Getting along and working together is an important part of outdoor play. But cooperative play doesn't occur automatically. Here's help to make it happen.

Develop and explain rules for outdoor play. Children need to know that the playground is part of the school and has rules, just like the classroom. Clearly explain your guidelines for taking turns, sharing materials, and handling conflicts.

Provide plenty of room to play. Children need lots of space to run, jump, and move around - ideally 200 square feet per child. If your outdoor area is small, try to find ways to limit the number of children who go outside at one time. Place equipment throughout the area. Even a large playground can be cluttered - and cause conflicts. Spread out the equipment so that children don't all stay in one small part of the playground. Make taking turns fun. Introduce a fun song or chant that children can sing as they wait for their turn on the slide, the swinging bridge, or swing.

Provide materials children can share - and duplicates of those they can't. Everyone wants the bright red tricycle - and will do anything to get it! So try to have more than one, or set up a schedule for sharing it so everyone gets a chance. Bring out a variety of materials that encourage cooperation, such as big balls, dramatic-play props, large blocks and boxes for building, and crayons and washable paints for creating outdoor art.

Suggest cooperative games. From hand-clapping chants to movement charades, there are many fun games in which everyone wins. (For some great game ideas, see "Group Time: Moving and Learning Together") When children do participate in competitive games, help them focus on doing their best and having fun together.

Keep an eye out for conflicts. No matter how well you plan, social problems will arise from time to time. So keep on the lookout for situations - such as those tugs or pushes - that might lead to trouble. That way you'll be able to get to the scene of the conflict quickly.

This article originally appeared in the April, 1998 issue of Early Childhood Today.