The term Cooperative Play refers to social play where the players work together to organize, plan, assign roles, and define rules for their play. This play, “is goal-oriented and children play in an organized manner toward a common end.”1 Children generally start engaging in cooperative play around 36 to 48 months of age. It continues throughout childhood and into adult hood.
Examples of cooperative play include things like playing ‘house’, playing a board game, collaborating on building a block structure, or taking part in a game of tunnel tag.
While competitive play focuses on winners and losers, cooperative play, “is concerned with solving a problem by working together to achieve a common goal.”2
Cooperative play requires players to exercise a great deal of self control. Players not only have to work together to negotiate rules for their play, they have to consent to follow those rules. For example, if you’re play Ninjas and Dragons and the agreed to rule is “to come back to life you must be tagged by a teammate” then you have to stay dead until a teammate reanimates you. If you don’t, you could break the play.
Cooperative play also requires a fair amount of sharing, turn taking, and empathy. For example, Emmie may want to horde all her favorite blocks and add them to the structure as she pleases, but to keep the play going she realizes she has to fight those desires. All this self regulation can be physically and emotionally draining.
It should be noted that children are often expected to engage in cooperative play long be for they are cognitively able. As noted above, real cooperative play is something that children grow into in the 36-48 month old range. Too often, children half those ages are expected to engage in cooperative play. Many ‘behavior problems’ that arise in child care toddler rooms are due to unrealistic adult expectations around that age group’s inability to share, take turns, or empathize with their peers. The truth is, they are simply not ready for cooperative play.