children playing tug-of-war

Some kids understand the benefits of working harmoniously with others to create solutions to environmental problems. For instance, 20 years ago, two nine-year-old girls collaborated to create Kids Saving the Rainforest, and their efforts have spread worldwide. Other youths have led large teams to solve environmental problems like recycling e-waste, preserving mangroves, and repurposing used running shoes to children in need.

Meanwhile, other kids are aware of the problems facing our planet but aren’t taking action. They may be inspired, but inspiration alone isn’t enough to develop a commitment to a cause. For instance, plenty of people are inspired by their New Year’s resolutions, but most lack the commitment required to follow through.

The same is true for planetary preservation. Anyone would be inspired to give up plastic for a week after watching a straw being removed from a turtle’s nose. However, when the inspiration fades, not many will commit to a plastic-free lifestyle.

To turn inspiration into commitment, children need hands-on experience collaborating with others as part of a team working toward a shared goal. As individuals, inspiration will only carry them so far. As a team, inspiration will morph into commitment and the drive to achieve their goals.

Building Teamwork Skills on the Playground

The good news is that kids don’t need to attend expensive seminars to learn to be team players. They just need to be placed into situations where their enjoyment or survival depends on their willingness to work as a team.

An orphanage might be the last place you’d expect to find budding teamwork, but a project launched by Rush University is changing that for one post-earthquake resettlement community in Haiti. Students from Rush partnered with a local mason and rallied volunteers to build a playground for the youth being cared for at the community orphanage. The program was designed to help the children in all areas of life, but the playground, in particular, seems to have made a significant difference.

The playground has created a sense of community among the children despite the great hardships they’ve suffered. “They look and act more like a family unit than children who were forced to survive together,” says Harrison Pidgeon, a Rush Medical College third-year student. That’s not surprising, considering group play can foster teamwork and collaboration.

Group Play Creates Leaders and Action-Takers

A playground isn’t just for jumping off swings from great heights and rushing down tall slides. It’s a laboratory in which children develop their roles in a group.

If you watch children on a playground for a length of time, you’ll notice some individuals naturally take on the role of the leader and the others listen. For example, when there aren’t enough swings to accommodate everyone, there’s usually one kid who lines everyone up and creates an arbitrary rule, such as everyone gets 30 swings before they have to give the next person a turn.

The Value of In-Person Interactions

Developing teamwork skills is difficult when you don’t interact directly with people. Sadly, that’s the reality for many children today. Instead of connecting with friends in person to share thoughts and feelings, 83 percent of teens reserve those conversations for virtual interactions on social media.

Many children in the U.S. are growing up in a virtual world where typing, clicking, and swiping seem like the only real actions they take. Some can collaborate extremely well — but only from behind a computer screen. When pressed to collaborate in person, they can’t. With fewer experiences of person-to-person negotiations, they’re likely to feel self-conscious in group situations. Instead of budding activists, we’re creating armchair activists who may talk a good game but don’t know how to move in the real world.

What do kids who take action have that those who sit around don’t? The interpersonal skills that allow them to communicate and collaborate effectively. Because of their exposure to in-person interactions, they’ve learned how to negotiate with others and have confidence in their teamwork skills.

Build Teamwork Skills Early

Experts agree that teamwork skills are stronger when developed early. Teamwork helps kids learn how to communicate with others, and communication is at the heart of collaboration and achieving group goals. Kids who can communicate in groups will be the action-takers of tomorrow. And we need those future adults collaborating on ideas to bring about a safer and healthier future.


By Jenna Cyprus

Jenna is a freelance writer and business consultant who covers business, technology and entrepreneurship. She's lectured for several universities and worked with more than 100 businesses over the course of the past 15 years. She's a mother of two kids, and loves to go camping, hiking and skiing with her family.