How to raise a team player

Seven fun activities that teach kids the value of pitching in and helping others.

By Rob Baedeker

Play (and work) well with others

Are you children team players? People who happily help out at home and include others at school? Kids who know not just how to lead but, when it’s required, to follow?

There are compelling reasons to teach your children how to be more of a “Go team!” and less of an “I am the center of the universe” kind of kid. Children in the habit of sharing responsibilities and working with others — whether at home or at school — tend to be less self-centered and more respectful, responsible, cooperative, resilient, and self-sufficient. Research on kids and chores done in 2003 by Marty Rossmann, emeritus associate professor of family education at the University of Minnesota, found that those who regularly do household chores from an early age are far more likely to be successful young adults.

But teaching kids the value of teamwork doesn’t have to be a wag-your-finger “Do this now!” exercise (unless you're prepared to deal with the requisite moans and groans of “That’s not fair!” and “I don’t want to”).

What follows are seven activities to give kids practice at being part of a team. These work for a range of ages and abilities — just remember to have patience with younger children. They may not get every chore or game right, but it's the spirit of teamwork that counts.

Chart a course

To get every family member’s buy-in for household teamwork, create a chore chart. Before making the chart, hold a family meeting and brainstorm about what needs to be done around the house. Kids will be more enthusiastic about doing their share if they're asked to contribute their ideas and opinions. Include parental "chores" too, so everyone can see how each person is pitching in. Ask questions like: "Who should earn the money to pay the rent?" "Who should put away toys?” “Who should pick up dirty clothes and put them in the hamper?”

On a sheet of paper — ideally one with horizontal and vertical lines to create squares — write the chores (for example, do the dishes, fold the laundry, feed the dog) vertically down the left side of the paper, and write the days of the week horizontally across the top of the page. Then fill in the family member’s name in the corresponding square. (You could also print out a pre-made chore chart, like this or this.) A tip: To help make housework more fun and less of a grind, change the chart every so often and do several chores as a family team — or create chore teams with competitions: The parents versus the kids.

Teamwork lesson: The discussion, chart, and chores serve as regular reminders that pitching in is simply part of life — at home, at school, and at work.  

Bag the drama

Have a small group of kids put on a short play or skit. Give them a grocery bag filled with random items — a hat, an old necklace, a ruler, and an apple, for example — and have them think up a story using all the items.

The kids get to decide who should play what role. They can all perform in the show, but remind them that they'll also need someone to be in charge of making programs, ensuring there are chairs for the audience, introducing the show, and serving refreshments. Set a time limit ("The play has to start in one hour from now!") to add a fun element of pressure to "opening night" and an extra sense of how teamwork is necessary to meet a deadline.

Teamwork lesson: You often create something spectacular by working as a group, with everyone contributing ideas and talents.

Trust the guide

In this game, one player wears a blindfold and the other is the seeing-eye "guide." The guide leads the blindfolded player around the house, through the yard, or around a simple and safe obstacle course by directing him or her — with words only — toward a specific spot, without bumping into anything.

With bigger groups, divide the kids into teams of three or four. The blindfolded player will have to listen to directions from the whole group — and the group will have to coordinate directions for the blindfolded person. Everyone should take turns in both roles to see what it's like to meet different needs in a team.

Teamwork lesson: To be part of a team, you have to follow — as well as lead — and learn to trust and depend on others.

Paint by numbers

Fold a piece of paper in half twice, then unfold it so you have four squares. One person starts by drawing anything he wants in a square, making sure that part of the drawing touches at least one of the creases in the middle. Then he passes the paper to the next person, who draws whatever she wants in her square while connecting part of her picture to the previous player's. And so on, with each player building on the work of the person before. No one is allowed to direct the other artists — everyone has to accept whatever contribution the others make and adapt to the ever-changing picture. The drawing ends after the page is filled.

Teamwork lesson: One person’s ideas and contributions are just as important as other team members'.

Open a family restaurant

Have kids design and operate a "restaurant" in your house and then serve you a meal for the "grand opening." First ask them to come up with the restaurant's name and what meal it will serve. Next they'll need to make a menu and decorate the restaurant. When it comes to preparing the food, depending on the children's ages, you may need to lend a hand (especially when working with fire and knives). But let them do what they can, and be patient with their mistakes.

Younger kids can serve something simple, like sandwiches, while older ones can try cooking on their own and managing the younger ones. But everyone will have to figure out his or her role.

Teamwork lesson: Every person’s help is required to make any business run successfully.

Strike a pose

This game works best with three players. To begin, two players move around near each other. After about 20 seconds, the third player calls out "Freeze," and the others hold whatever position they’re in. The third player then makes up a description of the "statue" formed by the two frozen players. For example, "This is a statue of a cowboy putting horseshoes on his favorite horse before their last big ride together" or “This is a statue of two aliens eating cars.” (Always fun to see if you can get the statue giggling.) Then the third player taps one of the frozen players to unfreeze him or her. (This means the statue keeps evolving one half at a time — half of each statue always stays in place, and the new player's position in relation to the frozen person creates an entirely new picture.)

The one who is tapped becomes the next artist, and the one who just had a turn as the artist now dances around the other frozen player until the third person calls out "Freeze." Then the new artist describes the statue and so on, with everyone taking turns in order and one player remaining frozen each time. (By the way, the frozen kids aren't allowed to speak — they have to accept whatever description the artist gives.)

Teamwork lesson: By being flexible and open to new (and even crazy) ideas, a team can create interesting things together.

Put all your eggs in one basket

This engineering and teamwork game works best with older kids and teens — although children of any age can participate. Form groups of two or more, and give each group the same set of supplies: easy things you can find in the house like newspapers, tape, paper clips, and cotton balls. Each group also gets one egg. Together the teams design and build a package to protect the egg when it's dropped onto the ground. (Unless you want scrambled eggs, consider using hard-boiled eggs.)

After a set amount of time for construction, the egg drop begins: Drop the package first from a low height (two feet or so) and gradually increase the distance until the egg breaks. (You can make it into a competition if you have more than one team.) If any team members are too young for the design and building of the package, they can take a role like timekeeper or "morale manager" (making sure the team keeps a positive attitude).

Teamwork lesson: Sure, all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again. But by planning and working together, kids can produce egg-cellent results.

Rob Baedeker is a writer living in Berkeley, Calif. He is the coauthor, with the Kasper Hauser comedy group, of SkyMaul: Weddings of the Times and Obama's BlackBerry.