How to teach your child teamwork

Teamwork in primary school
We take a look at the importance of building team skills from a young age, and what you can do to support your child.

From collaborating in a sports team to putting on a class play, teamwork is a big part of primary school life. And mastering the art of being a team player will help your child succeed not just at school, but throughout their lives.

So how can we help our children develop this essential skill?

Why teamwork matters

‘Getting along and engaging with others is the building block of many things in life,’ says chartered clinical psychologist and parenting adviser Claire Halsey. ‘From a young age, children need to learn how to give and take, share, take turns, play to their strengths and draw in other people to fill the gaps. It’s a core social skill.’

Ian Brember, founder of Big Hat Bushcamp, agrees. ‘It’s a vital life skill for everyone, regardless of age,’ he says. ‘Whatever a child ends up doing as a job, they have to be able to work with other people. They also need to build relationships, whether with family members, friends, neighbours, colleagues or customers.’

Learning to work as part of a team will help your child hone many social skills, such as patience, empathy, communication, respect for others, compromise and tolerance. It also helps them develop confidence in themselves and trust in other people.

The primary school years are packed with opportunities for them to develop those skills, and children who get to grips with teamwork from a young age will act as positive role models for other kids, too.

The challenges of being a team member

Recent research from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and Duke University found that children as young as three understand the value of teamwork, but that doesn’t mean it always comes naturally.

‘Children are innately selfish,’ explains Ian. ‘They’re born with the drive to have their basic needs for food and comfort met, and it’s only through the lessons they learn in childhood that they begin to move away from that viewpoint.’

This means it’s quite normal for children to have difficulties with teamwork at first: you only need to watch a toddler snatch a toy from their playmate, or burst into tears if someone sits in their favourite chair, to see this in action.

‘They’re the centre of their own world, and their needs come first: it’s very hard for them to put those aside to allow someone else’s needs to be met,’ says Claire.

But while teething problems such as pushing and shoving, tantrums and being a sore loser are to be expected, over time, children will get used to being part of a team rather than a lone wolf.

‘By the age of three to five, most children are able to do some give and take, share with others and show some empathy towards other children,’ Claire explains.

Team-building at school

The primary school years are an excellent time to cultivate the teamwork ethos your child will draw on throughout their life, and many activities inside and outside the classroom are designed to help children get used to being team players. These include:

  • Problem-solving tasks, often in science or design technology, such as building the tallest possible structure using dry spaghetti and mini marshmallows as glue.
  • Partner or group work, with more able children helping those who are having difficulty with a task.
  • Group reading, where children take it in turns to read passages from a set book.
  • Music, playing simple instruments like recorders, keyboards and percussion to put together a piece of music.
  • Forest school, taking part in outdoor activities such as building shelters and lighting fires.
  • Team sports such as football, hockey, rounders, netball and relay races.
  • Debates, working as a team to argue for or against a particular issue.
  • Putting on a school play or a class assembly.
  • Circle time, where every child is given equal opportunity to speak.
  • School forums, where elected child reps meet with staff members to discuss issues that are affecting their class.

Often, children continue to collaborate outside lessons, playing team games like football or Tag at breaktime.

Children in upper Key Stage 2 are also likely to go on residential school trips which have a specific focus on team-building activities such as raft-making and den-building.

Team-building at home

There are many ways to give your child opportunities to practise their teamwork skills at home. You might like to try:

  • Board games and party games like Scrabble, Top Trumps, Charades, Jenga and Ludo: great for developing important social skills like taking turns, collaboration and compromise.
  • Cooking: challenge siblings to work together to follow a recipe and bake a cake or even cook dinner.
  • Putting on a play, show or music concert with siblings, friends or other family members.
  • Art projects such as making a large collage or mosaic, or construction projects like making a LEGO city.
  • Helping each other with homework: a great way for older children to support their younger siblings, while also developing vital skills such as communication and patience themselves.
  • Active outdoor play such as football, basketball, building dens or obstacle courses, and even building a snowman in the winter.
  • Team games like the classic passing a balloon between the legs and parachute games where children have to work together to keep a ball aloft: great if you have a group of kids to entertain.

Just keep in mind that teamwork can be challenging for children (and especially for siblings!), and be prepared to intervene if things are getting too competitive or confrontational.

Teamwork troubleshooting

Becase teamwork doesn’t come naturally, many children struggle with it, whether that’s because they’re shy, have a tendency to be bossy, or struggle when they’re on the losing team.

The good news is that there’s plenty we adults can do to help our children become better team players.

Emphasise the importance of being part of a team. Teams are more than just their strongest members: everyone has a role. ‘As parents, we can help our children find their strengths and develop them,’ says Claire. ‘Real resilience is knowing what you’re good at and playing to that.’ If, for example, your child isn’t a natural striker, they might be better suited to playing in goal for their football team.

Build their confidence. Children who are shy and reserved might find it difficult to be part of a team, and get walked over by more forceful characters. ‘Teachers and parents can help by giving quieter team members their own job to do,’ says Ian. ‘This shows that you believe in the child and builds their confidence.’

Demonstrate teamwork at home. There are dozens of opportunities to collaborate: for example, one sibling could fold the washing and the other put it away. You and your children could devise and cook a menu for a special meal, or join forces to plan a family day out, including transport, route and itinerary.

Enrol in an after-school club. ‘Everything we do in our sessions is a team-based activity, from den-building to fire-lighting and campfire cooking, aimed at teaching children important life skills,’ says Ian. An extra benefit of joining an extracurricular club is that children get to socialise with a different group of peers, expanding their social network.

Encourage fair play. Good ground rules – such as taking turns and being kind – are essential for teamwork, so set clear guidelines for team activities. ‘It’s even more effective if children come up with the rules themselves, as then they’re more invested in them,’ says Claire.

Keep in touch with school. If your child is finding the teamwork side of school hard, talk to their teacher. There are lots of strategies that can be used to help kids become better at being part of a team, such as picking names out of a hat for team leader positions rather than always calling on the same characters, or getting older pupils to run playground games for younger children.

Seek help if you’re worried. If you’re concerned that your child has social difficulties that are making teamwork hard, ask to speak to the school’s special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) for advice. But be realistic – even adults sometimes find it hard to be a team player, and most children will get better with practice.