A classroom is made up of unique individuals who come together to form a one-of-a-kind community of learners. The road map to creating a collaborative community of students is also unique, but I found that the direction often revealed itself during the first weeks of school. Every year as a teacher I asked myself two questions: “What do my students need from me?” and “What do my students need from each other?”
One particular school year, a group of self-assured and independent kindergarten students marched through my classroom door on the first day of school. They were energized and laser-focused learners, and it looked as if it was going to be a breeze, considering all these models of leadership at the helm. It took only a few days to notice there might be a blip on the radar—numerous times each day, I heard my name wailing like a siren from the block area or dramatic play.
After one particularly busy day of responding to frantic pleas during independent choice time, I shared the situation with my teacher friend. She replied, “So you have a bunch of architects, but no one wants to build?” That was it. This classroom full of leaders was overly committed to their own ideas and struggled to negotiate and accommodate the ideas, needs, and wants of their peers; my class was frustrated and stuck.
It became clear that for these children to transition from a group of me-focused students to a solid “we,” I needed to intentionally plan and emphasize additional collaborative activities for the year. I proceeded immediately to prioritize visuals, activities, and words that would encourage group projects to help these students see each other as equal partners in the classroom. All of these components wound up benefiting each class afterward.
There were many guiding factors in shifting my classroom to a collaborative model, but these were three essential activities:
- Establishing centers and areas that encouraged shared space and materials (e.g., construction sets, writing supplies, dramatic play prop boxes, and makerspace materials)
- Documenting scenes of classroom collaboration with candid classroom photos, demonstrating to the students that their collaborative work had value in the classroom
- Facilitating individual, small group, and large group discussions about collaboration
One strategy for facilitating classroom discussions and encouraging children toward a collaborative mindset is to read picture books featuring characters (ideally children) who collaborate on a project. Numerous picture books address the needs, interests, and antics of the individual child, but in a school setting, it’s imperative that educators share stories that enable children to begin to identify what peer collaboration looks and sounds like.
The picture books that follow depict small groups of children or characters who demonstrate interdependence though navigating a project with a small group or partner. Each book features characters who demonstrate persistence and resilience as they become partners in projects necessitating give-and-take. All of the books offer the potential for rich STEAM and SEL discussions in the context of a literacy activity.
12 Picture Books That Foster Collaboration
How to Two, by David Soman. This counting book features different-size groups of children engaged in various playground games. (Preschool–kindergarten)
Big Feelings, by Alexandra Penfold, illustrated by Suzanne Kaufman. This book identifies and addresses the intense emotions that children sometimes experience when attempting to work collaboratively. (Preschool–grade 2)
Making a Friend, by Tammi Sauer, illustrated by Alison Friend. Master builder Beaver is able to make anything out of wood, but what Beaver would really like to make is a friend. On a snowy day, while attempting to make a friend out of snow, Beaver meets Raccoon, who is happy to help. The finished snowman is rather lackluster as a friend, but both Raccoon and Beaver find that the best thing to come out of that day is their friendship. (Preschool–grade 2)
Rain School, by James Rumford. In perhaps the ultimate classroom collaboration, the students must build their own school. Students in Chad learn how to make mud bricks and construct their classroom from the ground up. The school year ends just as the rainy season begins, and the rain beats down on the school, returning the mud and grass back to the land. (Preschool–grade 2)
Boxitects, by Kim Smith. Meg specializes in making constructions from boxes. One day she runs up against her ultimate construction challenge at the annual Maker Match—collaborating with Simone, another “boxitect.” (Preschool–grade 2)
A Day for Sandcastles, by JonArno Lawson, illustrated by Qin Leng. This wordless picture book portrays three siblings who build numerous sandcastles. The children repeatedly attempt to protect their fortress from such calamities as ocean waves, a lady’s giant floppy hat, and a runaway baby. (Preschool–grade 2)
We Are Together, by Britta Teckentrup. In this cumulative book, each turn of the page reveals another child joining a group of children. The poetic and heartfelt book emphasizes the importance of being part of a group. (Preschool–grade 2)
We’re All in the Same Boat!, by Barney Saltzberg. A goat, a pig, a cat, and a dog paddle out together for a boat ride. Each turn of the page reveals a challenging scenario in their journey, but no matter what happens, this motley crew is in it together. (Preschool–grade 2)
Going Places, by Paul A. Reynolds and Peter H. Reynolds, illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds. Classmates and neighbors Rafael and Maya are participating in the “Going Places” competition. They decide to combine their go-kart kits and their imaginations to soar above the competition. (Preschool–grade 3)
Lemonade for Sale and Treasure Map, both by Stuart J. Murphy, illustrated by Tricia Tusa. These two stories in Stuart J. Murphy’s MathStart series feature the Elm Street Kids. Friends and neighbors work together to accomplish their group goals. (Grades 1–4)
The Floating Field: How a Group of Thai Boys Built Their Own Soccer Field, by Scott Riley, illustrated by Nguyen Quang and Kim Lien. This is the true story of a young group of soccer-loving friends, living on the island of Koh Panyee, Thailand, who were inspired by the World Cup to build a soccer field. With limited places to play on the island, these friends strategized and built their own floating soccer field to play on. (Grades 2–5)