How do you teach your child cooperation when there’s no clear reward or incentive? As a caregiver, it can be hard to encourage children to get along with a friend or assist on a household task. That’s why cooperative play can be beneficial to teach at home so they can practice it at school, play dates, and other group activity settings.
Cooperative play isn’t just about playing nice—it’s a cornerstone for building connections and nurturing emotional regulation and communication skills. Children will go through six developmental stages of play as they grow, which we’ll further explore to better understand the impact of cooperative play and how to practice it.
Whether your little one is just entering this unique stage of play or you’re hoping to help them prepare for cooperating with playmates, you may have questions about how to support and encourage their journey. Keep reading as we explore the 6 stages of play and discover how you can nurture the magic of cooperative play.
What Is Cooperative Play?
For decades, child development researchers have studied how children learn through play. In the 1930s, famed sociologist Mildred Parten was the first to define the stages of play that children move through from infancy to their elementary school years.1 It’s a general timeline, but by no means is the norm to measure your child’s development. You may want your child to cooperate from day one, but understanding the different stages can help gain clarity on what skills children start gaining.
When answering the question what is cooperative play, Parten identified six distinct kinds of play that increase in complexity as children age:2
- Unoccupied play (birth to 3 months) – In the earliest stages, infants begin their journey into the world of play with unoccupied play. This may not look like much from the outside—staring around the room, waving fists and feet, kicking—but it’s actually the foundation for everything that comes next. This is when infants learn to occupy themselves and begin to understand their bodies and surroundings.
- Solitary play (birth to 2 years) – As infants move into toddlerhood, their play activities become more focused and deliberate. At this stage, babies and toddlers will play with toys and other objects, exploring their senses and building motor skills and coordination. Play is still a solo activity at this stage.
- Onlooker play (2 years) – Now, children begin to notice others around them and watch how they play. They’ll show interest in what children around them are doing, but they don’t directly participate. At this stage, children are building confidence and learning the rules of social interaction by observation.
- Parallel play (2 years and up) – Here, children begin to play more deliberately alongside their peers. You’ve probably seen two preschoolers sitting side-by-side, playing with similar toys and yet acting out two entirely separate scenarios. Through parallel play, kids build comfort with peer interactions and prepare to engage directly.
- Associative play (3 to 4 years) – After becoming comfortable through parallel play, children begin to feel confident enough to interact more closely. They begin to share materials, toys, and ideas, although the play is still freeform and highly individual.
- Cooperative play (4+ years) – Finally, children put all the important skills built through each stage to work in the final, most complex and interactive stage. In cooperative play, kids collaborate actively, pooling their imaginations to decide on the play theme, set the rules, and dream up new ideas. Whether it’s sharing blocks or embarking on a make-believe adventure, collaborative play works on a shared playing field.
If your child seems to be taking a while to reach the cooperative stage, don’t worry, and don’t try to force them to learn. Each stage of play is valuable, and children will move through them at their own pace.
Lastly, keep in mind that this is a fluid process, not a rigid progression. Your little one is likely to move back and forth through the stages over time.
Benefits of Cooperative Play
Cooperation is a turning point in the phases of play. When children play together, they make huge strides in learning to negotiate, compromise, and communicate effectively to accomplish a shared goal. Cooperative play is big fun, yes, but it’s also laying the groundwork for healthy relationships lifelong.3
Let’s take a closer look at the evidence-based benefits of cooperative play.
- Sharing – As you might guess, cooperative play tends to encourage sharing behavior more than competitive play. Research has found that 4 and 5 year olds were more willing to share after playing a cooperative game than after playing the same game competitively.4
- Taking turns – Cooperative play is also helpful for showing children how to take turns and wait patiently for their turn. Turn-taking is important, not only in play, but in social contexts as well. Studies have found that children who are skilled in turn-taking and related behaviors tend to be more accepted and liked by their peers.5
- Following rules – Whether it’s a board game or imaginative play, cooperative play is structured around rules (even make-believe involves agreements like “We’re kitties, so we can only say meow.”). Children learn that for games to be enjoyable for everyone, rules have to be followed, and changes need to be negotiated. Cooperative play is also a safe setting to learn about the consequences of breaking the rules. For example, cheating means friends won’t want to play anymore.
- Teamwork – Children who participate in cooperative play have the opportunity to hone the teamwork skills that will be vital to future success in school and the workplace. For example, one study found that preschoolers engaging in team games were able to appropriately assign tasks based on their assessment of each other’s abilities.6 Deciding how to divide tasks among teammates is a key part of learning to function as a team player.
