Cooperative Play – Benefits and Challenges (2020)

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Cooperative play is a play-based learning approach that is widely used by educators to help children develop cognitive, social, emotional and physical skills in an active learning environment.

The 5 key features of cooperative play are:

  1. Social interaction.
  2. Shared goals.
  3. Language use.
  4. Self-regulation.
  5. Agreement over rules.

It is the sixth and final form of play outlined in Parten’s six stages of play, emerging shortly after ‘associative play’. Parten argues it can be observed in children from around 4  ½ years of age and up.

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. Children can be observed sharing resources, assigning roles, sharing ideas, and coming together to agree upon the rules of the play scenario.

Key Features

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 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, this is the first (and only) form of play identified by Parten that is fully socially interactional.

The defining features of social interaction during cooperative group play include:

  • Assigning roles to one another
  • Negotiating
  • Compromising
  • 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.
  • Children learn from more knowledgeable peers who help them come up to their level.
  • Language is modeled and practiced during play.

2. Shared Goals

Another key feature during the cooperative stage of play is the focus on shared goals. Children do not share their play goals in any other stage of play in Parten’s theory.

Shared goals may include:

  • Agreeing upon the game and what success looks like in the game.
  • Working together to build a structure with building blocks or sticks outdoors.
  • Working on different aspects of a task but linking them together in the end to achieve a common task.
  • Playing a competitive game with clearly set rules so players are ‘on the same playing field’.

To share goals, students need to demonstrate group work skills such as negotiation, collaboration and positive communication. Here, it’s evident that cooperation during play helps children to work on their emotional intelligence and develop social skills required for 21st Century education.

3. Language Use

Language is incredibly important during the cooperative stage of 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!

4. Self-Regulation

Self-regulation involves the ability to cooperate and compromise.

In the stages of play leading up to the cooperative stage, 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 upon 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.

Age Range

Parten argues that cooperation during 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 games.

As children get older, their cooperation may become more structured and formalized. This may emerge during board and sporting games, such as agreeing to follow the rules of a football game.

Benefits and Challenges

Benefits

  • Social Development: Negotiation and compromise are required during social play. Children also get opportunities to exercise important teamwork and leadership 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.

Challenges

  • The Age Range May Worry Parents: Many parents worry that their children haven’t reached the cooperative stage of play 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 solitary 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.

Final Thoughts

Cooperation during play is incredibly important for child development. It helps children develop a range of language, cognitive and social skills required for the 21st Century. By playing together, children learn from one another and pull each other’s development forwards.

The cooperative stage of play is the sixth and final stage on Parten’s models of play. However, once this stage is achieved (from ages 4 and up), children may still choose to play alone – and that’s okay! A range of play styles can help children get the benefits of each approach.

References

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 Psychology28(2): 136–147. doi: 10.1037/h0073939.

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