Helping very young learners improve their collaboration skills

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Helping very young learners improve their collaboration skills


The idea of introducing collaborative tasks in a preschool setting can sound daunting. Are very young children capable of collaborating in groups peacefully and working together towards an aim without it becoming too tumultuous? No, probably not … that is, unless we create the right conditions. This post intends to shed light on the idea that collaboration with very young learners has two important dimensions: one dimension is collaborating to learn and the other is learning to collaborate.

Learning to collaborate

Often, before children even get started on a collaborative task, they find a problem: they haven’t been assigned to work with their ‘best friend’ … so they pout in disappointment. Another child has taken the seat they wanted to sit in … they whinge. They now start arguing over the materials you expected them to be sharing nicely and about whose turn it is to use the pink paint. The pink paint goes all over their clothes and floor and hands and faces. One child refuses to work, the other won’t stay in her seat, one child is sobbing with frustration, another won’t let go of his toy car, one child needs the bathroom … You have run out of luck.

What young children lack are the skills needed to collaborate appropriately, thus the need to focus on learning how to collaborate. We can’t just expect them to do it; we need to teach them how to do it.

Cooperation, collaboration or working together have benefits that can go unnoticed. When children are interacting with peers to accomplish a shared goal, we help them develop many skills: like the ability to help others, be good team players, share materials, organization skills, patience, turn-taking, control of their emotions and supportiveness, just to name a few. Learning the skills involved in collaboration becomes as important as the task itself. By engaging in collaborative tasks, we address holistic development opportunities that offer the acquisition of solid values and life skills for the whole child.

Practical tips for helping children learn to collaborate

Let’s face it: some children at this age have a problem following rules or lack the linguistic skills needed for asking for help or materials. Some children exhibit problem behaviours: treating others unkindly, hyperactivity, inattention, poor self-control … so it may seem easier to avoid collaborative tasks altogether. However, these challenges should not be seen as problems; they are opportunities to teach children something bigger, something more than content or language. It is important that we find solutions and ways to help children develop the necessary skills. Here are some troubleshooting ideas:

  • Visualise yourself giving clear instructions so that you yourself know what you want children to do, how you will simplify your language and how you are going to show what you mean. Set the rules and procedures from the very start, going step-by-step and using short and segmented instructions. Always show or demonstrate what you mean and go over the steps with the children: Say ‘Number 1 … Number 2 …’ This helps develop logic and sequencing skills, as well as autonomy and confidence, as children understand what they are expected to do.
  • Model the language children need when collaborating, and provide opportunities to practice it: ‘It’s your turn’, ‘Help, please’, ‘Can I have the yellow crayon, please’.
  • Give children a lot of guidance and support before and while they are working together. It is not only the teacher who can help: when you are grouping children, pair a shy child with a more confident classmate to encourage supportiveness, or ask early finishers to help someone else.
  • Structure your procedures and routines for collaborative work so that you use the same framework every time. This helps children become more independent over time as they will know these routines well, where to get the materials from (make sure they are at children’s reach), where the bin is, how groups will be formed, etc. Very young children need to feel safe in an organized environment in order to be able to carry out tasks well.
  • Don’t assume children know what you mean. It’s not enough to say, ‘listen’ or ‘share’ or ‘be tidy’. What does it mean to listen? What does it look like in practice? What is sharing and what isn’t sharing? Help children notice tidiness vs. untidiness with concrete examples, e.g. some modelling clay left on the table.
  • You might want to make some ‘skill visuals’ that portray the skills that children should put into practice: ‘share materials’, ‘tidy up’, ‘help others’. Use, as needed, before, during and after the collaborative process.

Collaborating to learn

Here are some practical suggestions for tasks and projects you can use to introduce colloboration in the classroom in a stress-free way.

1. Art projects

At this early stage, simple and achievable art projects involving the use of fine motor skills, such as colouring, painting, sticking and decorating, can all be done in small groups. Sometimes children can be encouraged to work together towards a collective outcome while they share the space and the materials, e.g. everyone collaborates by painting brown and orange fingerprints for leaves on an autumn tree mural.

