Cooperative Learning Activities: A New School Year Is an Ideal Time for Cooperative Skill Development


As a new school year begins, this is an ideal time to include cooperative learning activities in physical education programs. While outlining the positive impact that such activities can have on children (cognitively, physically, and socially), this article offers a gentle reminder of some integral information related to cooperative learning activities—benefits, key elements, teaching considerations, and activity examples.


Cooperative learning activities are ideally suited for students to experience physical activity, enjoyment, and success when working together in commonly assigned tasks in randomly selected groups. With an explicit focus on meaningful learning, cooperative learning activities have been found to promote inclusivity; higher-level reasoning; creation of new ideas and solutions; greater efficiency in learning transference; enhanced fundamental movement skills; healthier personal relationships; and other essential life skills (e.g., allocating, communicating, compromising, encouraging, helping, listening, observing, problem-solving, re-assuring, sharing).


When teaching cooperative learning activities, teachers will observe a number of key elements emerging within authentic learning environments. These can help maintain an emphasis on non-competitive participation, constructive and positive social interaction, strategic group planning, and evaluation. When cooperative learning activities are genuinely structured so that each group member helps one another, three key elements are participation, success, and trust.

1. Participation: Each student will be fully engaged by carrying out individual responsibilities associated with completing larger group tasks; individual tasks will combine for group success.

Question for Teachers: How can you ensure that each student is fully engaged, and in what ways can group members encourage each other toward full participation?

2. Success: Each student’s contribution will lead to success in various ways. Students will experience a sense of achievement during and following the activity. After carrying out individual responsibilities and supporting peers, each student will feel a sense of recognition as the group achieves its goal, which would not have occurred without each member’s contribution.

Question for Teachers: How can you ensure that each student feels a sense of success alongside peers, and in what ways can group members ensure each member achieves the intended feeling of success?

3. Trust: Each student will be afforded opportunities to develop trust amongst their group through fulfilling individual responsibilities, endorsing shared communication, upholding consistent levels of encouragement and support toward others, and ultimately ensuring a focus remains on completing the group task. Each participant has a role in achieving group success; by revealing a willingness to focus on the group goal, trust can emerge.

Question for Teachers: How can you ensure that each student assists in trust-building amongst the group, and in what ways can group members help each other in developing and maintaining a trust-filled learning environment?


When planning cooperative learning activities, a number of worthy teaching considerations can be fused to ensure student learning. Two such considerations are group formation and reflection questions.

1. Group Formation: Forming groups is an essential step in the planning stages. Randomly selected groups ensure that each group reflects an array of skills, interests, etc. Here are a couple of strategies for forming randomly selected groups.

Birth Month Line: The teacher asks the students to stand next to each other with their backs against the wall and then instructs them to re-arrange the line according to their birth month by non-verbally communicating their month with a number (January = 1, February = 2, etc.). Once they have re-arranged the line from 1s (i.e., January birthdays) to 12s (i.e., December birthdays), the teacher asks the students, starting with whoever is standing at the beginning of the line, to say their Birth Month. If, by the end of the line, the months are called out in order, celebrate with the class! If there is a participant (or two) who needs to move to a different placement, ask them to move and celebrate that, too! Once the re-arranged line is accurate, the teacher counts the students off from the beginning of the line into the number of groups required for the activity (e.g., for 4 groups, count 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.).

• Class Cards: Prepare a set of class cards with one student’s name on each card. The teacher shuffles the cards and designates a spot for each group. The teacher calls out each name when it is pulled from the set, “dealing” the cards to the designated spots just as cards are dealt in a card game.

There are many ways to form randomly selected groups. Understandably, some take more organizational time than others. However, I have used both of these strategies, and the benefits from the formed groups far outweigh the time taken to form the groups. When considering the forming of randomly selected groups, I suggest having 4 to 5 quick-and-easy strategies that the students understand (ensuring developmental appropriateness) and employ them throughout the school year to help enrich the intended cooperative learning environment.

2. Reflection Questions: Providing students with time to reflect on cooperative learning experiences (during and after the activity) is a powerful ingredient fused into the lesson. A few questions teachers can ask students (individually or in groups) to reflect upon are as follows:

• In what ways did your contribution add to group success?

• In what ways did you (your group) ensure “inclusion for all” during the activity? • In what ways did you (your group) experience success throughout the activity?

• What was most enjoyable when participating in the activity?

• What was most challenging when participating in the activity?

• What did you learn about yourself and/or your group throughout the activity?

Intentionally designed reflection questions help to enhance students’ cooperative skills; such questions place an explicit focus on the meaningfulness of the cooperative learning activities, allowing students to share thoughts related to the learning experience.


