Is it ever too early to start teaching kids to work together?
Not in my opinion. Based on my 43+ years as a professional in early education and 28 years as a parent, it's important to know that we need to be intentional about the way we expose young children to teamwork from day one.
Young children are natural collaborators because humans are born with the need to survive. Working together increases our chances.
Experiencing communication that works and experiencing it early on, is one of the most effective ways to go. Here's why:
In the first few years of life, more than 1 million new neural connections form every second.* After this period of rapid proliferation, connections are reduced through a process called pruning, which allows brain circuits to become more efficient. In light of these findings, focussing on early childhood only makes sense. -Center for the Developing Child, Harvard University-
Circles of Communication (Greenspan, Stanley 2000)
Children learn collaboration through communication with a loving and responsive adult. Through cries, gestures, sounds, and eventually words, they form a learning partnership. The child makes a gesture or sound, the adult responds, and then the child. When this continues it's called a circle of communication.
Picture a 10 mo. old on the lap of a caregiver who's eating a sweet, juicy peach. The child reaches up for the fruit, smiling and making a sound of excitement.
“Oh, you want to try the peach? Well, let me get the skin off a little piece for you to taste. There!
The child’s eyes widen and he coos with delight.
The caregiver wipes the juice from the child's chin saying, “Oohh, yeah! Isn't that tasty! I’ll give you another bite in a minute.”
In another scenario, the caregiver sees the child reaching up for the peach and yanks it away quickly standing up and moving the child to the floor. That’s my peach. I just gave you your lunch. You’ll just make a mess anyway. Don’t be so greedy!”
Which child is getting an experience that teaches communication and collaboration?
Which is getting one that teaches competition and lack of cooperation?
What about a third scenario where the caregiver never notices or acknowledges the child reaching for the peach?
What are they learning through this experience? To ignore others when you really don’t want to hear about it?
My point is that communication is at the heart of collaboration and communication is learned very early on. Here’s a youtube clip from the Greenspan Institute explaining the importance of the circle of communication to a group of therapists.
So improving positive and fun communication between young children, parents and caregivers really can make a difference in developing skills they need as adults because of the importance of social and emotional learning. Cool.
Technique # 2
Equitable Division of Responsibility
If you think very young children need a lot of help learning to divide responsibility, you probably haven’t spent as much time watching groups of mixed-age toddlers and preschoolers work together on an outdoor project of their own choosing and design.
Giving enough time to play and work freely, with just enough but not too much adult involvement, they take on roles, they communicate, they delegate and they get the job done to their own satisfaction.
In my backyard, we have a dwarf crabapple tree the produces small inedible berries. These berries attract some really nice cedar waxwings.
The children in my care love to collect and play with those berries. That is, once they’ve established the fact that I’m probably watching and I won’t let them eat them or put them in their mouths. Nature helps me in the fact that they really do taste terrible to kids.
Forbidding them from touching or playing with the berries altogether might backfire. We can’t rid the yard of them because they fall from the tree by the minute. If I focus on making them leave the berries on the ground, it only increases their desirability and the chances that they play with them secretly.
One group of children ages 1-4 developed their own way to play with the berries. They collected them in a small plastic wheelbarrow. They had one child move the wheelbarrow around and one decide what could be included.
Some older children felt that only berries should be allowed in the wheel barrel but the toddlers felt differently. Most of the toddlers happily complied with the rules of their elders. Over time one toddler that had some pretty strong sensory needs couldn’t resist adding everything he found to the barrel.
Over time he was allowed to add a certain kind of ivy, also. The ‘berries only” policy had to be adjusted because this child was unable to comply, and an alternative that worked for everyone was decided on.
Once the decider pronounced that they had enough berries, the search for water commenced. If they could find a little water in a toy that we had forgotten to dump, it was like gold. All the children were included in the search and sometimes it was a younger child with a sharp eye that found a source.
Then they worked together to find a way to transfer the water into the wheelbarrel.
At this point they started adding even more plant matter to their “stew”. Mud or dirt was a great thickening agent. Anyone with a stick helped stir.
The adults had to add a stipulation that all “stews” had to be dumped before we went inside after finding a couple of stinky mixtures hidden in strange places!
My goal as their teacher was always to observe what they were doing and give them the least amount of help they needed in order to succeed. This story illustrates what they can and will do given the right opportunity, “loose parts” and emotional support.
One reason the children were able to successfully collaborate to make “stinky stew” was that the adults did not decide on the game or assign any roles. The children used problem-solving skills they acquired from other situations. Only this time, they were far enough from adult ears for us to make suggestions.
This group of children had heard the phrase, “You have to find some way to include them.” so many times and had actually done it with support that when it came time to do it on their own, they didn’t fight or act like little dictators.
One last point, it’s always been important to be able to collaborate with all people, not just ones like yourself. These days it seems even more important to do what’s right and not just talk about it.
When people let their bias get in the way of their successful collaboration it’s sometimes because they themselves have been exposed to lumping or blaming behavior. Both of these concepts are explained more thoroughly if you care to follow the links provided.
Have a wonderful day!
Greenspan, Stanley I., and Nancy Breslau Lewis. Building Healthy Minds: The Six Experiences That Create Intelligence and Emotional Growth in Babies and Young Children. Perseus Pub., 2000.
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The hand that rocks the cradle rocks the world! -nanci j bradley
Nanci J Bradley is an early childhood and family educator, author, teacher, family aerobics instructor, and an all-around fun-loving person. She believes in the power of sleep, healthy eating, lifelong learning, and most of all, PLAY! She studied early childhood ed at Triton College and received her BS in education in 1986 from NIU. She received her MA in human dev from Pacific Oaks College in 2011. She lives and teaches in Madison WI and is the founder of early childhood rocks, a non-profit org dedicated to creating change through early childhood education.