Other times, children can work individually side-by-side to later contribute their part to a shared product, e.g. a farm display composed of animals created by each child. When the individual elements are brought together, the efforts of everyone involved are seen.

Make sure you have collected all the material that is needed and decide whether there should be enough for everyone or whether you prefer to have a limited number of each item to encourage the practice of patience, turn taking and requesting.

Show children the materials that they are going to use and how to use them (e.g. how to hold scissors correctly and that we don’t walk around with them). It is best to ask questions giving children the opportunity to practice key language, rather than give commands yourself, so instead of saying, ‘We’re going to use paint,’ show a pot of paint and ask, ‘What are we going to use?’ to elicit the word ‘paint’. Then, reformulate and say, ‘Yes, we’re going to use paint.’ In this way, your instructions become a learning opportunity that provides practice in both comprehension and production of target language.

2. Play

Children’s play is naturally full of collaboration you can take advantage of: for example, doing floor puzzles together, making a meal in the play kitchen or building a tower of wooden blocks with friends.

3. Whole class activities

For activities like playing games, singing songs and listening to a story, we gather together as a whole class. These all foster a sense of community in the classroom and require collaboration (listening, turn taking, joining in).

The sole act of listening to a story involves a collaborative effort, but this can also extend into using masks to dramatize the story, for instance. Sing songs that teach about values (like ‘The more we get together’) while participating in a class band using simple instruments (cymbals, maracas, tambourines, shakers).

A fun game with collaboration at its core is ‘Stacking Cups’. Have some paper cups and a set of flashcards. First, demonstrate the game by placing a cup on the floor, choosing a flashcard, saying the word on the card and placing it on the cup. After that, children take turns placing a cup on the previous flashcard and then placing a new flashcard on their cup while mentioning the vocabulary word. The goal is to build the tallest cup tower while reviewing lexical sets!

4. Everyday interactions

Create a supportive environment by asking children to help you deliberately at different moments throughout the day, even if you don’t really need an extra hand, e.g. ‘Can you help me stick these pictures on the wall, please?’, ‘Can you set the cups for snack time, please?’, ‘Can you help me to put my coat on, please?’. Children will transfer this to their own situations. Teach them to ask, ‘Can you help me, please?’ or just ‘Help, please’ if the children are very young.

Reflection on collaboration

After the collaborative task is complete, it is important to come together to reflect upon how well children worked together. Hold up the ‘skill visuals’ and ask reflection questions that affirm children’s positive behaviour: ‘Did you share your materials?’, ‘Did you tidy up?’, ‘Many of you were helping your friends’. Here, the focus is placed on giving feedback on the skills of participation, not on the final product.

Teach positive language that children can use to give feedback on their friends’ work, like ‘I like your picture’, ‘I like the colours’, ‘Beautiful!’. The best way to teach this is to do it yourself – be a good role model and help children notice how you use positive language. Puppets are very useful tools to show this too. Always refer to the fact that everyone has helped and that they couldn’t have made such a beautiful product or enjoyed the task as much on their own.


Practise collaboration, and be patient … it takes time! Do collaborative activities often so that children have the opportunity to engage in this type of activity and get used to the dynamics of it. When they feel their contributions are worthwhile to the group, they will contribute and cooperate more.

Looking back at the problems that the collaborative process implies in a preschool classroom, we come to understand that we should harness those challenges and make the most of them. These challenges are actually opportunities – to help children develop something bigger than language: it’s about the development of the whole child.

About the author

Sarah Hillyard is an ELT consultant and teacher trainer based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She holds a Masters Degree in Teaching English to Young Learners from the University of York, UK. After teaching and coordinating in pre-primary contexts for many years, she now offers INSET sessions and consultancy for bilingual schools.

As a freelance consultant, she has written materials and guides for teachers for Macmillan Education, as well as articles focusing on teaching English to very young learners. She also designs and leads workshops, talks and webinars and is currently an online tutor for NILE’s course ‘Teaching English in Pre-primary Education’.

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