Cooperation:  The ability to work together for a common end result.

Children are not born cooperators.  Yet a child must learn to cooperate in order to make friends and play successfully with their peers.  Without good cooperation skills, children will have difficulty developing friendships.  Without friends, a child can feel very isolated and alone.  This can cause a child to loose confidence in their abilities or develop challenging behaviors that may carry on for years.  Kindergarten teachers state that being able to cooperate with others is one of the most important elements of school readiness.   It is estimated that up to 40% of children enter kindergarten without the social skills that they need to succeed.   These skills take time, ongoing instruction, and support from the adults in a child’s life. 

     Play is an important part of a child’s progress towards cooperation.  It is through play that children learn how to cooperate positively with peers and adults. During play session’s children are learning to problem-solve as well as build confidence in their abilities.  And learning to play takes time.  In fact it is not until after about age 3 that children really begin playing with each other.  Before that children lack the communication skills and are still too egocentric to be able to engage in cooperative play.  As the child progresses through the stages of play, they are also learning to master their behaviors in socially acceptable ways. 

     In 1932, Mildred Parton, a sociology professor, wrote a paper on the progressive stages of play.  In it she noted that children’s play followed a natural progression.    Unoccupied Playchildren do lots of random movements but do not engage in play with others.  Children do not seem to really be playing but more like watching or experimenting with anything that happens to have caught their attention.  Onlooker Play At this time children seem to become aware that there are other children around them at play and they begin to watch. There are still minimal interactions between the observer and the players but the child is listening and watching with clear interest usually standing within speaking distance.  Solitary PlayWhen a child is in this stage of play development they are usually playing alone and are absorbed into their own play.  They show minimum, if any, interest in what nearby children are doing.  Parallel Play– In this stage of play, children are using similar toys but are not involved in each other’s play.  They may be playing beside another child but they are not playing with each other.  Parallel play is often considered one of the first signs of social play in young children and begins about the age of 2.5-3 years.  In order for children to begin to build friendships they must be aware that other children having feelings.   Associative Play The children may begin to participate in a common activity but have separate goals or focuses.  They may interact with each other but there is little real cooperation in their play.  It is during this stage of play that children are learning how to get along with others, how to cooperate.  They are learning how to communicate their wants and needs.  Cooperative Play-Cooperative play does not usually begin until after the child’s 3.5 birthday.  It is very similar to Associative Play but at this stage, the play is very organized and the children are working together to achieve a common goal.  It is during this Cooperative Play that children begin to sense they belong (or do not belong) to a group.  At this stage, leaders develop and children are given assigned roles.  This is the play when adults note teamwork beginning to emerge and lasting friendships being made.

     For some children, developing cooperative skills do not come easily.  It is our job as Early Childhood Educators to help build solid social-emotional foundations with the children in our care.  In order to be a friend one must have the ability to see from another person’s perspective.  Children need to be able to recognize social cues such as reading facial expressions, body language, and vocal tones.  They must be able to take turns; if one child always gets what they want, it is not cooperation. Clearly explain your expectations of what you want the children to do and how you expect them to treat one another.  Sadly some children are taught intolerance at a very young age but it is our responsibility as Educators to teach that all people hold value and need to be treated with respect.  Make sure you handle name-calling and hurtful remarks quickly and firmly.  Children who have a difficult time with language may also have more challenges developing cooperative abilities as these skills rely upon the ability to communicate. Children who are very active tend to need more support in how to interact with peers.

     Children often fight when they do not feel capable or lovable.  If children begin to fight and cannot resolve quickly on their own, step in and say something like “I don’t care who started this fight but let’s try to fix it”.  Then help negotiate a solution where both children feel validated.  How we as teachers look at the children in our care will help us to develop their cooperation skills.  Ask yourself honestly; do see a behavior as a child being rude, or open and direct?  Do you see a child as being angry, or standing up for her beliefs?  Do you see a child being bossy, or a leader?  Do you see a child being stubborn, or determined?  Our attitudes toward the children have a direct link to their social development.  Children need seven positive interactions to counter one that is negative. If children hear you making hurtful remarks or name-calling they will do the same.  When you tread upon a child’s feelings and we all have done it at least once (have you ever overly hurried a child, used an exasperated tone or snapped at a child?), we need to acknowledge it to the child and ask for their forgiveness. 

