If you want to be incrementally better: Be competitive. If you want to be exponentially better: Be cooperative. - Author Unknown
I asked my family at our Friday pizza night dinner, “Which do you prefer? Games in which there’s a winner or loser? Or games in which there is just working together and having fun - no winner, no loser?” My seven-year-old son, E, quickly responded, “Working together is much more fun.” Dad, in contrast, asserted, “It’s more fun to me when there’s a winner and a loser.” And in general, in society, we tend to lean toward the highly competitive. Whether it's sporting events, college admissions or political campaigns, we relish the thrill of a race. And certainly competitive games can provide important life lessons about working as a team and how to win or lose graciously. But increasingly, in schools, in our workplaces and in our family lives, we can benefit from practicing and developing the skills of collaboration. These skills include self-awareness, effective listening, nonverbal and verbal communication, trust building, turn taking, impulse control, problem solving and empathy to name a few.
For my son and many young children, competition can take away the focus on enjoyment of the activity and shift to a performance and achievement orientation. The desired outcome of winning can override the experience of the game itself. Children are in the process of understanding who they are, what interests them, and which areas they will choose to develop competence. There will be numerous chances for children to participate in competitions from a young age, whether its sports teams, musical tryouts or spelling bees. However, there will be less of a chance to play non-competitive, collaborative games, which develop skills critical for success.
Collaborative games not only develop these skills but also build trust and deepen connections among participants. Consider including non-competitive, collaborative games on your list of “things you do for fun.” They can infuse joy into school and family gatherings. A few rules to establish from the start might be a) Each child participates and has a role and b) Players should keep themselves and others safe at all times. The following are some ideas for engaging your family and are organized by a variety of settings and circumstances.
Snowy and rainy days provide plenty of opportunities for indoor games. Try out the following the next time you are at home with your family.
- Charades (non-competitive): Expand categories and think of animals, insects or vacation destinations to act out for one another with no teams and the simple enjoyment of nonverbal acting and guessing.
- Dinner Games: Trade places, roles and personalities with all family members at dinnertime. For example, daughter plays mom. Play out your typical conversations acting as one another. Or play “If a new person came to dinner, what would he or she say?” You can use anyone, real or imagined. “If Darth Vader came to dinner, he would say ‘Join me on the dark side.’” said my son when we played.
- Jam Band: Haul out the musical instruments or better yet, invent a few with pots, pans, rubber bands and wooden spoons. See if you can produce music together. Record and play back to listen to your creations.
- Balloon Bop: Blow up a balloon and try and keep it up in the air. Practice taking turns with each family member. Add to the challenge and use only elbows.
In the Backyard or Park
Our local park is a gathering place for children. We know we will always see friends there. Our backyard becomes a playground too as children find places to play hide and seek and baseball. Teach a few collaborative games and watch your child take off with them.
- Our Town: Cooperatively create a town in the park in which kids can play and bike. Use sidewalk chalk, cardboard, or place traffic cones, sticks or other natural materials to outline your area.
- Litter Pick-Up: Participate in kindness together by taking care of your local park. Provide gloves for each child to make sure it’s safe. Then see how much litter can be picked up.
- Creature Sightings: See how many creatures your child can spot outside, including birds, rodents and insects and keep a running list with photos or drawings.
- Parachute Play: This one requires a play parachute or a flat bed sheet and it offers a wide range of collaborative games with children holding each side of the material. You can make a tent or bounce balls on the top of parachute and see how long you can keep them up there. You can also add stuffed animals to volley back and forth. This is a particularly special treat at birthday parties.
- Lemonade Stand: If you are lucky enough to live on a street where there are lots of children who like to play together, you can turn collaboration into a lesson in entrepreneurship. Setting up a business is certainly a collaborative endeavor if there’s a team putting it together. Children can work together to build a stand, decorate it, create signs to advertise it around the neighborhood, and sell the product to people in your neighborhood.
As a “room parent,” or school volunteer, I have the chance to contribute ideas to the games and activities that will occur at school holiday parties and events. Perhaps you volunteer at your child’s school? Here are some ideas.
- “Cell-aphone”: Remember the old game “Telephone”? It’s as effective at teaching listening and communication skills as it always has been. Place the kids in a circle. The first child whispers a short sentence in the next child’s ear. Each child passes on what he heard. The last child reveals the message. Giggles ensue when the message invariably changes from start to finish.
- Pass the Face: This is another game that will produce laughter. Circle up and the starting child makes a goofy face at her neighbor. The neighbor replicates that face and must create a new one to pass.
- Hide the Treasure: Pick anything to be the treasure---a stuffed friend? Someone’s shoe? Have one child leave the room. The other children hide the treasure. When the child returns, the other children must guide her to the treasure without speaking.
- Celebrity Teacher: Circle up again. Create a story about their classroom teacher becoming a famous celebrity. Go around and have each child add one sentence to the story.
If you want to enjoy the full benefit of these collaborative games, be certain to take a moment afterward to reflect on your experience by asking a few simple, open-ended questions. After all, learning occurs through reflection. You might ask, “How did you feel when it was your turn?” or “What was challenging to you?” or “What might you do differently the next time?” It’s worth making a priority out of enjoyable cooperative experiences for all family members. We need to work together to get many of the mundane life chores accomplished. Practice can only enhance our abilities to act as a team. Playing collaboratively may just lead to living life collaboratively. And that’s a win for everyone.
Jennifer Miller is author and illustrator of the blog, Confident Parents, Confident Kids and writes for numerous publications.
Kriedler, W.J., & Furlong, L. (1995). Adventures in peacemaking; A conflict resolution activity guide for school-age programs. Cambridge, MA: Educators for Social Responsibility.
Learning for Life Games. http://www.learningforlife.org/exploring-resources/99-720/x08.pdf
Luvmour, J., & Luvmour, S. (2007). Everyone Wins! Cooperative Games and Activities. Gabriela Island, BC: New Society Publishers.
Miller, J. (2013).Let the Games Begin! Confident Parents, Confident Kids blog.
NAEYC. Cooperative Games for Preschoolers. National Association of Educators for Young Children; Teaching Young Children, Vol. 4, No. 2.