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Beyond Recess: Synchronized Play Improves Kids' Cooperation

Synchronized movement on a swingset improves subsequent preschooler cooperation.

Source: Voyagerix/Shutterstock

New research suggests that kids who play in synchrony develop better collaborative skills on various tasks. Synchronized movements—such as swinging side-by-side in unison—enhances subsequent peer cooperation between preschool children, according to a recent study from the University of Washington's Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS).

The April 2017 study, "Synchronized movement experience enhances peer cooperation in preschool children," was published online in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. Cooperation is a fundamental life skill that is essential for getting along with one another, achieving collective goals, and maintaining close-knit human bonds at every stage of life.

To identify how synchronous motion enhances children's capacity to cooperate, the research team of Tal-Chen Rabinowitch and Andrew N. Meltzoff devised a simple swing set apparatus that delivered synchronized (and unsynchronized) movement to 4-year-old preschoolers, who were strangers. Children were assigned to one of 3 different "swinging" groups: synchrony, asynchrony, and baseline.

Courtesy of I-LABS

After synchronous movement, these boys played a computer game in which both had to cooperatively push a button at the same time. When they did, a cartoon character appeared on the screen, much to their delight.

Source: Courtesy of I-LABS

The researchers found that synchronous motion caused children to enhance their cooperation abilities, which were measured by their speed of completing a joint task in comparison to control groups that underwent asynchronous motion on the swing or no motion at all. The researchers concluded, "Further analysis suggested that synchronization experience increased intentional communication between peer partners, resulting in increased coordination and cooperation."

In previous research, Rabinowitch (a trained flautist who has played in various orchestras and ensembles around the world) explored the interplay between musical synchrony and social interaction between toddlers and young children. Her musically based research and life experience shows that being in rhythmic sync with another person promotes prosocial behaviors among children, and possibly adults.

In their latest study, Rabinowitch and Meltzoff were curious to see how synchronized movements—without a musical component—affected peer cooperation between preschool children. As mentioned earlier, the synchronous movement of children on a swing set promoted cooperation on subsequent activities among preschool children.

This study puts the importance of play in the spotlight. From a policymaking perspective, these findings also reaffirm that cutting education budgets in a way that reduces music classes or recess play could ultimately backfire by reducing prosocial and cooperative student behaviors, beginning at a young age.

Fred Rogers from the classic PBS children's program Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood once said, "Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood." I agree.

As the father of a 9-year-old, I had an "Aha!" moment when I read this study because the empirical evidence pinpoints a correlation between synchronized movement and cooperation that I'd subconsciously observed with my daughter and strangers at the playground but hadn't specifically tagged as being linked to prosocial behavior.

Rabinowitch believes the results of this study might have implications that go beyond recess and the clinical laboratory. She encourages parents and teachers to seek out "in sync" movement opportunities for pairs and groups of children, through play, dance, music, sports, etc. Regardless of government spending, each of us has the power to incorporate synchronized movement (which is free) into our children's daily activities beginning at a young age.


Tal-Chen Rabinowitch, Andrew N. Meltzoff. Synchronized movement experience enhances peer cooperation in preschool children, Journal of Experimental Child Psychology (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2017.03.001

Rabinowitch, T., & Knafo-Noam, A. (2015). Synchronous Rhythmic Interaction Enhances Children's Perceived Similarity and Closeness towards Each Other. PLoS One, 10(4).

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