We hear some growling noises from the block corner. Ben and Keesha have been building a tiger house using the blocks. They makebelieve they are hunting for a lost baby tiger that they need to return to the house. Chloe is the tiger hiding behind a chair making "GRR, GRR" sounds. They agree to take care of tiger when they find it.

After several rounds of this game, with all three children taking the same roles, all is no longer peaceful. Ben stamps his foot. "I want to be the tiger now," he says to Chloe. "But I'm the best baby tiger," answers Chloe. Chloe is reluctant, at first, to relinquish her role as the tiger but Ben and Keesha convince her that they all need to "take turns" or the story won't be "fun."

These three children have been busy with their dramatic play. They are learning how to share, cooperate, and take turns being the tiger and the builders. Their teacher is nearby, watching as the children settle their differences. She is ready to intervene, but, she has learned that when children have an imaginative story to act out, and are able to handle their own conflicts through negotiation, it's better to stand back and let the children take the lead.

Sharing, taking turns, and cooperating were not so easy for these three children during the first part of the school year. However, the staff of this early childhood program worked hard to create an environment where children learned to work together and respect one another's contributions. The strategies teachers used to achieve these goals included:

  • Listening carefully to children so that each feels respected and sure of his or her place in the classroom.
  • Encouraging children to share ideas and ask questions of one another.
  • Creating an environment where children feel safe, both physically and emotionally, so that they are free to express themselves.
  • Making classroom rules together so that all children in the group are investing in the smooth functioning of the classroom community.
  • Using group time to talk about issues that arise during the day.
  • Encouraging children to look to one another for ideas and support.
  • Modeling cooperative and collaborative behaviors throughout each day.

By this time of year, children are well on their way to working together both in and out of the classroom. You can take advantage of what children have learned about cooperating and collaborating with one another to help them develop skills in all curriculum areas.

Side-by-Side Science

Science activities offer children the perfect opportunity to work in pairs or small groups to carry out simple experiments and test their ideas. Here are some ways you can use children's increasing ability to work collaboratively to support their investigations.

Pair Up and Probe

What floats and what sinks? What is light and what is heavy? These kinds of questions can be explored by children working in pairs. One child will place the objects in water or on a scale. The other child can be the "recorded" placing each object on the appropriate side of a table top which has been divided into two sections: float and sink, or light and heavy. As children work together, encourage a dialogue between them. A give and take of ideas, and their unique interpretations of the results of the experiments, will enrich the experience for both children.

All Together Now!

When planting seeds in the classroom, consider having children grow them in empty Styrofoam egg cartons rather than in individual containers. As children care for their plants, watch conversation and interactions blossom along with the seedlings!

Set Up a Smelling Shelf

Encourage children to bring something from home that has a distinctive odor, such as lemon, vanilla, cinnamon, onion, garlic, or licorice. Put each item on a small plastic lid and invite children (with their eyes closed) to take turns smelling the items and identifying them. As children explore the objects in small groups, ask them to talk about the ways these different foods and spices are used in their homes. Seize the opportunity to discuss children's varying cultural backgrounds and experiences as they share and discuss the scents. Later, try the same activity with objects of different textures, objects of different shapes and colors, and objects that make different sounds.

Partners in Play

With lots of sunny days to enjoy, children are spending more and more time outdoors. Let's take a look at how you can help children use their ability to cooperate and collaborate with one another to build gross-motor skills in your outdoor play space.

Car Wash Collaborators

Provide a group of trikes, scooters, or wagons. Then suggest some new ways children might use the equipment. For example, you might suggest a car wash and ask: What would the car wash look like? Where would you enter? What kind of jobs would people do there? Give children the opportunity to work together to demonstrate what this, or any other scenario they might want to play out, would look like.

Construction Pals

Create a large mound of sand in the middle of the sandbox. Challenge small groups of children by asking them to move the mound of sand to the edges of the sandbox using only their sandbox trucks, steam shovels, or other sand play vehicles. Encourage children to discuss their strategies with one another and work together as they try to "unmound" the mound!

Solve It in a Circle!

You can reinforce children's abilities to work cooperatively and help them to develop important skills such as expressive language and problem solving whenever they come together-particularly during group time. One idea that works successfully is the "Circle of Friends" game. Several times a week, encourage children to take turns placing a sock puppet on their hands. As two children "wear" the puppets, they can pretend that they are having a problem. This might be a sharing problem, a turn-taking problem, or any problem the children might think of. Then ask: "How can the puppets solve their problem and still be good friends?" If the children have difficulty finding a solution, ask the other children in the circle for their ideas, or, if nothing is offered, suggest several solutions.

As children become familiar with the game, they can work in pairs and take turns with the puppets, with one taking the role of the "problem puppet," and the other suggesting how to solve the conflict. Using puppets makes the game more enjoyable and less threatening for children.

Friendly Free Play

There are many opportunities for fostering cooperation and sharing or taking turns during the day, especially during free-play periods:

  • Offer puzzles in the manipulatives area that are large enough to allow two or three children to work on them at the same time.
  • Provide materials in the dramatic-play area that encourage small group gatherings, such as tea sets and birthday party props.
  • Utilize props in your block area, such as plastic animals and people, and materials from your writing and art areas, for children to create a block community together
  • Use classroom chores such as putting toys away, setting the table for snacks, and cleaning up after snack time to talk about cooperation and helping behavior Children enjoy being helpers, and carrying out simple chores is a good way to build a sense of classroom community.

When you want to be sure that the same children do not always play together and form a tight clique, try forming teams of four or five children and name each team after animals or birds. These teams can play together in free-play periods, and you can change the team members each week. This gives every child the chance to be part of a group that he ordinarily would not be asked to join.

When you use strategies such as these, you are spreading the idea of cooperation and giving the children an opportunity to make new friends in the classroom.

Artful Collaboration

The art area is a wonderful place to promote collaboration while helping children exercise their creative-thinking and fine-motor skills. Try some of the following ideas:

  • Invite two or more children to draw together on the same sheet of paper.
  • Start a mural using a long sheet of paper Tape it on the wall and ask children to 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 encourage children to choose their own medium (markers, crayons, poster paint, water colors) to create their communal mural.
  • With a large sheet of paper, invite one child to trace another child as the child lies down and stretches out his arms. After the tracing is finished, both can fill in the details as they work together. Then encourage the child who was traced to take a turn outlining his partner.
  • Using play dough or clay, children can create a zoo, a pet shop, a bakery, a house, or a toy shop where they can converse and work together to create the animals and objects that make up the settings.

Working Together — Dramatically!

Research has demonstrated that dramatic play has many benefits. When children are engaged in make-believe games, good things happen. Children use language and increase their vocabulary. For example, in restaurant play, children learn words such as "menu," "waitress," and "bill." They learn to be flexible, substituting objects for those they do not have on hand-a box becomes a bus, submarine, or airplane. They learn to sequence and to put things in order — when you play "restaurant," you can't serve the food until you cook it.

When children are involved in dramatic play, they are strengthening their imaginations and social skills and learning to share, take turns, and cooperate. They learn to control their impulses, empathize with others, and manage their behaviors. They are preparing themselves for the cognitive, emotional, and social demands of school and later for the larger society. Most of all, they are having fun while they play and learn together.

Click here to view and download the Cooperation Age by Age Developmental Chart (PDF).