Toyology Academy: Cooperative Play

By Rebecca Fry | Power Of Play

Nov 06

Cooperative play: it is a life skill we all want our children to flourish in and a survival necessity for parents of multiples.  But the question always lingers, how can I get my child(ren) to be better with cooperative play? As a parent of two boys and very soon to be three boys, my sanity depends on my kids being able to play together without constant interventions.  Honestly, this is a skill we still have good and bad days with. We have gone through periods of great success and then we will hit a time where it seems fighting is constant. What I have come to learn is to never pat myself on the back too early and to expect hiccups along the way; remembering that hiccups often come during developmental milestones or changes in routine.    

Developing cooperative play in my boys is one of the many things I borrowed ideas from the Montessori classroom.  When I first sent my oldest to a Montessori school, I noticed that much of the work was done independently of other kids in separated spaces; most Montessori classes utilize individual rugs and personal workspace for each child, especially in their earlier years.  Like many parents, I wondered if he would get enough opportunity to socialize and share. After doing some reading on my own, I came to appreciate the idea of forming an internal respect for space, environment, and sharing. We adopted this practice of defining personal space using rugs or yoga mats to help our kids develop this sense of respecting themselves and other’s space.  At a very early age children involved in Montessori work learn that when you are finished with one material you clean it up and place it back in its spot on the shelf. This is not merely a matter of cleanliness but respecting the idea that someone else will be using this item and therefore it should be cared for and returned to a place where others can find it. Without even interacting with another peer, the child begins to develop a sense of responsibility and respect towards others.   Our house is by no means as organized as a Montessori classroom, however, I do try to have specific bins for different categories of toys and I expect items to be returned to their designated areas out of respect for one’s own time and others who may want to use that item later.

In order to develop positive cooperative play skills that will last, Montessori methods emphasize a more organic process of learning these behaviors.  Rather than telling a child he or she must share or force social situations, a young child is allowed personal space and time with items to first develop self-respect and confidence.  For a child, play is their work. And to interrupt the work they are engaged in so someone else can use a toy tells the child their work is not valuable or important. Contrarily, allowing a child to complete their work communicates to them that their work is good and also models to them how to respect others engaging in play with a different toy. This concept is definitely one my whole family is still working on.  It becomes increasingly difficult when you have a younger sibling wanting to take a toy from an older sibling and the easiest solution is to just ask the older child to give the toy to the younger child to avoid a meltdown. But taking the time to redirect the younger child to a different toy communicates to my older son that I respect him and shows my younger son that he cannot take items that are already being used and that waiting for things we want really is a part of life.  Additionally, we spend a lot of time talking about emotions in our house to help our kids identify how they are feeling and how others may feel based on our actions. This helps to develop empathy which can further encourage cooperative play.

Once the foundation of respect and responsibility for developing cooperative play skills is established, there are many toys and games on the market now that encourage cooperative play.  One of our favorite makers of cooperative play games is Peaceable Kingdom. Their games are not only a staple in our home but are also one of my favorite toys to give for birthday and holiday presents. These games teach children about emotions, empathy, and working together to reach a common goal. One of my favorites and the first Peaceable Kingdom game we purchased is Friends and Neighbors.  This game asks children to work together in order to help the characters on the board. In addition to the game itself, they also include a little booklet to help you work with your child to identify the emotions the characters might feel before and after being helped. Other games we have played and enjoy from Peaceable Kingdom are Feed the Woozle and Stack Up. With both of these games, each participant plays a part in winning the game.  Kids begin to encourage one another and see each other as teammates rather than competitors.

As mentioned in my previous post, pretend and dress up play, can also play a role in children developing social skills and working on cooperative play.  Dress up encourages kids to enter into worlds of imagination in which each participant gets a say in how to write the story. The children work together to rescue the city as superheroes or prepare a delicious dinner as top chefs.  Similarly, many sports toys can be used to encourage cooperative play. Most games that involve catching with a partner require the participants to work together in order to be successful. For younger kids, we have found using something similar to Stikball or Djubi Jr. to be a great intro into playing catch.  Puzzles also encourage children to work together as a team to reach a common outcome. This can be difficult when spanning an age gap, but another important tool I gained from looking into Montessori methods was the benefit of kids of different ages and abilities working and learning in the same space. The older child learns to take the lead without smothering and practices patience while the younger child benefits from a peer showing them how to do new things.  

Incorporating cooperative play into everyday routines helps develop a skill that benefits the child well into adulthood.  And in the short term, it gives us moms and dads some of those good days where our kids play peacefully and happily together.

About the Author

Rebecca, originally from Texas, migrated to Michigan with her husband and two boys aged 2 and 5 years old. Rebecca is currently a stay-at-home mom but has a background is psychology with a special interest in early childhood development and parenting. She keeps up to date in the latests techniques in both areas whenever she can!