- Communication – One of the most central aspects of cooperative play is communication. Children playing cooperatively must express their ideas, listen to others, negotiate compromise, and solve problems.7 And when communication fails, the game won’t be as much fun for anyone, giving kids a natural incentive to hone their social skills.
Why Is Cooperative Play Important for a Child’s Development?
Cooperative play has a pivotal role in shaping a child’s social-emotional and cognitive development. Collaborating with peers on shared activities lets children practice life skills in a safe yet challenging setting.
Cooperative play among kids isn’t always conflict-free—in fact, disagreements and even arguments are a common sight among children engaging in cooperative activities. But learning to communicate despite disagreements is a skill children will need again and again throughout their lives.
Playing collaboratively helps children cultivate emotional intelligence, empathy, and resilience more effectively than almost any other activity. For children, play truly is work—and that’s even more true when it comes to cooperative play.
How to Model Cooperative Play With Your Child
Cooperative playtime doesn’t have to wait until your child is with a group of peers. You can always help your child practice their cooperative play skills at home with any number of activities, from cooking to chores to playing outdoors.
Here are 5 simple yet impactful habits that bring cooperative skills into your day-to-day routine:
- Lead by example. Watch for opportunities to demonstrate listening, sharing, and turn-taking as you go about your regular activities. For example, you might take turns opening doors for each other or share carrying the groceries.
- Practice problem-solving, conflict-resolution, and decision-making together. Look for moments where you can involve your child in making choices and finding solutions to everyday situations. For example, if you’re searching for your glasses, try involving your child as you solve the problem. “Where do you think I would take them off? Can you think of another place to look?”
- Play cooperative board games. Be sure family game night includes a variety of cooperative games for kids, not just competitive games. Some fun cooperative play examples for preschoolers include Feelings Adventure Board Game, Snug as a Bug, and First Orchard.
- Try cooking together. Making food is one of the daily activities we all engage in that has the most opportunity for cooperation. Preschoolers can help by doing simple tasks like stirring, washing veggies, or getting ingredients out of the cupboard. As kids get bigger, they can learn important skills like measuring, mixing, pouring, and so on.
- Explain household rules. Every house has to have rules, and children need to follow them. However, you can turn rules into another opportunity for cooperation if your child understands the why behind the rule. For example, instead of stating, “No shoes on the furniture,” explain that shoes carry germs and dirt. Say that you would like your child’s help in keeping the furniture clean. Instead of an order, the rule becomes a way for your child to be part of a team effort to keep the house tidy.
- Recognize and call out cooperation. Watch for moments where your child helps, takes turns, or shares. Give praise that’s specific and focuses on the good feelings that cooperation creates. You might say, “Thank you for sharing with your sister. I can see how happy it made her,” or “Cleaning up the playroom was fun because we both worked on it!”
Discover the Magic of Cooperative Play with Slumberkins
In cooperative play, children learn some of the essential life skills we all use to make our lives harmonious and productive. Whether it’s with the family or with friends, try to provide fun games to play outside with kids so they receive daily cooperative opportunities.
For more tips and activities designed to help your little sprout blossom into a caring and confident young person, turn to Slumberkins.
At Slumberkins, our passion is helping children connect to grow. Our books, games, and cuddly Kins show kids the magic of connecting with others, sharing our feelings, and embracing our strengths. Visit our Caregiver Resources page for more ways to bring the wonder of Slumberkins into your child’s world every day.
- Early Childhood Education: An International Encyclopedia, Volume 3. Mildred Parten. https://books.google.com/books?id=TCsr5ckvNcQC&pg=PA592#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Michigan State University Extension. The power of play – Part 1: Stages of play. https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/the_power_of_play_part_1_stages_of_play
- The Journal for Specialists in Group Work. Let's all play together nicely: Facilitating collaboration in children’s groups. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01933922.2017.1338809?
- PLoS One. Playing a cooperative game promotes preschoolers’ sharing with third-parties, but not social inclusion. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6699707/
- Social Skills Across the Lifespan. Developing social skills. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/psychology/cooperative-play
- Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT. Preschoolers appropriately allocate roles based on relative ability in a cooperative interaction. https://cogsci.mindmodeling.org/2017/papers/0158/paper0158.pdf
- Brock Education Journal. Power of play: How playing affects cooperation skills. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1324882.pdf