Cooperative Games for Kids
Everyone likes to win at games, especially young children who might have not yet learned to take minor losses in stride. Of course, when it comes to most games, victory and defeat are twin sides of the same coin, which can create thorny situations for teachers and parents. Fortunately, there’s an increasing number of easy and diverting solutions to this conundrum: cooperative games.
In these games, the players work together as a group to achieve a common goal, rather than playing against each other. While victory is still not guaranteed, a cooperative game will ensure that each participant can have a great time from beginning to end. As a bonus, it’s never too early to teach children about the importance of teamwork, and games provide a fun backdrop to the lesson. Some of these games can even double as trust-building activities for adults in the workplace. In addition, participation in these games may even help antisocial or aggressive children become more calm and relaxed in a school setting.
To help you get started, here’s a list of popular cooperative games that are both fun and simple to learn. All of them are suitable for grade-school aged children (some younger than others).
Cooperative Games for PE
This game (based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit) invites players to steal the “dragon’s” jewels and make it back to their base without being captured.First, use cones or other stationary markers to create a circle, and place one player at each marker. Place a Nerf football (or any soft object) in the center of the circle. Choose one player to serve as “Smaug” (the dragon), and assign a number to each remaining player to divide them into teams (1, 2, or 3).
To begin play, call a team’s number. This team will have to work together in an attempt to take “Smaug’s Jewel” and return safely to their base. If Smaug manages to tag any of the players before they get back to their base, that team’s turn ends. When a team manages to steal the jewel, it’s time to select a different player to act as Smaug.
If you’re looking for cooperative games for PE for students in the lower grades (K-2), this is a suitable option.First, split students into teams of 4 (or 6, depending on the size of the class and the number of playing surfaces you have on hand). Give each team a playing surface (old sheets and tablecloths are preferred). Have each team lay out their playing surface on the floor.
When you’re ready to begin play, blow a whistle or clap your hands to alert all players to stand on their team’s playing surface. The area beyond the boundaries of the sheet are off-limits. Once every player is on the sheet, have them move off and fold the sheet in half, repeating this process until the sheet is too small for the entire team to stand on.
The objective of this game is to collect enough “fuel sources” (bean bags) and return them to the “tanks” (small hoops or poly spots) without touching the area outside the “spaceships” (hula hoops).Divide players up into teams of four to six, depending on group size. Scatter a total of five bean bags for each team across the playing surface. Assign each team a “home base” with five fuel tanks apiece.
Players can begin in either the center of the playing surface, or at their team’s home base. To move across the playing surface, players must formulate a path using the hula hoops (three per team works well), gathering all team members within these safe spaces. A hoop can be moved only when there are no players currently inside it.
Once the fuel sources have been collected, they must be placed on the tanks. Tossing the bean bags is not allowed—the players must physically return to their home base.
Note that players should be comfortable doing a forward roll before attempting this activity.If you like, divide players into two teams (it’s fine to keep them in a single line instead). Line up each team, single file, and have each player pass their right hand through their own legs before reaching out their left hands to take the right hand of the person in front of them. The player in front will still have a free left hand, while the rear player has a free right hand.
Once this is done, have the first player perform a forward roll, without relinquishing the next player’s hand. Once this player has completed his or her roll, have them sit cross-legged as the line works together to move forward. Each subsequent player will repeat the forward roll, also sitting cross-legged when finished. The goal is to move through the entire line without breaking the chain.
Divide players into groups of two. Have one partner tie a jump rope loosely around their own wrists ( one end on the right wrist, one on the left). Next, have the second partner tie a second jump rope around their own left wrist, then thread the other end of rope through their partner’s “circle.” Finally, the free end should be tied to the second player’s right wrist. The players should then attempt to separate from one another without untying the ropes or freeing themselves from their own circles. It’s up to the supervisor to make sure that the ropes aren’t being tied too tightly.
Divide players into groups of two or three. Assign one player on each team to be the holder, and the rest to be the builders. The objective is to see how many tennis balls the holder can hold on to at one time, without using their pockets or any other article of clothing. Additionally, the balls cannot be touching anything aside from each other and the holder, and must be held for at least 10 seconds. Players are welcome to switch roles after a few attempts.
