Kernel Factsheet — Relational Kernel

Structured or Organized Play


  • Education
  • Workplace
  • Community

Developmental Phases

  • Early Childhood
  • Childhood
  • Early Adolescence
  • Adolescence

Related Constructs


Minimal cost (e.g., used sports equipment)

Impacted Behaviors

+ Fun way to learn new things
+ More engaged learning
+ Be more socially competent
+ More fun in afterschool programs
+ More work completed well
Less violence
Reduce peer aggression and bullying
Reduce ADHD
Less fighting
Fewer hurts

How To Do It

Structured Cooperative Play (SCP) is a frequent opportunity for children from preschool through adolescence to engage in brisk, physical activity. It involves soft team competition, clear roles for participation by all players, consensus rules by the participants emphasizing a level of cooperation, some measurable goals to achieve, and multiple opportunities to play.

How It Works

In every culture, children organize physical cooperative play (SCP). These physical activities have group-developed rules, typically involving soft competition in which teams are constituted and re-constituted frequently as a form of organized fun. This type of play has team goals, such as to win a relay race or place an object on or in a goal. Taking turns and rotating roles are common within or across teams.

The physical activities are brisk, with elevated heart rates, and often emphasize speed or endurance, rather than raw strength. The games often require trading off roles to win. The rules of the game are typically well understood, but may be altered by group consensus and generally have agreed-upon accommodations for children of different abilities or ages. Anthropological studies show that the games tend to be multi-age, rather than mono-age, groups.[1] Such multi-age play improves the prosocial behavior of both the younger and older children. Most such games occur outside, which has measurable positive impact.[2]

The activities provide elation for the winner but do not typically involve sustained status, as with child versions of professional sports. Bragging or bullying during cooperative play typically results in an informal “time-out” imposed by the larger group of children. Observations of children suggest children actually engage in less aggression in these cooperative activities when adults are absent,[3] suggesting that adult presence may cue using aggression to recruit adult attention, whereas peers demand prosocial or friendly behaviors to sustain cooperative play.

Biological studies suggest that these activities increase brain-derived neuro-factor (BDNF) and modulate dopamine receptors. This then increases the ability to learn complex tasks, increase social bonding, and reduce depression.[4-7] Observational studies of these child-organized cooperative games show that the children value and reward self-regulation by those in the rough-and-tumble activities.[8] Cultural values of the larger community influence the degree of prosociality observed among the children at such play. Experimental studies of SCP in school or community settings show children become more inclusive and socially competent,[9-15] are more prosocial,[16] exhibit improved attention and academic success in the classroom,[17] and reduce aggressive and/or impulsive behaviors in the classroom.[18]

Using Structured-Cooperative Play to Get Things Going in Community Settings

Because of electronics, most children today do not know many structured-cooperative games. Community settings such as playgrounds, afterschool settings, church groups, and children’s parties are good places to re-introduce the forgotten heritage of such play. These games have to be taught, modeled, and reinforced by adults or older children who know them.

For SCP to be effective, the person leading an activity must 1) project enthusiasm, 2) convey how SCP is fun, 3) model how the games are played, 4) initially shape children’s skills and cooperation, and 5) assure that the children develop a consensus on the rules and roles. Initially, the person(s) leading must join the cooperative activities, then back out to allow the young people to run, select, and modify their own play. SCP does not resemble organizations such as Little League, etc.

Measuring Change

Healthy, cooperative play dramatically reduces problem behavior. Further, cooperative play actually decreases several psychiatric problems. Structured recess reduces bullying. Structured recess also increases academic success. With Structured, Cooperative Games, you will see or hear increases in spontaneous turn-taking, peer praise or cheering, smiles and laughter, or giggling. You will notice an increase in actual physical activity, which can be measured by simple activity monitors if you wish. You will witness increased empathy and caring if a child is hurt, treated unfairly, teased, or made fun by others. You will see spontaneous coaching by peers to be more skillful. Children will begin to invent variations or new games.

Extended Recipe

Here are the basic steps for this evidence-based kernel:

  • Assemble a menu of time-tested Structured Cooperative Games.

  • Acquire the items required to play (e.g., balls, hoops, goal, cones, lane markers, etc.)

  • Practice how to play these games before teaching children.

  • Create symbolic models of these games, if possible (e.g., pictures, movies), to demonstrate the games, because verbal instructions are often confusing to younger children.

  • Create multiage groups of children whenever possible.

  • Make sure that children have the place and time to play the games.

  • Make sure children can easily access themselves the items need to play the games.

  • Implement a reinforcement or recognition system for group cooperation, if in institutional setting.

  • Implement simple strategy for children to stand down and re-enter the fun activities if they have meltdowns or peer-identified aggression.

Performance and Impact

Dramatically improves cooperative behavior, social competence; affects BMI; reduces social rejection; decreases bullying and aggression; improves social norms and academic learning during the day; and reduces ADHD and other disturbances.

Change can be measured in health (e.g., aerobic capacity, BMI, daily illnesses) and behavior impulsivity, aggression. Peer and adult rated social competencies improve, as does social networks. Improved cognitive performance, academics, and motor skills tend to occur.