Cooperation Moves the Focal Point from One to Many

Piaget was one of the first developmental psychologists to recognize that children grow in distinct stages.   One of the terms that he coined is called the “5-7 shift”.   Before children reach 5 years old their focus is one-dimensional which means that it is very difficult for them to think about themselves and others at the same time.    You can watch children midway through their kindergarten experience actually shifting themselves so that they can play games where they put themselves fully in the game and also interact well with others.    The fact that it is called the “5-7 shift” means that it doesn’t happen all at once in a magical moment nor can we tell children the definition of cooperation and expect them to be able to do it.     A virtue like courage is reinforced very easily with language as is determination because they are experiences that are individual.    You can be courageous and determined and still be very uncooperative.  Cooperation is a very sophisticated energy  because it requires you to be aware of your own self and another at the same exact moment.

I have the feeling that many of the mistakes that we make as teachers and parents come from  expecting children to cooperate in the same way we would expect adults to cooperate, but Piaget and others have assured us that it comes gradually and in stages.    First  children seem to need to be confident and excited about their own ability to participate, and then they can play and interact strongly with others.    Not having a strong sense of self retards the next stage because instead of being able to see how to interact with others, their focus remains only on their own insecurities and selfish desires.     You can’t get cooperation working well if the self is handicapped and left wanting in an early stage.

So in kindergarten it is important to spend the first part of the year building the strong self by focusing on things like courage and determination so that when you go to a higher order virtue like cooperation,  they can flow right into it.    When students learn how to kick a ball, go across the monkey bars, scale heights on a climbing wall, or learn the front crawl in swimming, their sense of self grows dramatically because of their feeling of mastery.  At that point they can go one step further which is to learn to participate well with others.    In the second half of the year I try to combine cooperation with mastery.

Cooperation is an interesting process because it requires being aware of others.   What seems to be some of the initial great games are the ones that children do naturally like tag and dodgeball.     We play a game called hoop dodgeball where there are 4 throwers at any one time trying to hit others with a ball.   You have to be aware of yourself and where you are trying to get to (going from one hoop to another) and also being aware of another who is trying to get you out of the game.   It seems a bit odd that someone trying to get you out of a game is also helping you to learn cooperation, but the components of self and other are embedded in the experience.    It is excellent preparation for the stage of more sophisticated team games.    Almost every age level loves dodgeball including adults despite its seemingly violent nature (we play with sponge balls to soften blows) probably because it gives them practice at making the 5-7 shift toward cooperation.   It is as if they can retreat for a short time to learn how to be a strong self while being aware of others.

Coaching is always a balance between individual skill and team play.   You master fundamentals and you learn to interact with others dynamically.    Cooperation requires both.


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