(Politics? Oh, no, we’re talking about children)
(This has Nothing At All to do with government. Let us be very clear on that: Nothing At All.)
Let’s go back to the good ol’ playground days, to the kindergartens of yesteryear when lunch was not lunch without Goldfish crackers, when blocks were for stacking and glue was for eating.
Remember the classrooms, the gymnasiums, the cafeterias, the jungle gyms. They were filled with other children — potential friends or potential nemeses, depending on how well we learned the lessons of cooperation. Yes, because cooperation is a thing that must be taught and learned early in life.
(Not later, like in Denver or Washington, D.C., because this isn’t about politics. It’s about how children learn to cooperate.)
How, then, is cooperation taught? How do children learn to get by and get along, to work with others toward a common goal?
“There are so many social skills involved in cooperating,” said Curry Newton, principal of Nisley Elementary School. “Kids have to first know how to take turns, how to concede the other person’s desires over theirs.”
(Go about your business, elected officials. We’re talking about kids here.)
Rebecca Carpenter, owner and director of Harvard Academy Learning Center in Grand Junction, said she and her teachers often use the analogy of ants when teaching cooperation: “Everything (ants) do is with cooperation. They all work together for the better good of the colony. Each one has their part and they work together.”
In her book “The Top 50 Questions Kids Ask,” child psychologist Susan Bartell wrote that teaching cooperation begins with adults modeling cooperative relationships — children learn by watching adults get along and work together.
(“Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further,” said Franklin D. Roosevelt in a 1912 speech at the People’s Forum in Troy, N.Y. “Cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off.” But he was a politician, and we’re not talking about politics today, so never mind.)
“The kids look to us to learn these skills,” said Kirk Huddleston, owner and director of Discovery Kids Learning Center in Fruita.
In its tips for parents, the Pennsylvania State University Extension recommends beginning to teach the lessons of cooperation early: “Babies as young as six to nine months can begin learning to take turns. Start by playing games with a baby where you do something, then ask her to do the same thing. You drop a block in a bucket, then give her a block to put in the bucket. As the baby gets a little older, try rolling a ball to her and have her roll it back to you.”
Bartell recommends not always letting children win when you’re playing with them, so they can develop tolerance for frustration and learn to play with others in varied circumstances.
(Plus, it’s not like kids can call a press conference on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to Blame the Other Guy. Or, oops, the steps of the elementary school. Ha ha. This could not be further from anything dealing with government, unless it’s student council.)
Huddleston said children learn best in a secure, encouraging environment in which the rules and expectations are established first thing. Also, Carpenter said, it’s important for children to learn that cooperation is a choice.
“We sometimes have kids who, when it’s cleanup time, they want to do it themselves,” Carpenter said. “We say, well, that’s your choice, but if you let a friend help you, you’ll get done a lot faster and you can be outside playing a lot sooner.”
Learning to clean up together, learning to wait in line for the drinking fountain, learning to help a student who needs it — these are the building blocks of cooperation, Huddleston said.
“If a child needs help with their coat,” Carpenter said, “we say oh, maybe you can ask your friend who can zip to do that.”
(Isn’t there an African proverb about how if everyone helps hold up the sky, then one person doesn’t become tired? So… kids learning cooperation!)
Because children are human, conflicts naturally arise. Toddlers don’t always love to share, fourth-graders can be territorial sometimes — it’s part of life with a mortal body and brain.
Newton said a strong foundation of social skills can help kids more easily work toward cooperation, even if it’s not their first impulse. At Nisley, she said, students are encouraged to use “rock, paper, scissors” to solve problems when talking is leading to road blocks.
(Is this how legislation gets passed? Wait, we’re not talking about that.)
And, Newton said, if it’s a matter of one student doing something another student doesn’t like, they use a “stop, walk, talk” model: say “please stop,” then walk away if it doesn’t, then tell an adult if that doesn’t work. It’s a method that teaches student-directed cooperation.
“Part of cooperation is they’ve got to think for themselves,” Huddleston said. “If we go around fixing their problems for them, they don’t have to think. So, we ask them, well, what do we need to do? What would have been a better choice? What could we do next time? How did that make you feel? If you teach them to think, they’re going to be better at cooperating with others.”
(And again, Washington, D.C., are we looking at you? We’re not looking at you, we’re just gazing into the middle distance and thinking about children in merry cooperation. Maybe engaged in a three-legged race or something.)
Ultimately, Carpenter said, children need to be prepared young for situations they’ll encounter in school, in their jobs, in life. There will always be people around, there will often be people with whom they must cooperate. Even their best friends and family will, at various times, be people with whom they must cooperate.
“We keep going back to the ants,” Carpenter said. “Each one of them without the other doesn’t thrive. If you teach them, children understand this.”
(And wasn’t it nice to have a break from talking about politics?)