Two children co-operating and playing together

Cooperative play

As children approach school age they begin to participate in cooperative play. This is the final stage of the six stages of play and the most sophisticated.

It’s the kind of play you get when children play together, assigning roles and agreeing the rules of the game, however arbitrary they may be.

You will find cooperative play in the home corner, where all kinds of sociodramatic play takes place, but it’s also a feature of playground games such as stuck in the mud.

cooperative play is the highest form of play

The six stages of play

Mildred Parten identified six stages of social play, from unoccupied to co-operative. They chart children’s progression from playing alone to playing together. Read the rest of the series here:

Cooperative play is what many of us might call ‘playing nicely.’ It’s a phase of play that sees children begin to share and take turns with each other. But it’s about so much more than good manners. Cooperative play develops negotiating skills and encourages children to think strategically about how to achieve an outcome that pleases everyone. It requires teamwork to succeed. Collaborative play asks a lot of your young toddler, who is naturally impulsive and often wants things immediately.

How to encourage collaborative play

  • Sharing. lead by example and share with your child, split a biscuit in half or a share out the segments of an orange. Praise them when they do the same.
  • Taking turns. Play games that help them understand turn-taking. Start with rolling ball, or singing a song or saying a rhyme, and leave a space for them to fill in the gaps.This way they know things don’t stop or disappear when they aren’t doing them.
  • Teamwork. promote co-operative behaviour by picking up toys together or washing up together.
  • Negotiating. Model negotiation by asking your child for something of theirs in exchange for something you have. This can be as simple as swapping one toy for another, or a piece of fruit for a lump of cheese.

The difference between parallel, associative, and cooperative play

Children playing with the same toys, at the same time, in the same way. Parallel, associative and cooperative play can look very similar.

So how to tell the difference? Let’s imagine some children playing with blocks.

In parallel play, each is engrossed in building their individual block towers. They sit in close proximity, deeply immersed in their creations, barely acknowledging each other’s presence. There are no set rules on who can use which blocks, leading to an ever-changing group as children join and leave at their own whim.

Shifting to associative play, the dynamics change subtly. Children might exchange blocks, compliment each other’s structures, or even discuss the colours and sizes they’re using. They interact, converse, and sometimes invite others to sit and build alongside them. Yet, there’s no collective blueprint they’re following – each child constructs her block masterpiece in her unique way.

In contrast, cooperative play brings a more structured interaction. One child might suggest, “Let’s build a huge castle with a moat!” Roles get distributed – one gathers all the blue blocks for water, another starts building the tall towers. They discuss, negotiate roles, and sometimes even critique each other’s contributions. Participants have clear roles and shared objectives.

Final word

Our children have come a long way from the unoccupied play characteristic of the first few months of their lives. They now play cooperatively, enjoying each others’ company, negotiating and finding a way through disagreements.

It’s the perfect preparation for life.