How Synchronized Play Improves Kids’ Cooperation


Although we do have a natural ‘tribal instinct’ in our genes, there is a counterpoint of sometimes wanting to be alone. Perhaps we are awaiting an invitation to join the ‘tribe’. Someday we are confident scientists will know the logic behind this concept. In the interim, new research has confirmed that kids discover how to work together by playing together.

In 2015, social scientists Tal-Chen Rabinowitch and Ariel Knafo-Noam published a report on how what they call ‘synchronous rhythmic interaction’ encourages kids to cooperate together. This includes tapping fingers together on a surface and playing in small orchestras. They found this improves their ability to work together on other projects and interact better in spontaneous interactions.

These findings put playschool in a new light and add fresh meaning to playing musical instruments at junior school. Next time you see your kid seesawing for hours with a friend, or swinging together in harmony with others, welcome this with fresh eyes as an essential part of growing up.

In 2017, Tal-Chen Rabinowitch was back in the news again, with her mentor Andrew N. Meltzoff. This time, Tal-Chen wanted to know what happened if she omitted the audio (musical) component in favor of just movement. In the introduction to their joint report they explain, “Cooperating with other people is a key achievement in child development and is essential for human culture.

“We examined whether we could induce four-year-old children to increase their cooperation with an unfamiliar peer by providing the peers with synchronized motion experience prior to the tasks. Children were assigned to one of three groups: synchrony, asynchrony, and baseline. Synchrony experience led to enhanced peer cooperation.”

Their methodology was simple, bringing it within reach of educators and parents. Rabinowitch and Meltzoff devised a dual swing set that allowed random pairs of children to swing out of sync, in unison, or not at all. They ensured the participants had not met previously, so they could observe how cooperation emerged from unfamiliarity.

The results confirmed Rabinowitch and Knafo-Noam’s earlier conclusion that kids learn to socialize by doing synchronized things together. They reported that “Further analysis suggested that synchronization experience increased intentional communication between peer partners, resulting in increased coordination and cooperation.”

Tal-Chen Rabinowitch is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Learning and Brain Scientists at the University of Washington. Her specialism is the relationship between music, synchrony, and emotional and social interaction between toddlers. Her conclusion was that this relationship is a positive one that generally has implications for young adult sport and group exercising.

Spinning sessions and exercise circuits for young people take on new significance at gyms in the light of this. As do set pieces in gridiron football, and set scrums in rugby. The proof is there for all to see in the collective enthusiasm of sports teams.

We have no reason to believe that synchronous activity is not beneficial for management teams on breakaways too. Next time you see children playing hopscotch or swinging together in a park, notice how improved cooperation shines through growing friendship.

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