This game can be played with groups of two to five participants, depending on age group. The smaller the group, the more challenging the game becomes.The objective is to move your entire group across the “river,” or playing surface (this can be as wide as you like, but 20-30 feet is standard). To do this, players should line up beside each other, their feet touching their closest neighbors’. In order to cross, they must move as a group without breaking this contact. If a player’s feet loses contact with any other player’s, the entire team has to return to the starting line.
Divide players into teams of eight to 10 students apiece, and assign a large hoop to each team. This hoop will act as their “spaceship.” Blow a whistle to signify the beginning of play, at which time the players will begin racing with their ship toward the finish line. Note that all team members must be touching the ship at all times during this portion of play.When you call out “Shipwrecked,” the players all must set their ship down and attempt to get within the circle. The first team to get every player on board earns one point, and the first team to cross the finish line earns two points. The team with the most points is the winner of that particular “voyage.”
To play this game, divide players into teams of six, and have each team form a circle. Instruct players to hold hands with two others (they can’t hold both hands of the same player), making sure that no one’s hands are joined with their closest neighbors’.Once this is done, blow a whistle to signal that it’s time for the “knot” to begin unraveling. All hands must remain joined until the team is standing in a circle, or in two intertwined circles.
This is a fun way for students to let out pent-up energy on a rainy day.Invite players to scatter across the playing area (the gymnasium is the preferred venue). Next, toss out as many balls (or balloons) as there are players. The participants will then attempt to keep the balls (known here as “rabid nuggets”) in constant movement.
Instructors should stand at either end of the gym to keep an eye out for “hectics,” or balls that stop moving. Once you’ve spotted one, yell out “HECTIC!” and point to the offending object. Players are then given a set period of time (say, five seconds) to get the hectic moving again.
Once five hectics have been spotted, the “frenzy” is over. Time each frenzy to see how long the players are able to make one last. To keep things more interesting, toss another rabid nugget into the fray every 10 seconds or so.
Even students who aren’t skilled at juggling on their own can be successful at this cooperative activity.To begin, split the class into teams of at least 5 (try to stick with odd-numbered teams). Have all players form a circle, facing one another. One player should then be given a ball, which he will throw to any team member who isn’t standing directly to his right or left. The next player repeats this step, and so on and so forth, until the ball returns to the starting player. Once this happens, have the players attempt to pass the ball in the same sequence as before. Once a rhythm has been established, continue by adding more balls to the circle.
In advance, make up a series of index cards printed with the names of various animals (two for each animal you choose). Be sure that each creature has a distinctive sound that children will likely be familiar with.To play, have each student draw a card from the pile. Turn them loose in a safe playing field, encouraging them to keep their eyes closed during play. Have them imitate their designated animal, repeating the sounds until they locate the student who shares the same animal. Once this happens, the pair is welcome to open their eyes. The game is over when all of the pairs have been matched up.
This game requires splitting the class up into two equal teams. Once you’ve done that, invite half the team to form a circle by joining their elbows, and have the rest of the team wedge themselves inside the circle.When both teams have formed their makeshift amoebas, blow a whistle to signify the start of play. The teams will then attempt to make it to the finish line without breaking up the group. If the amoeba should dissolve during the attempt, the team must repair itself before it can move forward.
In advance, designate a large circle to serve as the giant marble ring. Place three or four partially deflated beach balls and an equal number of smaller targets (like multicolored poly spots) within the playing circle.To begin play, have ready a supply of bean bags. Invite participants to stand outside the circle and use the bean bags to nudge the balls as close to the smaller target areas as possible. Players are not permitted inside the playing circle; if a bean bag gets stuck inside, they may attempt to retrieve it only by throwing another bean bag in to try and knock it out.
This activity is a good one to use as an icebreaker on the first day of gym class. It bears a resemblance to Birds of a Feather, only students are given a larger role in the setup.Divide students into pairs. Each group must then choose either a compound word or a group of words that work together in some way (i.e., “suit” and “case” or “cheese” and “whiz”). The relationship between the two words doesn’t really matter, as long as both partners agree on which ones to use. One player should be assigned one word, with their partner taking on the other.