The following are three cooperative learning activities for teachers to consider employing and modifying to help increase their students’ cooperative skills. 1. Linked Group Hoop Pass: The class is organized into small groups (e.g., 5 to 6 participants per group). Each group forms a circle (with groups spread out within the activity space), with each group member standing and holding hands with direct neighbours. Each group is handed one hula hoop, which is placed between two participants’ clasped hands. On the teacher’s cue, each group passes the hula hoop around the circle, back to the starting point, without letting go of each other’s hands. In variations of this activity (developmentally appropriate challenges), teachers could ask students to:

• use non-verbal communication;

• move the hula hoop around the circle five times one way, then five times in the opposite direction;

• use two hula hoops, with each traveling in opposite directions—then perhaps add a 3rd hula hoop;

• use different-sized hula hoops;

• fuse two groups (e.g., 10 to 12/group), and add a 3rd, 4th, or 5th hula hoop; and

•form one large line (whole class) and pass a number of hula hoops (spread out) from the beginning of the line to the end.

2. Repeated Shared Juggle: The class is organized into small groups (e.g., odd number of 5 or 7 students). Each group (with groups spread out within the activity space) forms a circle, with each group member standing and facing the centre of the circle approximately one metre away from direct neighbours (change distance to ensure developmental appropriateness). One student is handed a ball to pass to another group member (e.g., medium-sized foam-type ball). On the teacher’s cue, each group passes the ball from student to student (with the passer calling out the name of the student they’re passing to), which does not include passing to a student directly to the left or right. Each pass should be directed toward a student across the circle who has not received the ball (to ensure full group participation). After each student has received and passed the ball, and when the ball has returned to the first passer, the group is challenged to replicate the passing sequence (e.g., multiple times for 3 minutes), which can include different types, speeds, and heights of passes (e.g., high or low overhand, underhand, sideway throws; rolls; bounce passes). Teachers ensure the types of passes remain developmentally appropriate. In variations of this activity (developmentally appropriate challenges), teachers could ask students to:

• use non-verbal communication;

• use their non-dominant throwing hand for passing;

• pass various types and sizes of objects (e.g., bean bag, tennis ball, volleyball);

• pass more than one object (e.g., teacher can hand the first passer a 2nd, 3rd, 4th object) using the same passing sequence;

• move back a few steps, which would increase the circle size allowing for longer passes;

• form larger groups (e.g., 9 to 11 per group) and increase the number of objects to pass.

3. Assorted Collective Balance: The class is organized into pairs or groups of three. Each small group (with groups spread out within the activity space) is handed one ball (e.g., medium-size foam-type ball), which is placed on the floor in the middle of the group. On the teacher’s cue, each group collectively raises and balances the ball in a creative way. Following a 20-second balance, the ball is placed in the middle again to afford another opportunity for the group to balance the ball a different way. The groups continue this activity for 2 to 3 minutes (change the amount of time to ensure developmental appropriateness), which can then lead to a few group demonstrations for the class to observe and try when the group activity begins again. In variations of this activity (developmentally appropriate challenges), teachers could ask students to:

• use non-verbal communication;

• use specific body parts and/or levels (i.e., low, medium, high) to balance the ball;

• balance the ball while sitting down;

• balance various types and sizes of objects (e.g., bean bag, tennis ball, volleyball);

• balance more than one object (e.g., hand each group a 2nd, 3rd, 4th object);

• fuse two groups (e.g., 4 to 6 per group) and increase the number of objects to balance.

These three activity examples require minimal planning, set-up, and equipment and can be easily modified to ensure developmentally appropriate learning experiences across the range of elementary school grade levels. Additionally, each activity affords students multiple responsibilities (e.g., discussing effective strategies, cheering on and encouraging group members, making their own way through the hula hoop, effectively passing and receiving the ball, and doing their part to help balance the ball). When considering the inclusion of cooperative learning activities in physical education, such as the three examples discussed here, I suggest finding ways to use them for both stand-alone activities as well as fusing them into other learning activities/games (e.g., dance-type activities).

This article was intended to share a few ideas related to teaching cooperative learning activities in elementary school classes. Cognitive, physical, and social benefits materialize when participation, success, and trust emerge during cooperative learning activities. Group formation and reflection questions are important ingredients to an effective lesson. All in all, because cooperative learning experiences can help enhance students’ knowledge, skills, and attitudes required to become productive societal members, the beginning of this school year marks an ideal time to design meaningful learning opportunities for cooperative skill development.


Brent Bradford
Brent Bradford (PhD) is an Associate Professor (Faculty of Education) at Concordia University of Edmonton (CUE). Brent has extensive teaching experience at the school (2000-2009) and post-secondary (2009-2023) levels. He has published extensively in the field of Physical & Health Education and has co-authored two teacher education textbooks related to Physical Education (2018) and Health Education (2017). In 2021, he published an edited volume entitled, The Doctoral Journey: International Educationalist Perspectives, and is Book Series Editor for The Doctoral Journey in Education (BRILL). Brent was awarded CUE’s Gerald S. Krispin ‘President’s’ Research Award (2019), and has served on numerous committees, such as President (Education Society of Edmonton), Editor (The Alberta Teachers’ Association Runner Journal), and Board of Directors Member (Physical & Health Education Canada). Brent can be reached at

This article is featured in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Fall 2023 issue.

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