Young children learn through play, which by its very nature provides a context for physical, social, emotional, cognitive creative and linguistic learning.
As in all phases of development, a child’s ability to play does not remain static but moves through several stages, beginning with what is often referred to as unoccupied play. This is when very young children take interest in and perhaps play with random objects with which they come in contact. We say they are engaged in onlooker play when they become more or less aware of another child but do not interact with them. A little later they may play with their own toys in the company of others (solitary play) but are still exploring the world on their own terms.
By the time children are about two, they begin to be more aware of other children and may play alongside them. They do not take much notice of each other, however continue along their own paths. They see no reason to “share” toys or other equipment, regarding such items as being for their exclusive use. We refer to this as parallel play. Forcing children to “share” at this age is counterproductive.
Around age three, children tend to take more interest in what others are doing. They move into the stage of associative play. One child might copy the activities of another. For example if one child is building with blocks, another might join in, although each will be primarily concerned with a block building task that interests them. However there might be some indications that they are sharing ideas and equipment but such cooperation is still in its early stages.
As children move into the later preschool years and getting ready to transition to kindergarten they begin cooperative play. Their communication skills are improving and they are capable of sharing ideas and listening to the ideas of others. But cooperation doesn’t always come naturally. Some children might be playing cooperatively before age four, others may take a little longer. However, by age four or five, some gentle encouragement of cooperative behaviour may be helpful.
Here are some tips:
- Don’t expect too much of them too soon.
- Encourage children to help with normal home activities. (“Could you give me a hand here?“) But don’t make the task too lengthy or onerous and be sure to show your appreciation. (“Thank you so much for helping me carry that basket.”) Cooking with an adult provides lots of opportunities for sharing as you all work towards a common goal – dinner!
- Reinforce cooperative behaviour. (“I really liked the way you listened to Jacob’s ideas” or “I was so impressed with the way you each took turns.”)
Tips for playing cooperative games during group play:
- Try activities that require children to work together to reach a common goal (problem-solving, like a treasure hunt).
- Play with construction toys (blocks or Lego). They offer wonderful opportunities for children to work together to achieve a result.
- Jigsaw puzzles can encourage children to work together. A case of two heads are likely to be better than one.
- Some art-based activities can be cooperative, such as painting a mural or building a sand castle.
- Dressing up can support children in imaginative dramatic play which by its very nature requires cooperation between participants to develop a situation.
- Try games that require children to take turns (such as most board games, or even 20 Questions).
- Avoid games with clear winners and losers or that eliminate players (such as musical chairs).
As with just about any other parenting challenge, your behaviour is key. Children who observe the adults in their lives working cooperatively, listening to the ideas of others and showing an acceptance of the points of view of other people have the best chance of progressing smoothly and successfully through this stage of learning.
Anthony Field is the creator of The Wiggles and as the Blue Wiggle, has been entertaining children with The Wiggles for over 24 years. He was a preschool teacher, has a degree in Early Childhood Education from Sydney’s Macquarie University, and is married with three children. Dr. Kathleen Warren, EdD, MA (hons) LASA, FTCL, teacher, adjudicator and early childhood expert is a drama consultant and writer for The Wiggles.