Play is a big idea.  It’s not easy to define simply.  So, let’s pick one way to look at it.

Competitive versus cooperative play.

As an example, most games are competitive.  Basketball, soccer, chess and go fish result in a winner and a loser.   That’s the nature of competition.  Don’t get me wrong.  Competition is great, but not all the time.

For children to receive all the benefits of a playful life, they need a diet of cooperative play, too.  Fortunately, there is a large menu of cooperative play options.

When I was a kid, my brothers and I spent countless hours making forts in the house with sheets and furniture, or building and rebuilding a tree house in the backyard.  When our daughter was young we would get together with her cousins during holidays.  They would invent plays and act them out to the delight of the parents and grandparents.  And, they would spend hours with a big box of old building toys and wooden blocks creating all kinds of contraptions and imaginary worlds.

There are many types of cooperative games, as well.  My personal favorite as a teenage geek was Dungeons and Dragons®.  My friends and I would go on fantastic quests, working together to overcome the obstacles to get treasure, defeat evil creatures or whatever else the dungeon master dreamed up for our adventure. Another favorite is SimplyFun’s Save the Pie, where all players work together to move their characters and berries to a pie maker before Beary Bear catches up and eats all the berries.

When children cooperate in play, they are building all kinds of skills.  They learn to problem-solve together, to test out ideas without pre-judging, and to empathize with each other’s successes and setbacks.  They build altruism, compassion and grit.  They learn how to lead and how to follow; how to play different roles for the benefit of the whole; and how to take advantage of the different skills, abilities, knowledge and perspective of others.  They learn language and develop physical prowess.  They are learning how to be a team and a teammate.

There is a third way to look at play that you’ve probably already thought of.  Play that is simultaneously cooperative and competitive.  Perhaps the most obvious example is team sport.  I mentioned basketball above.  Teams compete against each other.  But, the teammates engage in a complex form of cooperation in pursuit of the win.  If the talent on each team is roughly equal, many more times than not the teammates that cooperates together best will be victorious.  Therein lies the power of cooperative play and skills it teaches kids for a lifetime of success.