We all want our children to build strong relationships and lead happy fulfilling lives. A key ingredient to such outcomes is the ability to work and interact well with other people. And as kids aren’t born with these capabilities, they must be learnt. And it’s something children learn in school or from books, but through play!
Cooperative play fosters an important skill set that your child will use during their entire life – sharing, following instructions, and taking turns – all of which will help them tremendously in their social life.
Typically children start to learn how to cooperate quite early on as babies, and they develop these skills further at around the 5 year old mark. Here’s how to encourage your child to work together with others and play cooperatively:
Babies begin to engage in back-and-forth interactions — the building blocks to cooperation — at around 6 to 9 months. Take this opportunity to encourage turn-taking as you play with your child. Play back-and-forth games, such as peekaboo and pat-a-cake. As your child grows, incorporate taking turns in your everyday life. When you can say something like, ‘What kind of snack do you want: apples or oranges?’ and the child says, ‘Apples,’ you’re facilitating that back-and-forth structure. In other words, you’re teaching your child that when another person is speaking, you listen. Once that person is done, then it’s your turn to talk.
Show your child the importance of cooperation by giving her small tasks around the home. Children learn how to be responsible and cooperative by having responsibilities around the house. Do chores together such as cleaning up toys or setting the table. Once your child is old enough, have her pick two tasks that she wants to do on a weekly or daily basis, and make them solely her responsibility.
Empathy involves compassion and understanding the feelings of others. However, it isn’t enough just to have an empathetic thought — you have to act upon it. Teach your child to express empathy by taking a meal over to a family member who is going through a tough time or encouraging your child to say “I’d be happy to listen” to a friend who needs an attentive ear. Talk to your child about how they think about other people and their feelings, and model positive behaviour for them. Modelling appropriate behaviour to your child gets them 90 percent there.
A good way for a child to learn cooperative play is to have plenty of opportunity to participate in free play with other children. Give your children unstructured toys that they can use to make things with and let play emerge organically. Also, give them their space. Let them work out problems, and don’t over-manage. Children learn the value of cooperation by playing freely — without restrictions and strict rules — with others in their age group.
You can help encourage your child to play cooperatively with fun activities and educational games. Create an annual event for your family based on cooperative activities such as the ‘blank canvas’ project, which involves getting a group together to paint on a single canvas. Team sports, such as baseball or basketball, also teach cooperation. If your kids aren’t into sports, you can plant a vegetable garden together, tend it as a family and watch it grow. Anything parents can do to facilitate play with other children is really useful and the more opportunities your child has to interact with others, the more they’ll learn to cooperate.