     Cooperation skills should be taught in every center every day.  The benefits of teaching children to cooperate is that your classroom will become more peaceful.  The children will learn that bullying behavior is not acceptable and that the teacher will help them find solutions that will feel fair to everyone.  Just remember that it is developmentally normal for preschool children to be egotistical and self-centered.  Knowing this, we can expect bumps along the way and not get frustrated because a child is not cooperating as we wish they would.   It takes time and practice for a child to learn to play with others in a cooperative way.  They will have to experiment with what works.  Teachers can offer opportunities to practice cooperative skills by integrating them into your classroom routines and activities.  Some children are going to need more support than others and you can provide this through modeling and being alert to times when children need help to facilitate their interactions.

Some Ideas and Thoughts for Teaching Cooperation.

  • Use ‘sitting spots’ when children are gather in a group.
  • Tell the child to look you in the eye when you are talking and make sure you are looking the child in the eye when he is talking.
  • Greet the children by name as they come into the room.  Help them to find appropriate ways to greet you back (verbal hello, high 5, smile and nod).
  • Encourage the children to ask questions when they are unsure what to do.
  • Talk about emotions regularly.
  • When children are in conflict ask the children to step back and look at the others facial and/or body language, ask them what do you think it is saying?
  • Teach the children to ask permission to hug another child.
  • Praise children who willing make space for another or asks for more space in a mannerly way.
  • Teach children how to ask if they may have an object verses grabbing it away.
  • Model words such as please, thank you, excuse me, sorry,
  • Model asking for items to be passed and asking to use an item that someone already has.
  • Play games that require turn taking.  It’s hard to wait your turn but I know you can.
  • Model cooperation and kindness to everyone who enters your classroom.
  • Many children do not know how to enter existing play in a positive ways.  Watch for children who are on the edge of play and help them to enter by giving them a role in the play.  (Tracy, I see Leo is the doctor, I think this bear is feeling sick.  Why don’t you ask Leo to check it out).
  • Call out across the room to another adult when you see a child say or do something that is positively friendly.
  • Give a submissive child a new piece of equipment that you are introducing into your classroom.
  • Read books about conflicts that require cooperation.  Ask the children to predict what they think will happen.
  • Make sure your children are rotating centers throughout the day and week.
  • Practice 5 back and forth exchanges when interacting with a child.  Children need to learn to listen and respond to others in order to cooperate.
  • Plan activities for the group that require cooperation. Play Follow the Leader, do a floor puzzle, and play simple games such as memory match).
  • Give group choices.  Shall we read A or reread B?  What song should we sing next?  Who will help me water the plants?
  • When playing games, acknowledge when someone is being a good sport by waiting for their turn, being a good loser, or being a gracious winner.
  • SMILE!
  • Encourage compliments and thank you.
  • Cut out enough medium sized shapes for half your classroom (12 children, six shapes).  Cut the shapes in half and distribute them to the children out of order.  The children then walk around looking for the child whose half a shape matches theirs.  When the two have connected, give them tape so they can tape their two halves to the wall to make a whole shape.
  • Hang pictures around the room of children working and playing together.
  • Ditch the ‘prize board’.  Ultimately we want to teach children how to do the right thing because it is the fair thing.  Not because he wants to avoid punishment or get a reward.
  • If you want to develop a new behavior, it can take at least two months, and you shouldn’t despair if three weeks doesn’t do the trick – for most people that’s simply not enough.  Use your first months of school to actively reinforce the rules and expectations of your classroom.
  • Remind the children that we want to treat others the way we want to be treated.
  • Use the words, Your turn, my turn.
  • Problem-Solving Steps.  1) Scan your room to anticipate any problems.  2) Get close but do not take over solving the problem for the children.  3) Support the children as they talk about the problem through verbal interaction and encourage them to find an equitable solution.  4) Promote the positive solution.
  • Social Skills teacher’s should be modeling: sharing, working together, asking to join into play, saying another’s name to get their attention, asking questions, answering questions, tone of voice, volume of voice, looking at a person while talking to them, saying please and thank you, good personal hygiene, personal space, following directions, tattling, needs verses wants.
  • You Sing a Song & I’ll Sing a Song.
  • Bounce it high, bounce it low, bounce the ball to _____.
  • The More We Get Together Song.
  • Group partner dancing.