Understanding the Value of Children’s Rough-and-Tumble Play

How should we manage rough-and-tumble physical interactions among children that are playful and not intending to cause harm?

By Michelle Tannock

Parents will often pause at the end of the day to talk about their child for a moment with an educator. Discussions often revolve around health concerns, developmental issues, and behaviour. So when a mom stopped to question an educator about the behaviour of her four-year-old son, this was not an unexpected event. For this mom, her concerns about her son involved what she viewed as aggressive play with another boy in the centre while the two enjoyed some play time at a local park over the weekend. She described her son as wrestling, pushing, grabbing, pulling, and karate chopping the other child. Further, the other boy was doing the same to her son and both boys seemed to be thoroughly enjoying this as they laughed together and referred to one another as “best buds.” Even with the enjoyment being expressed by her son, she wanted to know what was wrong as he seemed to be enjoying what she viewed as aggression.

The educator with whom this mom was speaking smiled and reassured the mom that there was nothing wrong with her son; he was enjoying rough-and-tumble play. For many educators and parents, the role and nature of rough-and-tumble play can be difficult to understand. Rough-and-tumble play is not only a topic of interest to early childhood educators and parents, but also to researchers who seek opportunities to more effectively understand this “neglected aspect of play” (Pellegrini & Smith, 1998).

Rough-and-tumble play is often identified as wrestling or play fighting but also includes behaviours such as running, chasing, use of open-handed slaps, pushing or pulling another player, using a loud or roaring voice, making hitting motions, and jumping on, throwing or kicking an object (Tannock, 2005). While some of these descriptors might also be included when describing aggression, the defining variable is that children engaging in rough and tumble play have a playful purpose and are not intending to cause harm to another player.

Educators can quickly identify if physical actions are harmful by carefully observing the intention of the child. If the child is displaying an open body stance including the “play face” with smiles and laughter (Reed & Brown, 2000; Pellegrini & Smith, 1998), they are enjoying the activity. However, children who are displaying a closed body stance including clenched fists, without smiles and laughter, and who are using an angry tone of voice are not playful in their actions. This is aggression and the educator needs to quickly intervene before someone gets hurt.

Nevertheless, when physical interactions among children are playful and not aggressive, educators are often uncertain of what to do (Tannock, 2008). This is not unexpected as very little research has been conducted on rough-and-tumble play to assist educators with making informed choices about managing rough-and-tumble play at their settings. Further, educators often find themselves working in the field without having discussed rough-and-tumble play during their ECE training or with colleagues at work, and they are uncertain of how parents would react to seeing their child engaging in this type of play while in care. However, for the educators who are seeing rough-and-tumble play in their setting, understanding the value of the play may support discussions and understanding which will, in turn, support efforts to managing the play.

Rough-and-tumble play holds value for young children in relation to their physical, social, and educational development. The physical benefits of energy release, exercise, and practice of motor skills might seem obvious but there are significant benefits in other developmental areas as well. Rough-and-tumble play holds a social dynamic which aids in the development of social competency as children learn about themselves and others. Children are learning about self-control, compassion when caring for another player, boundaries of what is acceptable in the play, limits to play, how to adapt their play to the abilities of others, and how to make judgments of their abilities in relation to other players. Rough-and-tumble play supports learning to cooperate, share, take turns, resolve conflicts, develop leadership skills, and to control impulses and aggressive behaviour. Educationally, rough-and-tumble play holds value as children experiment and take risks, practice skills, build self-confidence and self-esteem, improve their communication skills, and develop their ability to regulate their attention and persistence. Clearly rough-and-tumble play holds important learning opportunities for young children that need to be explored by educators.

Even when considering the value of rough-and-tumble play, educators tend to remain concerned about the inclusion of such play in early childhood settings. Early childhood education is a female dominated profession (Cooney & Bittner, 2001; Sumsion, 2000) while rough-and-tumble play is a male-dominated form of play. Boys account for 80% of all rough-and-tumble play (Tannock, 2005; Pellegrini & Smith, 1998; Monghan-Nourot, 1997; Smith & Lewis, 1985) while females establish behavioural expectations and favourable patterns of play within early childhood education. As a result, educators are often inexperienced rough-and-tumble players and, as a result, unaware of how to effectively manage rough-and-tumble play in their settings. This indicates a need for increased exploration and understanding about the learning opportunities available through this diverse form of play in order to develop a set of guidelines on what forms of rough-and-tumble play might be acceptable in the child care settings.

As educators seek to develop programs that reflect the interests and support the development of all young children, they need to develop a level of acceptance and understanding of all elements of play. With increased understanding of various patterns of play, educators may be better able to distinguish play behaviours that are natural and enjoyable, even though they might appear to the untrained eye to be aggressive, and become better able to accept predominately male forms of physical play.

Rough-and-tumble play is occurring within early childhood programs and parents will ask educators about their child’s participation in this form of play. It is the responsibility of educators to recognize the value of rough-and-tumble play while also developing effective methods for managing this form of play. With increased understanding of the value of rough-and-tumble play, educators can not only more effectively manage the play, but also support parents who might be uncertain about this neglected aspect of play.

Michelle T. Tannock, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Special Education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.


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