Invite each team to share their chosen words with the rest of the class. Not only does this provide the group with a fun sharing activity, it will help to ensure that each word pairing is unique.
Next, have the students scatter to various areas within a safe playing field. Ask them to close their eyes (or use blindfolds if necessary). Blow a whistle to signify the start of play, at which time the players should begin calling out their assigned words. Once the partners have found one another, they’re invited to open their eyes (or remove their blindfolds) and watch the rest of the group.
Cooperative Board Games for Kids
The object of this game, in which the players are represented by a group of mice, is to “finish” all the food in the pantry before the hungry cat breaks up the party. There are three six-sided dice, all printed with five different types of food and one X; and a playing surface, featuring the same food images and, of course, the cat.
On a single player’s turn, he or she will roll all three dice. If all three are X’s, the cat moves one step closer to the pantry, and the player’s turn is over. If the dice turn up any food images, the player must place at least one die on the corresponding food square located on the board. They may then choose to re-roll the remaining dice in an attempt to “finish” the chosen food. If they are unable to do so on their subsequent roll, the player’s turn ends with the cat moving one step closer. The player is permitted to go on rolling the dice for as long as he or she is able to place at least one die on the board.
If the cat reaches the pantry while there’s still unfinished food on the board, the game has been lost. If, however, the team manages to finish all the food, then they’ve won. The reverse side of the playing surface offers a more challenging version of the same principle.
As cooperative board games go, this one is as simple as it gets. During play, players take turns spinning a color-coded dial and stacking blocks of the corresponding color. The objective is to stack twelve blocks without landing on the “Stack Smasher” when the dial is spun.The dial also contains challenges to make the game more interesting—for example, players might have to stack while singing “Happy Birthday.” There are three levels of difficulty, so if the game becomes too dull for young players, they’re welcome to ramp it up.
Like Candy Land, Race to the Treasure requires no reading, and the rules are easy enough for toddlers to follow. Players take turns drawing tiles from a sack, indicating either a section of a path or a picture of the dreaded Ogre who guards the treasure.The objective is to make a path to the three keys that will unlock the treasure, before forging a path to the final goal: the treasure itself. Meanwhile, each Ogre tile will move him closer to the prize. If he gets there first, the team loses. If they reach the treasure before the Ogre does, they win.
The concept between Hoot Owl Hoot! is that it’s nighttime, and all the owls are out on the hunt. The objective is to get them all safely back to the nest before sunrise.To begin, a token representing the sun is placed on its corresponding track, while three owls are placed on a track of their own. Each player then receives three cards, which will be placed face up in front of them.
The deck includes 50 cards, 36 of which represent colors, and 14 of which represent the sun. When a player receives a sun card, they must use it to move the sun token forward one space on the board, after which they discard the sun card. If a player has all color cards on their turn, they must discard one and move one of the owls to the first available open space in the corresponding color. If one of the owls surpasses another owl on the board, the players all make a hooting sound to cheer it on. If all of the owls have made it back to the nest before the sun completes its track, then the team wins!
To make the game more challenging, add more owls to the board at the start of play (the game includes six owls total).
The concept behind this popular game is compelling, if somewhat frightening to children under the age of eight: Your team is tasked with fighting a series of dangerous viruses that are spreading across the world. Players must travel to different areas of the globe to offer treatment to those infected, and also to build research stations in the attempt to find cures for the various diseases. Two decks of cards (one benign, one “Epidemic!”) control the courses of the viruses, and participants must work together to coordinate a successful plan.
Instead of working against a common enemy, participants in this lighthearted adventure are trying to keep the mythical “Woozle” fed so he won’t go hungry.Players are invited to feed the Woozle the number of snacks that appears on the die during their turn. To make play more challenging, they’re also tasked with making sure the snacks remain on the spoon during transfer (he won’t eat them otherwise, and they won’t count towards the total). Once he’s been fed, the player takes a “yummy card” from the stack to indicate how many treats he’s gotten so far.
The next player then repeats the process, until all the snacks are gone. If the Woozle has gotten 12, then the team wins; if not, the beast remains hungry until the next round of play.
