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How to Encourage Cooperative Play in Your Child

Cooperation is a skill your child will use her entire life. Here's how to encourage your child to work together with others and play cooperatively

You want your child to succeed at school, build relationships and lead an overall happy life — and that means learning to work well with others. But children aren’t born with this ability: It’s something they learn as they grow. It’s not something they learn from a book or through lectures — they learn it through play! Cooperative play develops several important skills, such as sharing, taking turns and following instructions, all of which help them get along with others in social situations.

According to Dr. Abby Loebenberg, an anthropologist specializing in play-based learning, children start to learn cooperation early, as babies, and develop the skills to take turns and share around 5 to 6 years old.

Here are some tips and tricks for encouraging your child to play cooperatively:

  1. Take Turns
    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, Dr. Loebenberg suggests. 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,” says Dr. Loebenberg. 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.
  2. Do Chores Together
    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,” says Dr. Susan Smith Kuczmarski, author of “Becoming a Happy Family.” 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.
  3. Model Empathy and Cooperation
    Empathy involves compassion and understanding the feelings of others. However, according to Dr. Kuczmarski, 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 behavior for them. “Modeling appropriate behavior to your child gets them 90 percent there,” Dr. Loebenberg says.
  4. Encourage Free Play
    According to Dr. Loebenberg, the best 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,” Dr. Loebenberg says. Children learn the value of cooperation by playing freely — without restrictions and strict rules — with others in their age group.
  5. Play Cooperative Activities
    You can help encourage your child to play cooperatively with fun activities. “Our family has an annual frog race,” Dr. Kuczmarski says. “We’ve discovered that when you blow gently on the frog’s back end, it will leap.” No child is allowed to touch the frog, and all players receive a prize. You can also try Dr. Kuczmarski’s “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,” Dr. Loebenberg says. The more opportunities your child has to interact with others, the more she’ll learn to cooperate.

Rebecca Desfosse is a freelance writer specializing in parenting and family topics.