When Kids Cooperate

By Rae Pica

Given a choice, preschoolers prefer cooperative activities to competitive ones. Indeed, Scott Scheer, an associate professor at Ohio State University, contends humans actually have a “cooperative imperative” – a desire to work with others toward mutual goals that can run the spectrum from conceiving a child to sending a rocket to the moon.

In fact, using MRI technology to determine the effects of both competition and cooperation, scientists at Emory University recently found that when people collaborate, the brain sends out pleasure responses. Alfie Kohn, in No Contest: The Case Against Competition, identifies a great deal of research demonstrating cooperation’s positive effects on both social and emotional development.

He says cooperation:

  • is more conducive to psychological health.
  • leads to friendlier feelings among participants.
  • promotes a feeling of being in control of one’s life.
  • increases self-esteem.
  • results in greater sensitivity and trust toward others.
  • increases motivation.

When children are given the chance to work together toward a solution or common goal – whether creating a game or building a human pyramid – they know they each contribute to the success of the venture. Each child realizes he or she plays a vital role in the outcome, and each accepts the responsibility of fulfilling that role. They also learn to become tolerant of others’ ideas and to accept the similarities and differences of other children.

Furthermore, cooperative activities seldom cause the feelings of inferiority that can result from the comparisons made during competition. On the contrary, because cooperative and noncompetitive activities lead to a greater chance for success, they generate greater confidence in children.

Unlike competition, which research shows can foster antisocial behavior, cooperation has been determined to promote prosocial behaviors. Steve Grineski, author of Cooperative Learning in Physical Education, says the social skills needed for cooperative learning include:

  • listening to others
  • resolving conflict
  • supporting and encouraging others
  • taking turns
  • expressing enjoyment in the success of others
  • demonstrating the ability to criticize ideas, not individuals.

Nature or Nurture?

Is the drive to compete human nature, as is commonly believed; or is it learned?

One study indicates gender identify, which is typically established by the age of 3, plays a role in whether children are naturally cooperative or competitive. Preschool girls, according to the study, are cooperative, caring, and supportive of one another when learning new movement skills. They aren’t interested in competing or succeeding at someone else’s expense and actually seem to learn less efficiently when competition is introduced.

Preschool boys, on the other hand, are interested in how well they perform and in how their abilities compare to those of their classmates. However, the study further indicates the differences in the boys’ and girls’ behavior may indeed be dictated by society and culture, as Asian preschoolers of both genders tended to be cooperative and supportive.

An essay by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times supports this latter contention. Kristof tells a hilarious story about trying to teach the game of musical chairs to a group of five-year-old Japanese children, who kept politely stepping out of the way so others could sit in their chairs. This would certainly seem to indicate that “dog-eat-dog” is taught in some societies — and not taught in others.

About Cooperative Games

Terry Orlick, author of The Second Cooperative Sports and Games Book, has long been a proponent of cooperative games. He writes that games can be “a beautiful way to bring people together. However, if you distort children’s play by rewarding excessive competition, physical aggression against others, cheating, and unfair play, you distort children’s lives.” On the other hand, about cooperative games, he says the concept is simple: “People play with one another rather than against one another; they play to overcome challenges, not to overcome other people; and they are freed by the very structure of the games to enjoy the play experience itself. No player need find himself or herself a bench warmer nursing a bruised self-image. Since the games are designed so that cooperation among payers is necessary to achieve the objective(s) of the game, children play together for common ends rather than against one another for mutually exclusive ends. In the process, they learn in a fun way how to become more considerate of one another, more aware of how other people are feeling, and more willing to operate in one another’s best interests.”

Rae Pica is a children’s movement specialist and the author of Your Active Child: How to Boost Physical, Emotional, and Cognitive Development through Age-Appropriate Activity (McGraw-Hill, 2003). You can visit Rae at www.movingandlearning.com.

What do you think?

comments