Do you ever feel like life itself has turned into one big competition for our kids? 

As a parent, I find myself constantly pulling my kids’ focus away from “who’s better at XYZ.” I work to turn their attention to others and fight off the Me! Me! Me! attitude that can creep in on occasion. I try to remind them that they matter beyond their academic, athletic, or social achievements. 

Sometimes, I find it exhausting and I wonder where the mere fact of our existence stopped being enough!

The Good News: Kids Love to Cooperate AND Compete

The antidote to all this competition is to encourage cooperation in equal measure. And there’s great news – our kids naturally love to cooperate just as much as they love to compete. There are simple ways we can gently turn competitive moments into opportunities to seek out and learn cooperation. 

I reached out to Dr. Ted Wohlfarth, founder and executive director of our partner organization, EnTeam, to talk about the power of building cooperation in our children’s playtime. Turns out there is a simple distinction we as parents can be making for our children, and ways you can start building cooperation into your daily routines.

When it comes to competition vs. cooperation, Ted assured me: 

“Humans like both. 

I like to get the blue ribbon. We all want to stand out. And, we all want to fit in. We all want to be part of a group – accepted, loved, have a place, and also to be stars. We all want to count, want our individual talents to contribute. We want to know that we stand out. We want to be held up and esteemed. 

There is nobody in the world who doesn’t want both of those things.

This might seem like a contradiction, but I don’t think it is because it’s inherent in all of us, and it is possible, practical. It’s available to us. We can all contribute. We can all be stars in our own way. We can all be accepted and appreciated and loved. It feels so good when that happens. It makes life very much more enjoyable.”

What is Cooperative Play?

Ted and the team at EnTeam make a simple distinction that defines cooperative play: 

“Traditional games teach players that one side can win only if the other side loses. EnTeam Games provide a mental shift: everybody wins together, or everybody loses together.”

EnTeam facilitators work with a wide range of community groups and schools to teach the power of cooperative games. They have successfully built bridges between diverse religious, racial, and socioeconomic groups. Over the years, Family Leadership Center has had the pleasure of partnering with EnTeam to bring the power of cooperative play into our programs, and apply it throughout our parent education. 

Why Do Humans Tend Toward Competition?

Ted explained to me that it’s born out of our desire to improve, to become more capable from one day to the next:

“Kids want to know that they’re making progress, growing, getting stronger, more effective, more capable today than yesterday. There is a desire for evidence of progress–not just to feel good–but to have objective evidence: I am more capable than I was yesterday. I’m getting stronger.

One way to show that I’m getting better is that I can beat other people. That mindset is very obvious and instinctual. 

Another way is to compare to how well I did yesterday, and am I stronger just within myself, my personal best?

A third element is cooperative best, community best. Are we collectively as a team, group, community, or family stronger today than we were yesterday on some objective standard?”

That first one is the easiest to seek out. Find someone with whom you can compete at something (like a sibling or someone to play a game or sport with) and try to outperform them.

The third is what makes up the world of cooperative play, and most of our daily relationships require the skills you learn from cooperative play. That third element of doing better together is a different context. 

Two Contexts: Win-Lose AND Win-Win

The idea is simple, yet profound: We need BOTH.

A win-lose context, also called a “negative interdependent relationship”, exists when I seek out the win for myself. Some examples are:

  • Individual Games: I win when you lose.
  • Team Sports: My team wins when your team loses.
  • Commercial Marketplace: My business succeeds when it outperforms yours.
  • Democratic voting system: I take the elected office when I receive more votes than you.

A win-win context, also called a “positive interdependent relationship”, exists when we seek out mutually beneficial outcomes. What helps you, helps me. We look for solutions that benefit both of us. The overall outcomes get better as we get better, together.

  • Employee-Employer: Share the outcomes of the business.
  • Teacher-Student: Share the goal of the student’s successful learning of new concepts and achieving standards. 
  • Patient-Physician: Share the goal of reducing disease and increasing health outcomes. 
  • Household Partners: Share the goal of running a functioning, happy household, or achieving financial goals together, or raising successful children together. 

Life is filled with both types of relationships and as Ted explains, “It is very often that we have to cooperate with people. There’s a time and a place for each. We need to be skillful in both situations. And, we need to know how to change one into the other.

If I’m having an argument with my spouse, how can I turn it into a positive interdependent interaction? If we can get shoulder to shoulder against the problem, rather than the two against each other, that’s a completely different mindset. Me getting my way is very different from what satisfies each of our different needs.

The buyer-seller relationship is another great example. Some of their objectives conflict: sellers want the price to be high, and buyers want the price to be low.  But, they have a common interest in the sale and to do business together again in the future where they both feel like they benefit. Then they have positive interdependence. 

Collaboration requires a different skill set than how am I going to beat, dominate, or outperform you. There is a time and a place for each.

How do we teach kids to change negative interdependent relations into positive ones? There’s a process. That’s the essence of EnTeam’s work: Finding, understanding, and applying that process.”

Teaching and Encouraging Cooperation Through Play

If you’re like me, you know that plenty of the examples we listed as “positive interdependent relationships” don’t always go that way. Spouses argue, as Ted points out. Teachers and students can be at odds, as well as employees and employers. 

