As adults, we know the value of working as part of a team. From work to sports, we understand the principle of lending our skills to a team to create something greater than the sum of its parts. However, this is not something that comes naturally to many young children.
Pre-school children are still concerned, first and foremost, with their own comfort and happiness. This makes the concept of teamwork difficult for them to grasp.
According to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, children typically don’t become less egocentric until they are around seven years old. From two until seven they are usually in the Preoperational stage, able to decentre but still inherently selfish and lacking in logical thought.
At this stage, children learn by modelling behaviour, often through repetition.
When teaching the importance of teamwork, we need to ensure that the children become part of the positive outcome.
There are many ways that we can help them to connect teamwork with getting what they want. With time, they learn that everyone pitching makes boring tasks easier and faster and fun tasks even more enjoyable. Simply put, ‘teamwork makes the dream work’.
In the kitchen
One of the simplest (and most fun) ways to encourage teamwork is by assigning individual tasks to accomplish one goal, such as baking a cake. If each child helps to measure ingredients, crack an egg, or stir the batter, they begin to feel ownership of the finished product.
Make sure you vary who does what, to ensure nobody misses out on their favourite part. You can keep track of these important details using digital tracking and monitor the cooperation, enthusiasm, and confidence of each child.
Explain each time how each action helps to make the cake. The more they repeat this process, the more they begin to understand the importance of each playing their part.
Natural leaders may emerge, but the goal is to ensure each child feels like part of the team. Encourage creative variations in decorating, to reinforce that being part of a team does not mean you can’t do things your way.
There are a variety of indoor and outdoor games that promote teamwork and are suitable for young children. Circle games such as The Farmer’s in His Den and even the Hokey Cokey rely on each child walking the right way, holding hands, and remembering what comes next. If one child lets go, they will break the circle, but it can be easily reconnected. If someone forgets the words, another child can help to get the team back on track.
The parachute and ball game relies on each child to hold up their corner, pay attention, and move the fabric as one to keep the ball aloft.
Children get excited by the ‘jeopardy’ of the ball dropping and automatically begin to work together to prevent it from happening. Games such as this are best played in short increments. When the children let the ball drop, it is good indication that they have tired of the game and no longer care about the outcome.
Whether it’s working together to construct a tower or assemble a train set, children get a sense of achievement from a job well done. Showing children that by working together they can build something bigger and better, more quickly, appeals to their need for instant gratification.
Fostering Effective Communication
Just like adults, children like to be included and shape their reality by what they are told as much as what they experience.
Calling your children a ‘team’, particularly when praising them for working together, creates a positive association and a kinship among the group.
In a nursery or early years setting, some of the children may be older than others and, therefore, be better equipped to assemble toys or accomplish slightly more complex tasks.
Encouraging younger children to ask an older child for help, rather than immediately turning to a ‘grown up’ (when appropriate) helps them work together and become more independent.
Of course, we must also encourage the older children to help. If the older child does not want to help as they may be busy playing elsewhere, tired, or just not interested, we can step in. Don’t punish the older child for not helping, just explain that it would be very kind of them to do so.
Some children are the happiest when playing largely on their own and may struggle to ask for help. The more children see themselves as a team, the more they are inclined to support each other.
Some children struggle more than others with following instructions, particularly if they see it spoiling their fun. Tidy up time is a prime example of this. You may often see one or more of the same children refusing to put the toys away or getting more out when it’s time to tidy up. Likewise, one or more of the children may be prone to ‘doing all the work’ to accomplish the end goal. Although there’s a certain amount of different personalities at work here (which will likely continue to adulthood) we need to make it clear that is not fair for one child to opt-out or the others to rely on one of their friends.
Turning mundane tasks such as tidying up into a fun game can help.
You can use music, such as the ‘Tidy Up Rhumba’, to get children excited about beating the timer. It’s not surprising that the Tidy Up Rhumba was written by two teachers, Christalla and George, and has now been viewed more than two million times on YouTube.
Teamwork is easier when the goal is fun – such as baking or a game – and it is likely to be tasks such as tidying up where problems occur.
Young children can struggle to contain their emotions and tantrums may ensue.
It’s important not to shame the child, but to use positive reinforcement. A child who is digging their heels in and refusing to do something is unlikely to be swayed by anger or disappointment.
When a child who often acts up and refuses to get involved in, for example, tidying up does help you can use it to illustrate the point that teamwork works.
“Look, we beat the timer because everybody helped” is far more encouraging than just giving the child who isn’t helping a time out every time.
If resources allow, you can also ensure the child in question tidies up what was left undone when the timer rang out, while the rest of the team move on to the next activity.
Leading by Example
It is also important that the children you care for see you as part of a team with their parents. Children sometimes behave differently in an early years setting than they do at home. It is important, therefore, that educators and parents are aware of both sides of a child’s behaviour. The greater the understanding between parents and educators, the better we are equipped to care for their children.
The Capture Partnership with Parents course helps educators learn how to form an effective partnership with a child’s parents or primary caregivers. This in turn gives the children another positive example of teamwork in action.