their emotional intelligence and develop skills required for 21st Century education.
Related Article: 15 Cooperative Play Examples
3. Language Use
Language is incredibly important during the cooperative play. Expect to see children:
- Asking questions using full sentences.
- Answering questions using full sentences.
- Asking for clarification from friends.
- Practicing new words.
- Demonstrating and describing what they are doing to their friends.
By playing together, children get to practice both expressive and receptive language skills. Expressive language involves being able to speak and have others understand. Receptive language is the ability to understand when others speak. Of course, both are required for children to become good communicators!
Self-regulation involves the ability to cooperate and compromise.
In the stages of play leading up to the cooperative play stage (such as the solitary play, onlooker play, and unoccupied play stages), children tend to work on their own tasks, meaning compromise is not as necessary.
When children are required to work on a common play task with other children, they need to self-regulate. They cannot do whatever they want. Sometimes they will have to:
- Absorb disappointment, such as when they lose at a board game.
- Delay gratification, such as waiting their turn.
- Allow other children to take on roles they would prefer so that the game can proceed.
Self-regulation is a skill that we all struggle with, even into adulthood!
This skill will be required throughout a child’s schooling. Whenever they work on group tasks they’ll need to practice cooperation and compromise.
5. Agreed Rules
The co-agreement of rules involves children getting together to agree upon how a game should be played. They will agree on what is allowed and not allowed in the game, what the game’s goals are, and what success looks like.
Agreed rules can be observed whenever:
- Children get together to come up with the game’s structure.
- Children all agree to follow shared rules.
- Children agree to follow rules already created or amend those rules.
Parten argues that cooperative play begins at around 4 years of age and continues for the remainder of a person’s life. It occurs during unstructured play, for example when children come up with their own imaginative cooperative games.
As children get older, their cooperation may become more structured and formalized. This may emerge during board games and sporting games, such as agreeing to follow the rules of a football game.
- Social Development: Negotiation and compromise are required during social play, especially when there is a common goal involved. Children also get opportunities to exercise important teamwork and leadership skills, as well as communication skills.
- Language Development: Through social play, children model language to one another and practice language skills in authentic and real-life environments.
- Cognitive Development: Children extend their cognitive skills through group tasks. They come across new challenges that expand their horizons and get them to apply new and old ideas in new contexts.
- Physical Development: Play in general can help children develop fine and gross motor skills.
- Motivation: Social play may help children to stay motivated and engaged throughout the learning process, allowing them to focus on the task longer than they would otherwise.
- The Age Range May Worry Parents: Many parents worry that their children haven’t reached the cooperative play stage soon enough. Children develop at their own pace. If a child hasn’t quite hit this stage by 4 years of age, that’s not a problem! The age ranges are not strictly set.
- It’s not the Only Ideal: Even once a child has mastered cooperation during play, they may go back to unoccupied play, solitary play or parallel play at times. That’s perfectly okay – different forms of play work in different circumstances.
- Social Skills are Required: To succeed at cooperation, children need a wide range of social skills. These may need to be modeled and explicitly taught through guided practice by teachers. This takes a long time to develop and setbacks will occur!
For general pros and cons of play-based learning, try this post here.
As one of Parten’s six stages of play, cooperative play is incredibly important for child development. By playing together, young children learn from one another and pull each other’s development forwards. Children play cooperative games and, by working together, develop a range of new skills. It helps young children develop a range of language, cognitive and social skills required for the 21st Century.
The cooperative stage of play is the sixth and final stage on Parten’s stages of play model. However, once the cooperative play stage is achieved (from ages 4 and up), children may still choose other stages of play such as solitary play – and that’s okay! A range of play styles can help children get the benefits of each approach.
Gordon Biddle, K., Garcia Nevares, A., Roundtree Henderson, W., & Valero-Kerrick, A. (2014). Early childhood education: Becoming a professional. Los Angeles: SAGE. (Go to Chapter 10. Here’s a free link.)
Parten, M. (1933). Social play among preschool children. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 28(2): 136–147. doi: 10.1037/h0073939.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.