This game is similar to Race to the Treasure!, but the setup is slightly different. Participants join forces in an attempt to recover treasure from a haunted house before the place becomes overrun by ghouls. Along the way, they have to evade these same ghouls through a combination of wit, teamwork, and skill.
In Flashpoint Fire Rescue, players are trying to save a city from the threat of a spreading fire. The team is outfitted with basic equipment, and tasked with rescuing a number of civilians from the burning buildings. As the fire spreads, pathways to the victims may become blocked, making the task that much more difficult.There are two skill levels for Flashpoint Fire Rescue: basic and advanced. When playing with very young children, you might want to tone down the intensity of the threat, even though it’s make-believe to begin with. For example, if you fail to save the building, you can explain that a rival team managed to save the people inside instead.
This one is geared toward very young children—even preschoolers can get in on the fun. The playing surface is a basic board, depicting a farmhouse surrounded by acres of crops, along with various homegrown vegetables The object is to gather the entire harvest before winter sets in and destroys the crops. Families who live in rural areas may appreciate this one the most, as it teaches valuable life skills that are bound to come in handy later.
Another game aimed at the preschool set, this one inviting the tykes to set out on an adventure to Granny’s House while encountering a number of troublesome obstacles along the way.The board is reminiscent of old favorites like Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders, with its depictions of varicolored symbols that make up the path to the titular destination. Play is picture-based, so reading comprehension isn’t a necessary prerequisite.
This cheerily designed game is similar to Memory in nature, as players have to locate matching cards in order to add a variety of ingredients to the soup pot. Unlike the traditional rules of Memory, however, the players aren’t trying to amass the greatest number of pairs, but to keep the soup cooking for as long as the fire keeps burning. If the designated number of ingredients hasn’t been added by the time the fire goes out under the kettle, the game is over and the family goes hungry.
In this fantastical, nautical outing, players try to get the mermaids back to their home base before the evil Sea Witch can swoop in to destroy them. Oftentimes, a single move might endanger the others, so participants must remain aware if they want to get the whole group (fleet?) home safely. Obviously, this is an appealing option for the girls in the group, but there’s no reason why boys shouldn’t enjoy it too.
Sleuths-in-training will want to play this game again and again, as participants attempt to locate a number of valuable objects within a deserted mansion. To do this, they’ll take turns flipping cards from a deck to look for two that match—but if they turn over twelve clock cards before they locate all the treasures, the game is over. Should they find all of the hidden objects, they’re then invited to figure out which three cards were hidden from the deck at the start of play.
In addition to providing youngsters with a cooperative activity, Lion In My Way often inspires creative storytelling as well. The object is to get from one end of the board to the other, all while encountering the likes of hungry lions, barren deserts, and a number of other increasingly peculiar obstacles. A set of tool cards aids players in their efforts to defeat these roadblocks.
This foxy outing serves as a good forerunner to Clue, or any other detective-themed game. The story goes that a mysterious thief has made off with Mrs. Plumpert’s pie. Players must follow clues to determine which of the sly foxes is the culprit before he can make it safely to the other side of the board.To play, participants may choose whether to either search for clues or reveal possible suspects on their respective turns. Should the player be unsuccessful in turning up their desired action when they roll the dice, the fox moves ahead three spaces on the board. If they succeed in winning the opportunity to take action, they’ll either use the suspect cards to gather new information, or move their own playing piece across the board to search for clues. As play progresses, the players will be able to narrow down the list of suspects, based on the information they’ve gathered.
If the fox token makes it all the way to the end of the board and the players haven’t named a suspect, the game is over and the detectives lose. Likewise if the players accuse a suspect who turns out to be innocent. However, if the correct culprit is named, the detectives win.
For more information on the rules of Outfoxed! and other board games like it, check out the Board Game Geek website.
Cooperative Games for the Classroom
31. Balloon Bop
Remember playing a game of catch and trying to see how many passes you could make without allowing the ball to hit the ground? This game has a similar objective, but it utilizes a balloon (or multiple balloons) and a larger group of people.
To begin the teacher should invite children to form a loose circle by holding hands. Continue by dropping a balloon (not helium-filled) into the middle of the circle, and ask students to count how many times they can “bop” it back into the air without breaking the circle. To do this, the students may use any part of their body except for their feet (knees are acceptable). The game is over when the balloon touches the floor or a student’s foot, or if any student lets go of their neighbor’s hand.
