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The importance of rough and tumble play

One particular type of co-operative physical play that sometimes causes adults some concerns is that referred to as ‘rough and tumble’ play. This can sometimes appear to be rather aggressive, but it is, in fact, clearly distinguishable from actual fighting by the obvious mutual enjoyment of the participants, signalled by happy faces, laughter and screams of delight. The film shows several examples of children and adults, and groups of children, rolling around, play-wrestling, running and chasing and just lying on top of one another in heaps, all with very obvious signs of enjoyment.

Good for looking at

  • Self-regulated learning through play
  • Physical play
  • Supporting play
  • Taking risks
  • Emotional development
  • Social development

General prompts for discussion

  • Why is rough and tumble play important?
  • What learning occurs during rough and tumble play?
  • How does rough and tumble play support the development of children’s friendships and social skills?
  • What sorts of opportunities or environmental features should we provide to support children’s rough and tumble play?
  • How can adults best support children’s rough and tumble play when they are experiencing difficulties in playing with other children and establishing and maintaining friendships?

Prompts for developing practice

  • Do we understand sufficiently about children’s rough and tumble play to be able to make good decisions about our practice in supporting it?
  • In our setting, are we providing children with a good range of opportunities for rough and tumble play?
  • Do we provide appropriate adult support for children when they are experiencing social difficulties during rough and tumble play?
  • Do we have an adequate system of observation to record individual children’s abilities to engage positively and happily in rough and tumble play, and to help us decide on appropriate provision for that child?
  • Do we effectively support children to develop social and friendship skills in the context of rough and tumble play, particularly those children who are shy or socially inept?

Developing emotional bonds

Rough and tumble play has been widely researched and been shown to be an important type of physical play across the animal kingdom. While in simpler animals, biologists have generally regarded it as being a means of practicing fighting skills, in more complex species it appears to have evolved into a mechanism for controlling aggression, particularly among close family members, and certainly in human children it has been shown to be primarily concerned with establishing close emotional bonds and developing understandings of emotional expression (Power, 2000; Pellegrini, 2006; Jarvis, 2010). A strong clue to the purposes of rough and tumble play can be found when we examine with whom we engage in this type of play – close family members, sometimes much-loved pets, close friends and those with whom we are involved romantically.

So, it would appear that the attraction of rough and tumble play for young children, and the high levels of enjoyment they derive from it, should be trusted by adults, and opportunities for this type of play should be supported. Of course, in the excitement things can go awry on occasions, and there is always the potential for children to be accidentally hurt, or for a child with poor behavioural self-regulation to lash out). For this reason, it is clearly important for adults to be watchful when children are engaging in rough and tumble play (particularly if the location of the play presents safety issues, or if children are involved who are known to have difficulty regulating their aggression). However, children whose parents play with them in this way are far more likely to be ‘securely attached’, with all the resulting emotional advantages that derive from close emotional bonds within a family, and rough and tumble play amongst children in a care or educational setting is clearly a sign of a warm and supportive environment, and a type of physical play with strong links to children’s self-confidence, to their social skills and to their emotional well-being.