The Power of Playing Together

What children learn from collaborating and how to encourage it.



The Power of Playing Together

"Please cooperate!" It's a plea every parent makes almost every day. It seems that we're constantly asking our children to share and cooperate with their friends, siblings, and us, their parents. And while they may not seem like they want to cooperate, the desire to do so is an important aspect of human nature. At birth, children are primed for social activity. They yearn to create relationships — to relate, communicate, collaborate — and have a basic need for belonging and feeling needed by others. Cooperation is a key part of relating to others and forging meaningful relationships. Through team building and collaboration, a child learns to respect others and to control his own immediate needs and impulses.

The fact that learning to cooperate is essential doesn't mean that it's easy. The mundane struggle to get your child to share a toy or put his coat on is part of his experimentation with what is and isn't acceptable and his search for a balance between being a part of the group while still maintaining his sense of identity. Before the age of 3, most children aren't able to engage in truly collaborative activities. Getting preschoolers to share and play together can be tricky too. Teachers know that the key is to set up activities that give each child a distinct role while also requiring kids to help one another. The following classroom-tested, curriculum-based games are perfect for involving friends and siblings.

Side-by-Side Science
Simple experiments can be great opportunities for kids to explore the world together and share ideas.

  • Test things out. Using household items, children can investigate what floats and what sinks, what is transparent and opaque, what is light and what is heavy, or how many rocks weigh the same as one toy truck. One child can be the "recorder," keeping track of the experiment, while the other places objects in water, on a scale, or holds them up to the light. As children work together, encourage a dialogue between them. A give and take of ideas, with each child sharing his unique interpretation of the results of the experiments, will enrich the experience for everyone.  
  • Stimulate the senses. Give children items that have distinctive odors, such as lemon, vanilla, cinnamon, onion, garlic, and licorice. Put each item on a small plastic lid and encourage the children (with their eyes closed) to take turns smelling and identifying them. Ask how these different foods and spices smell. Are these smells familiar from the food they eat? Point out what is different and the same in each child's take on the smells. As they describe the smells and their experiences with them, children will see that they each have a distinct perspective to contribute, all of which add to a full comparison of the smells. (You can also try the activity with objects of different textures, different shapes and colors, and those that make different sounds.)  
  • Create a garden. Block out part of your yard for an area where children can plant flowers and vegetables. Let your kids and their friends work together to make a drawing of the garden they'd like to create. As they plan and then work on their garden, point out how they're all contributing. Encourage them to take on different jobs, such as planting, monitoring, and watering. This project requires all of the little planters to share ideas and tasks: The bounty the garden bears will truly be the product of everyone's labor. 

Outdoor Playmates
Here are some ways kids can exercise their ability to cooperate as they build large-motor skills.

  • Car wash. This group activity never goes out of style. One child can run the car wash and ask what kind of service drivers want for their trike or wagon. Another child can be the ticket or money taker. A third can wash the vehicles with a cloth or big sponges and a pail of water. The kids can work together to create car wash signs and tickets or money in advance. Encourage children to take turns playing the different roles.  
  • Construction site. As children play in the yard or sandbox with trucks, pails, and shovels, they can deliver the sand or dirt, pretending they are preparing a construction site. Each child can be a different kind of worker (such as steam shovel operator, trench digger, or truck driver). Encourage the little builders to take turns using different vehicles as they work on the project and collaborate on building something.  
  • Relay races. Kids can write or draw a secret message and then work together to get it from one place to another. Help them set up a relay race course through the yard or park. Each child can stand in a designated spot and then run with the message from one spot to the next, passing it along to the next child. Point out that each runner helped to deliver the secret message. (Works well with trikes too!) 

Artful Collaborations
Creating works of art is a wonderful way to promote cooperation while helping children develop their creative-thinking and fine-motor skills.

  • Table paint. Tape a large sheet of paper over a low table and let two or more children finger paint all over the paper. They'll love squishing their fingers and hands through the paint — and they'll each help to create a unique painting.  
  • Make a mural. Post a long sheet of paper on the wall and let children decide what the topic of the mural will be (a forest with animals, an ocean with all kinds of boats and fish, a neighborhood). Then they can each select items to draw and can choose a medium (markers, crayons, poster paint, water colors) to create the mural with. When they're done, ask the children to describe how they each helped to make the mural.  
  • Buddy tracings. On a large sheet of paper, have one child trace another as he lies down and stretches out his arms. After the tracing is finished, both can fill in the details as they work together. Then the child who was traced can outline his partner. Display the tracings together, and point out that the kids couldn't have made them without each other.  
  • Build something. Using play dough or clay, children can collaborate on making a zoo, a pet shop, a bakery, a house, or a toyshop. Encourage them to help each other create the animals and objects that they want in their setting. Ask the kids to describe how they each contributed to the project. 

Acting Things Out
Research shows that children develop important skills through make-believe. In restaurant play, for example, kids increase their vocabulary as they learn words such as "menu," "waitress," and "bill." They learn to be flexible, substituting objects for those they do not have on hand, and to sequence and put events in order (you can't serve the food until you cook it). And, most important, when children are involved in dramatic play, they're strengthening their social skills and learning to share, take turns, and cooperate.

  • Prop up play. Give your children and their playmates some simple props to use in dramatic play: empty food containers; wooden spoons; pots and pans; paper plates; old clothes and shoes; hats; index cards and markers; and old phones and typewriters. These items can spark kids' imaginations and spur them to share ideas for collaborative dramatizations.  
  • Start a business. Encourage children to set up a pretend store, zoo, restaurant, or other establishment. Help them think of and create the materials they'll need. Children can decide who will be in their place and what role each of them will take. Point out how many different people need to pitch in and help out to make this business work.  
  • Dramatize stories. Bringing favorite tales to life is a sure-fire way to engage a group of youngsters. Let them pick a story and then create props, take on different roles, and act out the action. Working together, they'll be able to recreate their beloved story. 

Toys to Share
Not all toys lend themselves to cooperative play — some are simply best for alone time. When your child is having friends over or playing with a sibling, it's best to provide toys and games that work well with small groups. Try putting out these playthings, all of which are easy to share:

  • Musical instruments: From maracas to tambourines, using instruments together allows children to make music they couldn't create on their own. When kids form a band, they hear the power of collaborating.  
  • Cards: Playing basic card games and learning to follow simple rules is a big step toward cooperation for youngsters. At around the age of 4, children are able to put aside what they want to do and abide by the group's rules.  
  • Puppets, dolls, and stuffed animals: Playmates can bring inanimate pals to life and act out tales and adventures with more than one character.  
  • Children's books: Kids love sharing cherished stories. Encourage them to each take on a different character's voice and make the sounds described in the story as they read or retell the tale together.  
  • Puzzles: Putting all the pieces in place is easier — and more enjoyable — when little problem solvers put their heads together.  
  • Figures, cars, and blocks: By building with blocks, adding figures, cars, road signs, and the like, children learn from one another's ideas and see how the power of group play can add fun.  
  • Dress-up clothes: Old hats, bags, shoes, and shirts are perfect props for letting children share imaginative ideas and transform themselves into an infinite roster of roles.
Dramatic Play
Motor Skills
Creativity & Play
Self Control
Age 5
Age 4
Age 3
Five Senses
Block Play
Creativity and Imagination
Early Science
Child Development and Behavior
Cooperation and Teamwork
Musical Instruments
Games and Toys
Arts and Crafts
Motor Skills
Card Games
Early Social Skills
Dolls, Toys, Puppets