Cooperative Play Rules! (Not That I’m At All Biased)

In the work that we do at Academy MetroWest, we run gym-based groups that center on  cooperative, non-competitive physical activity, aimed at helping kids feel better about themselves and improve the way they interact with others. Groups of up to 6 kids participate in weekly 75 minute groups. In basing our groups around cooperative activities, we create a low stress environment in which kids can relax, have fun and success, and be themselves. In this setting, they tend to be less defensive and, in turn, more receptive to social feedback they hear from their counselors and their peers.

Cooperative games come in lots of different shapes and sizes but they share some important characteristics. The most important idea is that one child’s success is rarely, if ever, dependent on another child’s failure. If there is competition, it tends to be with kids pitted against adults. While victory for the kids’ team is not guaranteed, adults are able to control the action so that if kids are showing an inclination towards teamwork, they’re going to meet with success.

Another common thread in cooperative games is the elimination of elimination. In cooperative activities, kids can be frozen or made temporarily out but there is always a way for their teammates to save them and return them to action. To give an illustration of just why this is important, let’s take a look at a traditional game of dodge ball – played the old fashioned way – and what a quirky kid’s experience might be in such a game. In traditional dodge ball, once you get hit (usually by a big, heavy, stinging playground ball), you’re out. Many neurotypical kids quickly and intuitively grasp the strategy needed to survive for any length of time (i.e. don’t stand right at the middle for any length of time, have a ball with you to deflect incoming shots, etc…) but for quirky kids, this understanding can come more slowly. What this means is that they’re often the first ones to get eliminated. So, right off the bat, they’ve experienced failure and frustration. Then, they need to stand on the side, doing nothing but staying focused, managing their behavior, and looking on as other kids have fun and success. It’s a boring, unstructured slog until the next round starts. Anyone who works with impulsive, distractible kids knows what happens when things stay boring and unstructured for too long. Bad things. Very bad things.

In a cooperative version of dodge ball, there is always a way for a person’s teammates to get that person back into the game. Even if a participant has been temporarily eliminated from the game, there’s an incentive for him or her to stay focused and root teammates on so that s/he can be quickly brought back to the action.

In many of the cooperative games we create, we add a strong fantasy component to go along with the game. For kids who are not that into sports and are interested in more creative or expressive pursuits, these stories are often just the thing needed to help them engage with an activity or with a group of kids. It’s much more compelling for some kids to imagine themselves as, say, an archaeologist battling an Egyptian mummy as they try to overcome an ancient curse, than it is to tell them we’re going to be playing a tag game in which they have to collect a bunch of stuff while the adults chase them around. Not surprisingly, I’ve found that adding a Star Wars theme to any game still works just about every time. I’ve teased some of the adolescents I work with and predicted that they’d be totally willing to play Darth Vader Hopscotch if we offered it. Usually, they respond “What’s Darth Vader hopscotch?” When I tell them “It’s regular hopscotch but you pretend you’re Darth Vader while you’re playing,” they nod and say “Yeah, we’d play that.”

Despite our non-competitive approach, our staff is almost always made up of big team sports fans. I enjoy watching sports and playing them and for many kids, sports can be an excellent outlet for their energy and talents. For many other kids though, that’s just not the case. Some of the difficulties that quirky kids have with competitive sports come down to predictable factors. Take soccer as an example. I like to pick on soccer because it’s become THE sport for young kids to play and because certain aspects of the game make it particularly challenging for kids with learning issues. The obvious difficulty with soccer is that there is one ball to be battled over by two competing hordes of 11 kids each. Like all competitive sports, it is structured so that one team will win and one team will lose, which builds confrontation into the fabric of the game. In addition, soccer, like hockey or basketball, is a largely unscripted game, which can cause added problems for kids who, in general, do not process information quickly or efficiently. In soccer, hockey, and basketball, there are set, scripted plays but they often break down, forcing teams to improvise in order to succeed.

Let’s revisit that same sweet, quirky and slightly spacey kid from our dodge ball game -this time playing defenseman in a game of soccer. For much of the game, the action has been down at the other end of the field and our pal has struggled valiantly to maintain a decent level of concentration on the proceedings, even though the temptation to stare at the clouds, or pick the clover on the fields has been very strong. All of a sudden, the ball comes racing towards him. As it does, his teammates start yelling at him to pass them the ball. He kicks the ball and, alas, it goes to someone on the opposing team. In that next split second, our boy has a lot of calculations to make. For one thing, he has to recognize that the ball has, in fact, gone to someone on the other team. Then he has to figure out where he needs to go. Where is the guy he’s supposed to be guarding? Where on the field is the action now? Should he follow the ball or his guy? What’s the score in the game and does that influence his response? That’s a lot of quick thinking that needs to be done almost instantaneously and it probably has to be done with his teammates getting on his case about making a bad pass.

I don’t know if there have been a lot of studies done about processing speed and working memory and what affect they have on someone’s ability to play team sports but I have to imagine that the relationship is significant. Working memory and processing speed pertain to assimilating information and adjusting to changes in the environment, and they are going to be taxed to their limits in games like soccer.

While there are many different types of cooperative games, the format we employ most  avoids some of those issues around processing speed and working memory. In cooperative, tag-oriented games, we start by constructing a base or a safe area for kids. All around the safe area, we scatter lots of stuff – usually small objects like plastic cones or foam balls. When the game starts, the kids have to leave their safe area, collect one object at a time, and bring it back to the base. While they do so, a counselor tries to stop them by tagging them or throwing a foam ball at them. If they’re tagged or hit, rather than being eliminated from the game or becoming “it,” they’re frozen where they got tagged until another teammate saves them by tagging them back into the game. Again, the adult can control the action so that the group can feel challenged but not overwhelmed. And, the problem I described with soccer is not there at all. The options in these games are limited. Kids can either collect cones, stay in the safe area, or save teammates and as the games progress, the appropriate options become more and more obvious.

While some cooperative games have therapeutic value woven into their structure, their ultimate importance as part of a social skills group lies in the fact that conflicts among participants is reduced and kids can attain plenty of concrete success playing them. This enables counselors to do the real work of providing social feedback and direction with some hope that kids will hear that feedback in its proper context, rather than just as more nagging from another adult bugging them about their behavior. Cooperative games can also be used in purely recreational settings and some schools have begun to run cooperative games programs during recess periods. For more information about cooperative play or the programs we run at Academy MetroWest, please contact us at

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