This game is better suited to children at the upper grade-school level (say, third grade and up). To make it more challenging, add a second or third balloon.
This is a fun, interactive classroom game that takes the concepts of loss and victory right out of the equation. Instead, students are seated in a circle, and each one is handed a simple photograph. The images don’t really matter, but try to keep them as basic as possible.To play, invite one of the students to begin telling a story, based on the image that he or she is holding. After one minute, say “freeze” and move on to the next student, who will then continue the story based on his or her own photograph, and so on. The greatest challenges will lie with the first student, who’ll need to create a solid introduction; and the last one, who’s responsible for the conclusion.
Older grade school students are the best participants for this activity, which should only be attempted in an uncarpeted area.To begin, divide students into groups of four or five. Supply each team with a raw egg, and task them with creating a situation in which the egg will not break when dropped from a certain height (say, six feet). Teams are then free to make use of whatever objects in the classroom might be helpful in achieving their goal. After a set time period, ask the teams to demonstrate their work.
Earlier versions of this game supplied each team with a box of plastic straws, with which they would then build a cushioning device. However, as single-use plastics fall further out of favor, it’s better to encourage students to work with the items they have on hand.
The object of this game sounds straightforward: Teams of four or five work together to lower a hula hoop from about nose-height to the floor, using only the very tips of their fingers. As your students will come to learn, however, it’s much more difficult than it looks.
If you still have those hula hoops and the students are bored with the balancing game, consolidate them into larger groups of about 10. Have each team form a circle by holding hands, with a single hula hoop in between two of them. Challenge them to move the hula hoop in a complete revolution without breaking the circle. They may do this by maneuvering the hoop over their heads, under their feet, or by whatever means they can come up with, as long as they don’t let go of one another’s hands.
Eye Contact provides an excellent way to foster nonverbal communication skills.To play, choose 10 students for the first round (the others can watch in the meantime). Choose a single student to act as “Player One,” and designate a “Go” signal (such as winking or making an “O” shape with your mouth). Player One should then attempt to make eye contact with another participant. When they’ve succeeded, they should give the “go” signal, at which time the second player takes Player One’s place in the circle to repeat the same process with another participant.
No verbal communication or hand signals are allowed during play. If a player breaks this rule, he or she is disqualified, and their place is taken by one of the observers. Once everyone in the round has made eye contact and give up their place in the circle, switch teams until all the observers have had a chance to play as well.
Cooperative Card Games
In this game (recommended for older children, ages 10 and up), players are tasked with repairing a damaged spacecraft while dodging asteroids and wormholes along the way. To ramp up the challenge, they also must reveal six “System-Go” cards inside the time limit, or all of their work has been for nothing.
Hanabi can be played with as few as two participants, but it gets more interesting when more players are added (up to five). The unique concept invites participants to orchestrate a fireworks show, utilizing a series of numbered cards. If the display is finished before the pile of cards runs out, the team wins. Play is fairly fast-paced—a single game can be played in about half an hour—and is suitable for ages eight and up. The playing kit also includes a “rainbow” set of cards to make things more challenging, once your team has mastered the basic game.
This is a two-player cooperative card game, and one of the few to utilize a standard deck of playing cards. A cross between Uno and Rummy, the rules are not difficult to follow, but they are somewhat lengthy to explain—a complete breakdown can be found here. Essentially, both players (one following the rules of Rummy, the other playing a solo game of Uno) must achieve the goals of their respective games before the “Circle of Shamus” (a ring consisting of 10 cards) has been depleted. It’s addictive, and a good choice for families with smaller households.
For superhero fans, this game is a must-try. Each player assumes the role of a different superhero as a five-minute timer is set. During play, the cards keep turning up new threats in the form of increasingly powerful bad guys. The objective is to work together to defeat all the villains before the time is up.
This cooperative card game is like a fancier take on Go Fish, except the players are working together (“in cahoots”). In order to win the round, the team has to match all of their cards by either color or number before the time clock runs out. Play is fast-paced and easy to follow, even for younger participants.