Intervention: Cooperative Activities

(Games, Ice-Breakers, De-Inhibitors)

Cooperative activities involve interaction between clients and practitioners that require clients to engage with others for mutual benefit toward the development of therapeutic outcomes. Cooperative activities are often designed by the practitioner with the intention of creating positive interaction and fun. It is important to draw a distinction between games and activities. Games are playful and without expectation for change in a person. Activities, in this context, are chosen specifically for the clientele and with therapeutic intent. Even an ice breaker is selected with a clear intent in mind (Lung, Stauffer & Alvarez, 2008).

While one might consider the activities that come after these the main course, clients may be affected to a degree that we cannot predict. The practitioner must remain cognizant that the actual level of challenge or anxiety experienced by clients from the cooperative interactions may be a significant issue. Although cooperative games may appear less intense, is defined by the client’s experience and planning should be supported by assessment (Lung, Stauffer & Alvarez, 2008).

Unlike many games, which often have a “winner” and “loser”, cooperative activities focus on shared process. Often, the goal is for clients to work together with the hope they will discover how they work with others and whether this opportunity to work cooperatively is new or reinforcing.

Reasons for Using Cooperative Activities
There are a variety of reasons a practitioner may decide to use cooperative activities as a therapeutic intervention. Some intents may initially appear contradictory, and may be mutually exclusive depending on facilitation choices. For example, reducing stress and providing feedback to increase a client’s awareness of their functioning may be contradictory as receiving feedback may be stressful for the client. It is important to remember that the intervention includes both the activity and the appropriate facilitation of that activity with the client.

Creating Therapeutic Alliance
Cooperative activities are generally designed to be fun and offer an opportunity for the practitioner to relate to the client on an "enjoyment" level rather than having a focus on problems and deficits. Developing an effective therapeutic relationship between the practitioner and the client is a critical component of successful treatment. These activities can not only support the alliance with the practitioner, but also among other participants in the treatment process. The shared nature of the experience in the adventure context can enhance the therapeutic alliance as the practitioner is involved with the client in the actions. This fosters increased participation in the therapeutic process.

Developing an Effective Treatment Environment
Cooperative activities can assist the clients in developing norms that support therapeutic progress. In a treatment context, creating expectations of confidentiality, respect, safety, belonging and appropriate communication is important. Cooperative activities can enhance the engagement of the client in the treatment process. With effective facilitation, clients will be able to practice accountability and responsibility within the established norms of the group. Cooperative activities involve elements of humor, fun, silliness, and laughter that contribute to development of an effective treatment environment.

Cooperative activities provide a good opportunity for assessing various aspects of treatment. Practitioners are able to immediately observe client’s level of functioning, including interactions with the practitioner and other participants, willingness to engage, and comfort level taking risks. This ability to observe the group provides an assessment of the client’s baseline functioning, the developmental stage of the group or individual, and a client’s readiness to engage in the treatment process. Cooperative activities can be used to address a lack of knowledge about clients or to assist clients in assessing and learning about one another.

Cooperation and Relationship Building
Cooperative activities can be used to support clients in developing willingness to work together and an ability to do so effectively. Many times, cooperative activities are fun and encourage clients to build positive, healthy interactions with others. This intent is supported by being clear with clients about why they are present, what is going to happen to them, and exploring with them how they may react to the situation. The goal may be to move clients toward cooperative interaction one small step at a time. Cooperative activities allow opportunities to model healthy relationships, begin building trust in a group and in the group's abilities, and explore positive risk-taking in social settings.

Social Skills Acquisition
There are a variety of opportunities with cooperative activities for social skills acquisition. Clients are able to increase their self-awareness regarding their level of functioning through practitioner and peer feedback. Clients are also given an opportunity to learn and to practice appropriate social skills, and to utilize skills they already possess, such as communication, following directions, or sharing. Cooperative activities may challenge client’s pre-conceived notions about themselves, others and practitioners in a way that allows clients to change prior negative cognitions. Cooperative activities can potentially support clients in addressing boundary issues related to space or appropriate touch in a manner that is fun and non-threatening. Addressing these boundary issues relies on effective facilitation to manage appropriately and safely.

Practitioner Guidelines for Using Cooperative Activities
It is important as a practitioner to consider that no matter how fun or simple an activity may seem, client reactions to what they are asked to do will be diverse and not always predictable. Due to the potential range of client reactions, using cooperative activities and facilitation is essential. The intervention relies on both to be effective. The following practitioner guidelines should be considered when providing interventions using cooperative activities:

  • Remain focused on the therapeutic intent of the activity or there could be a breakdown in the therapeutic process. Activities should be selected that support client progress toward treatment goals. 
  • Be aware of client cultural beliefs and values about working with others, physical boundaries, and play. Be able to cope with client reactions in a culturally competent manner. 
  • Use cooperative activities to create less anxiety, stress and frustration than are typically encountered with more involved initiatives. This may act to ease stress experienced by clients who enter with some anxiety about what they are expected to do. 
  • Attend to the perceived physical and emotional risks experienced by clients, including the cognitive and emotional investments. Do not underestimate perceived risks with particular clients. For example, if practitioners encourage too much risk too soon, they may damage the therapeutic alliance and trust developed with clients. 
  • Model appropriate interactions, safety, participation, and maintain a climate of positive energy. 
  • Monitor for safety, both physical and emotional, and support adherence to any established expectations of clients. 
  • Create a space in which clients can reduce stress and have fun that generates positive interactions, providing a break from the intensity of the treatment process. Use these activities to change the energy or direction of a group, to refocus, or to reduce stress. 
  • Consider the need to debrief the therapeutic impact of an activity. Give feedback to clients as appropriate to reach the therapeutic intent of the cooperative activity. 
  • Consider style and strategies of facilitation in order to enhance therapeutic intent, choice of rules, and how to frame the activity. Be careful to avoid skipping this step.