What Is Cooperative Play? Learn How To Encourage Your Kid To Work (Well) With Others

by Team Scary Mommy
Originally Published: 
cooperative play, Two young girls walking hand-in-hand

Looking for more examples of play in babies, toddlers, and preschoolers? Check out our package with more information on solitary play, onlooker play, parallel play, and associative play.

If you watched Sesame Street when you were a kid, you may recall at least one catchy song about cooperation — specifically that it “makes it happen” and means “working together.” But as adults, we know that some (well, a lot) of the time, cooperation kind of sucks. This feels especially true when the people you’re supposed to cooperate with aren’t doing their fair share. Actually, people like that are exactly the reason why learning about cooperation at an early age is so important. And this starts through cooperative play.

RELATED: What To Know About Sharing For Kids — And Encouraging It

Believe it or not, there are actually six different stages of play, which were developed by American sociologist Dr. Mildred Parten Newhall in 1929. One of these stages is cooperative play. Here’s what it involves, along with some benefits and examples of it.

The six stages of play

If you take a look at kids interacting on a playground or in daycare and lump everything they’re doing together as “play,” you may be interested to learn that there are actually six distinct stages of play. These were developed by Parten Newhall for her doctoral dissertation, which she finished in 1929 and went on to publish in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology in 1932. Not only was Parten Newhall one of the first researchers to seriously study play, but her stages are also still regularly referenced today, more than 70 years later.

Parten Newhall’s six stages of play include:

  • Unoccupied play
  • Solitary (or independent) play
  • Onlooker play
  • Parallel play
  • Associative play
  • Cooperative play

These stages take various factors into consideration, including a child’s age, mood, and social setting. And while her research focused on children between the ages of two and five, it’s important to keep in mind that every child develops at their own pace — there’s no “normal” play behavior for all three-year-olds, for example. Here, we’re going to focus on cooperative play for toddlers and preschoolers.

What is cooperative play?

Cooperative play is the final of Parten Newhall’s stages. It happens when children are playing together and, in doing so, working towards a common goal or purpose. When children engage in cooperative play, they aren’t just learning how to work together to accomplish something. In the process, they’re establishing their own rules. If you have an older or more advanced young child who participates in cooperative play, it’s a good idea to remind them that the little kids may not understand what they’re trying to do or know how to play in this way just yet (but will eventually, so it’s also a lesson in patience).

It seems counterintuitive, but conflict frequently arises in cooperative play. Don’t worry; this is normal! When kids first start getting used to playing together, it may take a little while for them to adjust to the idea that it’s no longer all about them. They’ll soon learn that, when playing with other children, you have to do things like sharing and taking turns.

What is associative play?

Associate play is sometimes mixed up with cooperative play only because the two share similar actions. During associate play, kids are still engaging in a level of parallel play but there is much more interaction and direct communication. Although the children may still be playing separately, they are more engaged with one another and what the other child is doing. This form of play is much more direct than parallel play but does not have full-blown engagement like cooperative play. During associative play, kids may socialize more, show cooperation, and speak more to one another.

What are the benefits of cooperative play?

Not surprisingly, cooperative play is a major part of a child’s social development. Among its many benefits, it:

  • Fosters cooperation as a skill
  • Requires (and therefore develops) communication skills
  • Encourages empathy (because when kids are making the rules for their play session, they have to think about what is fair for everyone and how their actions can impact others)
  • Helps children build and understand the concept of trust (if they set rules, they must learn to trust their playmates in order for it to work)
  • Teaches them about conflict resolution (as they deal with disagreements while they play, they’ll figure out how to compromise and come up with a solution that works for everyone)
  • Builds vocabulary by encouraging communication
  • Instills listening skills
  • Boosts self-esteem and confidence
  • Builds negotiation language and skills
  • Teaches kids how to follow instructions

What are some examples of cooperative play?

The key to cooperative play isn’t just that kids interact while they’re playing with each other; it’s also the fact that it’s done in a non-competitive scenario. In other words, the children aren’t playing together to find out which one “wins” by being the fastest or best at something. Rather, they’re working towards a shared goal.

A few examples of outdoor cooperative play include:

  • Taking turns using playground equipment
  • Raking leaves
  • Making a snowperson or fort
  • Working together on a garden

A few examples of indoor cooperative play include:

  • Working on an art project together (like painting a mural)
  • Putting a puzzle together
  • Making forts out of cardboard boxes and/or couch cushions
  • Playing pretend, including scenarios like being in school, working in an office, or going to visit the doctor
  • Blowing bubbles
  • Make a human train by having the kids create a conga line and say, “choo choo.”

How can you (cooperative) play along?

In addition to encouraging cooperative play with your child and their friends, you probably want to join in on the fun sometimes, too. Here are a few fun ways you can engage your child in this type of play.

  • Have a treasure hunt. Hide something special in the house, creating clues or a map to find it. Then walk with your child as they search for the bounty!
  • Make up a dance. Kids love dancing, right? Encourage your little one to help you come up with unique choreography to their favorite song.
  • Play a board game. Try to rope a few other family members into playing so you can play on teams.
  • Create a pillow fort. Is there anything more fun than a pillow fort?
  • Relay race. This game depends completely on each child’s awareness and willingness to support the other. Stagger your kids in the backyard with a considerable distance between each of them. Break the kids up into two teams and give them a ball or a candy bar to pass to one another throughout the race. The first team to finish wins.
  • Follow the leader. And by leader, we mean you. Make it silly. Make it fun! For “follow the leader” to work, each child must engage with the leading person. They must follow your movements and as the children go through each round, they will also have the opportunity to be the leader. This game shows them how their actions affect the other children.
  • Marco Polo. The kids don’t have to be in a pool to play Marco Polo. Call and response games are practically the definition of collaborative play. As you call out “Marco” the children must listen to your voice to find you.

Basically, cooperative play is a great way for kids to get to know each other and have fun while developing some important skills along the way.

This article was originally published on