Ages & Stages: Learning to Cooperate

Group activities help children build skill in cooperation.

  • Grades: Early Childhood, PreK–K

Stage by Stage 3-4

  • Young 3-year-olds are often unable to understand the need to share materials and take turns.
  • Three-and-a-half-year-olds begin initiating activities that require working together.
  • Fours enjoy collaborating on tasks and activities.

Stage by Stage 5-6

  • Kindergartners see the value of cooperating through concrete experiences.
  • Children must have a sense of their own needs and wants, and the ability to communicate them, before they can work cooperatively.
  • Five- and 6-year-olds are concerned about fairness when participating in group activities.

3 to 4 Working Together  by Susan A. Miller, Ed.D.

INTENT UPON DESIGNING A CAR WASH TOGETHER outdoors, Owen asks Jonah, "May I please have the sprinkler can?" Jonah readily agrees. "Sure. You might need the funnel too." Paul quickly arrives with a bucket of water and sponges. Enthusiastically, the small group of 4-year-old boys call out to their first customer, "Ride your trike through our wet and wild car wash!"

Fours enjoy working with their friends on big projects such as the car wash. They understand the need to ask permission to use each other's materials. In fact, while they work collaboratively on common tasks, they frequently offer to share items without being asked. As these boys noisily splash away, they have great fun cooperating with each other.

Unlike fours, 3-year-olds are still struggling with their egocentric natures. Young threes often physically or verbally exclude potential playmates from their activities; although they are starting to understand the need for sharing materials and taking turns, they are not always willing to do this.

While young threes might happily participate in a simple group effort, such as singing "Happy Birthday," they may not show interest when exposed to a more complicated group activity. if a "flower shop" is set up in the dramatic-play area, for example, the children might sit in the "shop" and even wear the flower arrangers' aprons, but they will not actually become involved in the play as a cooperative venture.

Three-and-a-half-year-olds are quite a different story. At this age, children begin to initiate activities that require working together and they pair fascinating dialogue with lots of activity-interest in what others are saying and doing is very high!

By 4 years of age, children have begun brainstorming as a way of problem solving. Kate cries when the leg breaks on the dolls high chair. After mulling over possible solutions, several fours decide on the best way to fix the leg. "Let's take it to the woodworking bench. We can nail it together." They are able to accept ideas from each other to arrive at an agreeable solution. Then, using real materials, they work together to try to solve the problem in a noncompetitive, cooperative fashion. With their longer attention spans and intense interest, they work well cooperatively by holding the chair and hammering the leg for nearly 15 minutes until it is fixed to their satisfaction.

What you can do:

  • Plan activities that will encourage children to work together. Provide several pails so that children can form a bucket brigade to quickly fill the water tub. Make ice cream for snack using a hand-crank freezer that requires lots of turning. Through activities, you can provide interesting incentives for cooperation: "If everyone helps turn the crank, soon we will have ice cream!"
  • Provide toys that foster cooperation. Offer rides in a wagon and enlist some strong pullers. A rocking boat in the gross-motor area invites several children to take an exciting trip together.
  • Encourage children to help others. Ask questions to raise children's awareness. For example, "George has lost his mittens. What can we do?"
  • Help children develop their problem-solving skills by presenting all sides of an issue. When they learn to look at situations from many perspectives, children can determine cooperative solutions.
  • Model cooperative behavior. Talk about your actions while you perform them. "Jerry and I are holding up the branch so that everyone can go under it."

5 to 6 It Takes Cooperation!  by Ellen Booth Church

"We're c'operatin' ... " says Julia with a big smile on her face as she and Andy struggle to carry a big box to the block corner. It didn't start out that way. In fact, they totally disagreed on how to move it. And after much box pushing and shoving, Julia decided they bad to "do it t'gether" if they were going to get anywhere. So the decision was made to do the same thing at the same time. PUSH... and they were off!

As children mature, they become better able to cooperate, but at 5 and 6 years of age, they can see the value of cooperation and working together only through concrete experience. Just like Julia and Andy, who spent much time disagreeing before realizing they had to "do it t'gether" if they were going to succeed, most children this age insist on doing things their own way before opting to work in cooperation with others.

Developing a Sense of Self

Of all the elements involved in the development of cooperation skills in 5- and 6-year-olds, probably the first and most essential is self-esteem. Children this age are in the process of developing a sense of self, and having a good sense of her own identity enables a child to feel a part of the group. A sense of belonging to the group as a whole broadens a child's perspective beyond focusing on the self to a focus on the group's needs and interests. To feel a part of a group is to be involved, to feel valued and accepted, and to have a sense of contributing to the group process.

Five- and 6-year-old children reflect what they experience. When children feel valued, they value others. When they feel accepted, they accept others. When they feel their contributions are worthwhile to the group, they contribute and cooperate more.

An interesting by-product of self-acceptance is increased overall happiness.

Budding Communication Skills

To be able to cooperate, a child needs to communicate, to listen to others as well as to speak honestly about her own needs and feelings. Fortunately, kindergartners have the increased vocabulary and listening and language skills to be able to do this. They can talk about cooperation and even plan ahead for a group activity, and if there is a problem, kindergarten children are capable of hearing all sides of the issue and deciding on a solution cooperatively.

The ability to reason with kindergartners is becoming more and more possible. For example, children will listen to the reasons for completing a classroom chore or project that requires cooperation when information is presented simply and clearly.

A Growing Need to Please

Fives and sixes want to please adults and make friends with peers, but they are still vying for attention and may knock others "out of the way" in their enthusiasm to be helpful. You can assist children with their transition from seeing "helping" as an individual accomplishment to a group endeavor by setting up your classroom tasks as team or partners activities. In this way, children must cooperate to get the job done!

A Feeling for Fairness

Five- and 6-year-olds are becoming increasingly aware of fairness. They expect that everyone should be, and will be, treated equally-even if they can't agree on what that is! They like and want group rules, and they usually respect them. Children this age cooperate best with rules that they have helped to create as a team. And remember, kindergartners want to trust authority figures to be fair, to know right from wrong-and they cannot imagine an adult ever being wrong!

What You Can Do:

  • Introduce cooperative projects. Create work/play teams for projects in learning centers and outdoors. Team up children with diverse skills and needs and who can learn from one another Some children will naturally act as models, leaders, and guides for others.
  • Play cooperative games in which everybody wins. Check out Terry Orlick's The Cooperative Sports and Games Book (Random House, 1982; $22) for fun, simple indoor and outdoor games that actually teach cooperation!
  • Keep children talking (while you keep listening) and remember to use the word cooperate in your discussions. Ask their opinions about problems and invite them to work together to create solutions. Respect their responses.
  • Clearly define and celebrate cooperative behaviors when children display them. Make a chart of examples of their cooperative successes.

  • Subjects:
    Cooperation and Teamwork, Early Social Skills, Sharing and Taking Turns, Sharing, Social and Emotional Development
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