Ted might suggest this is because we don’t spend a lot of time encouraging or training our kids in how to create opportunities for cooperation, or how to transform a conflict into a positive interdependent situation. 

As with most social skills we learn in life, it all starts with play. Play provides a safe space to practice and develop the skills needed in life.

EnTeam Games transform traditional competitive games–such as ping-pong, volleyball, and other physical challenge games–into cooperative games. Ted invented a seven-step process for turning any game or goal into a series of cooperative games. 

In cooperative games, everyone wins together if the entire group performs better (i.e. scores higher) from one game to the next. If the group fails to come together and find a way to all improve together, the score won’t go up — and everyone loses. Cooperation is expressed through thoughtful study of how to use the talents of the entire group, and overcome any limitations or disadvantages together for the good of the group. 

I’ve played EnTeam Ping-Pong, in which two teams collectively count how many times they can get the ball across the net to each other in traditional ping-pong style in three minutes. The collective score of the group is counted, and they discuss how to increase it for next time. I noticed immediately my naturally competitive nature turned collaborative. Instead of looking for how to take advantage of my opponent’s inability to hit a backhand shot, we talked about how our group might serve differently to accommodate for a better angle of her paddle. We discussed how to use all of the community resources at hand. (In our case, someone had the brilliant idea to ask the players sitting on the sidelines waiting for their turn to be in charge of passing us dropped balls so we wouldn’t lose time collecting them.) The collaborative experience was just as exhilarating as the competitive one. My heart raced and I cheered when we were victorious in increasing our score by the third round. But that was the point –  WE were victorious. 

You can learn more about the process (and the incredible results it produces in school and communities) at the EnTeam website.

Ted says, “You can make cooperative drills out of almost anything. To have a fully robust game is more challenging. The challenge is creating a set of rules where the players must ask: Can I get better with working with other people?”

4 Ways to Try Cooperative Play in Your Family

1. Look for Cooperation in Everyday Tasks

My son and I play a version of this in the grocery store. We split up the list and collect the groceries simultaneously. We strategize which checkout aisle to try, and how best to cooperate in helping bag the groceries. Our fastest time yet is just over 18 minutes – which really makes this mama happy and turns a boring chore into an opportunity for play, fun and thoughtfulness. 

What everyday tasks might you turn into a cooperative game?

2. Turn Typical Competitions in Your Family into Cooperation

Siblings get competitive – it happens. My kids love racing each other to the car to see who can get in and buckled first. Sound familiar? 

The next time you’re working to get everyone out the door in the morning, try a game of “Beat the Clock”. Set a timer to see how long it takes everyone to be in their car seats with seat belts buckled and shoes on. Talk about how you might do it faster tomorrow, strategizing how to help each other to beat the clock.

3. Turn a Competitive Board Game or Physical Game Into a Cooperative One

There’s a growing trend in cooperative board games available on the market. My favorites are Gnomes at Night (for younger kids) and Castle Panic (for older kids). And, many games can be turned into cooperative games. 

This will take some thought and strategy. Take a game and define a new goal for the game. As long as there is an objective measure of success (like a number of points in a certain time frame), you’ll be able to measure your progress as a family. If you want a recipe for making new games, try this 7-step design plan

4. Try an EnTeam Cooperative Game

EnTeam has done the work for us already with their wide collection of cooperative games that are low on investment and equipment and high on fun! The best part: their game portal is free on their website. 

I recommend: 

  • Bouncing on the Ceiling
  • Keep on Track
  • Net Catch
  • Cooperative Ping Pong (no ping pong table required – just paddles and balls!)

The Power of Cooperation

Once you get going, cooperating is not the hard part. We humans do it naturally! Finding the cooperative opportunity in a world that pulls for competition is the challenge. This is why starting at home with a balanced experience of both win-lose and win-win contexts is so vital – and we can model that in ways large and small for our kids.

Cooperative play teaches the critical skills of communication, creative thinking, problem solving, and conflict resolution.

Ted has seen firsthand the power of these skills in many settings since EnTeam’s founding in 1995: 

“One of the things I’m most encouraged about is the ability to resolve conflicts peacefully. In a study conducted by The Center for Character and Citizenship, they showed that after playing just a few games, it reactivated cooperative skill sets in the kids that played. ‘I can stop others from doing things that are harmful. I can calm down. I can be more peaceful if I approach things in terms of positive interdependence.’

At the Boys and Girls Club in St. Louis, the director said there were fewer fights after the program. 

[We saw the same with] the families in our domestic violence court referral program. The women said things were getting better when men see they don’t have to dominate to be successful to have place and significance. They behave better. Things get better.

It works at all levels. When people love each other, good things happen. It’s not very surprising.”

And Ted sees the potential of cooperative play to change our world: 

“The big question is, what’s the long-term effect when you have this balanced experience of both win-lose and win-win interactions, and you understand positive and negative interdependence, and the time and the place for each? 

Both are essential. Both are important. We can’t denigrate either one of them. The kind of partner, friend, parent, neighbor, community member, voter, citizen, elected official that grows from that balanced experience – that’s what we want more of in the world.”