Will Acker
The importance of cooperative play
Insight, toys
10 mins

Within in an atmosphere of on-going distrust of Silicon Valley tech giants, scandalous stories surfaced of the industry leaders all raising their children in tech-free environments. If the people who own, design and test these digital tools are shielding their children from them, perhaps we should be doing this also? Then again, a number of high profile silicon valley CEOs have been stocking guns, ammo, fuel and tinned food in preparation for a collapse of government and the Rule of Law… so let’s not get ahead of ourselves and throw away our iPads just yet. I find it hard to imagine a child who was raised in a tech-free environment having a healthy relationship with their computer or phone as an adult!

Educational policy in the UK and the US has reached a consensus that digital technologies have great potential to enhance teaching in Primary and Early Learning settings. A tablet, for example, is intuitively easy for young children to use and its range of functions can make the learning experience much more interactive and engaging. Let’s say some primary school children are learning about sunflowers: a tablet can allow them to access a wide range of learning resources with interesting images and facts, take a virtual tour of Van Gogh’s paintings, and e-book animations add playful actions that support the story-line and inspire additional discussion. Activities offered on the tablet provide new ways for the children to represent and share what they learned: they can sing and record a song, create a drawing, upload all the drawings on the class whiteboard, and the class can coordinate to present all their work to other children or adults as a group. The learning process can engage a wide range of learning styles, not to mention the unique support it can provide to children with learning difficulties and language barriers.

The key to the encouraging example given above is the collaborative and interactive nature of the use of the tablet and the fact that the use is being overseen by someone who is qualified to work with children. The issue actually becomes more problematic at home. The concerns around the use of digital technology with younger children have all centred around passive, non-interactive usage. Most parents are aware of the ‘digital babysitter’. They know that a tablet with the right games or videos loaded up will buy them a vital moment of peace when they need to work in the evening and are essential for any longer car journey, but could this be doing their children harm? Changes in content viewing habits brought on by developments like Video On Demand and YouTube’s ‘what’s next’ feature make it far easier for children (and adults) to enter a wormhole of their favourite content and remain there for hours.

With the unique makeup of different families, child behavioural patterns and the variety of digital forms of entertainment out there, there are no hard and fast rules for parents to follow and it is difficult to strike the right balance. For years, children have enjoyed sitting spell-bound in front of their favourite film or TV show and it's hard to believe that this is objectively bad for them. The critical issue is making sure that time spent in this way doesn't replace or reduce the amount active play with children or other adults, and most importantly, cooperative play.

Through play, children develop the skills they need to expand their physical, emotional, social, and cognitive abilities and it is essential that they spend enough time at play. In 1929 Mildred Parten defined 6 stages of childhood play. While alternate classifications and nuances on this theory have been developed, Parten’s 6 stages are still widely used by early learning institutions, globally.

The stages of play are:

Unoccupied: performing random movements for their own amusement.

Solitary: a more complex or structured activity compared to unoccupied play, this is done alone, maintaining focus on the activity without interest or awareness in what others are doing.

Onlooker: watching or talking about others at play without joining the activity.

Parallel: playing separately from but close to others, mimicking their actions.

Associative: interaction between the different people playing is central but activities are not in sync and child is not interested in coordinating their play with the others

Cooperative: this involves a division of efforts among a group of children to reach a common goal, there is interest both in the people playing and the activity that they are engaged in together. The play is organised with defined roles. Group identities and self-identification with the group plays a big part.

According to Parten’s theory children begin with unoccupied play and develop the ability to engage in each stage of play sequentially, culminating in cooperative play. The age at which a child reaches a stage varies and a child that has achieved multiple stages of play may switch between them, but the order in which they develop them is fixed. Each stage of play fits a different moment and serves a different purpose, cooperative play develops the finer skills for social and group interactions, such as feeling empathy for others and learning to read a full range of facial expressions. These skills are absolutely essential for a child to engage with the world around them in a harmonious way and their absence is characteristic of learning disabilities like Autism.

(The children's tea party is a classic example of cooperative play)

It is clear that parenting in the digital age requires a balanced approach that ensures children can develop the right fundamental life skills but also keep pace with the large part that digital technologies are sure to play in their adult lives. When overwhelmed with recommendations about screen-time limitation, use as a reward, usage routines, etc., mums and dads should consider thinking more about the quality of their children’s screen-time. There are screen based activities out there that provide children with rich and engaging opportunities to develop all the right social and cognitive skills.

In my opinion, Toca Boca is a family of apps that nails cooperative play digitally and introducing their games (they actually call them digital toys, not games) into a child’s screen time will beneficial for their development. The games encourage collaborative multiplayer and help the children gain an understanding of real-world situations, there are multiple tools that enable the development of different creative skills without clearing space for drawing or getting out instruments and the games allow children to express themselves by creating their own unique final products that they can share with the parents and friends. And most importantly, they are fun! Have a look at this clip from the Toca Boca hair salon game in the link below.


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