What is Rough-and-Tumble Play?

At First Steps, we always seem to have quite a few boys who like to be involved in Rough-and-Tumble play, and this can often make the educators supervising uncomfortable because they are worried about the boys hurting one another. 

Children who engage in this type of play often do so because it’s fun, but it’s important to note that rough play is a basic human instinct that can also help children develop many skills; so you don’t need to always rush in and break it up.

What is Rough-and-Tumble Play?

Rough-and-tumble play is play that can come across as aggressive, physical and risky even when the children engaging in it are full of joy and excitement. It is a form of play that sees children climbing over each other; wrestling; rolling around; pulling each other over, and even engaging in pretend fighting. According to a quick search on Google, the following definition sums it up perfectly: “verbally and physically cooperative play behaviour involving at least two children, where all participants enjoyably and voluntarily engage in reciprocal role-playing that includes aggressive make-believe themes, actions, and words; yet lacks intent to harm either emotionally or physically.”

How does Rough-and-tumble play and Playful Aggression benefit your child?

Rough-and-tumble play shapes children’s physical, social, emotional, and cognitive behaviours by teaching them self-control, compassion, boundaries, and about their own abilities compared to other children. It allows them to:

  • explore their changing positions in space and nurture body awareness.
  • understand the limits of their strength.
  • determine personal boundaries and work out social relationships as they take turns and play different roles.
  • practice body control and balance.
  • hone their arm and hand movements.

Due to misunderstanding the differences between this type of play and serious aggression, many parents and educators find playful aggression unnerving to watch and creates a degree of discomfort. But in fact, playful aggression is a type of positive and enjoyable social play, that under correct supervision, is very safe for your child to participate in; as long as they are not physically hurting one another at any time.
Playful aggression also occurs as a form of pretend play, which plays an important part in your child’s growth and development due to its complex behaviours involving many areas of the brain. Playful aggression, as pretend play, is more predominant and significant for boys who tend to be more physical and active in how they project themselves in the world and in how they play.

When to step in…

Whilst the first instinct for adults is to step in and break up rough play and reprimand the boys for their unruly behaviour, blocking playful aggression could see these suppressed behaviours manifest and pushed out in less healthy ways. So, it’s best to permit playful aggression in controlled and monitored environments.

When witnessing such behaviours in boys, it is important to first assess the situation to see if they are getting a bit too rough, or whether they are having fun before jumping straight in; observe and then act if required. If you are unsure about whether the play is bordering more on playful or serious, ask yourself: are ALL children smiling, laughing and having fun? Most boys are good at expressing themselves when they are having fun, and when they are not, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to identify. If all parties appear to be having fun, leave them to their play, but monitor to ensure it doesn’t get out of hand. If multiple children appear to be having fun but one is not, step in. For rough-and-tumble play to be beneficial, all children involved need to be having fun otherwise it could be traumatic for the one child that is not.

Like most activities that children participate in, rough-and-tumble does require a level of supervision, although one that doesn’t overshadow their fun and still provides them with space and freedom from adult interference.

Rough-and-Tumble Play with Dad

When boys participate in rough-and-tumble play with dad, they learn to control their behaviour and emotions while also enhancing cognitive and language development. It is important to note, however, that boys also benefit from playing with mum, they just tend to do so in different ways.

When a boy interacts with Dad for rough-and-tumble play, they often experience a more intense level of playful aggression then when playing with mum. This is simply due to Dad being more physical and playing rough, whilst Mum tends to be more cautious and gentle.
If you take a moment to think about it, we more often see Dad as the one throwing the kids around in the pool, tossing them over their shoulders whilst at the park or out walking, and wrestling with them in the lounge room. During these actions, Dad knows how to stimulate and challenge their child whilst leveling the boundaries of not causing frustration in the child. In some cases, a child will take this rough play too far, at no fault of their own as they are still young, and it is the responsibly of the parent to step in and teach the child about how to regulate their level of playful aggression. It is also up to Dad to gauge when the child is no longer having fun; or not enjoying that type of play at all. Gauge the child’s emotions and when they are getting too reckless or play is getting out of hand or they are getting upset, know that it is time to switch to a calmer, more quiet activity.

Despite the benefits of play between a father and child, children who only live with their mother are not disadvantaged. One thing that research has shown, is that all children need different types of stimulation and play, and mothers can provide and support physical play with their children as well; usually in other methods other than rough play.
The most important thing about rough-and-tumble play is that a lot of dads and kids enjoy it, so it is a great way for them to connect and spend time together. But if it’s not for you, then that’s ok too. There are plenty of ways that you and your kids can enjoy father-child (and mother-child) time without having to get rough. At the end of the day, you know your child and what makes them tick; so doing whatever works for you as a parent is what will provide, and strengthen, a good relationship.

So, next time you are watching your children and they appear to be playing cops and robbers and jumping on the ‘baddies’, fighting, or rolling around wrestling on the floor, stop and evaluate and know that they are actually participating in perfectly natural behaviours that are helping with their development; and is no cause for alarm. Playful aggression, when done right, is harmless, fun and helps boys growing into well-rounded men.

Playful Aggression: Do’s and Dont’s of Rough-and-tumble play

1. Do supervise rough play at all times to ensure it does not escalate.
2. Don’t immediately intervene without first monitoring the situation to determine whether they are participating in playful aggression or whether they are physically fighting.
3. Do teach boys the importance of everyone having a turn (i.e the same boys paying the goodies every time) so everyone enjoys the play.
4. Don’t make these decisions for them – autonomy helps to build social skills.
5. Do monitor the boys who don’t enjoy playful aggression, but are peer pressured into playing; and intervene where required.
6. Do allow boys to engage in playful aggression on their own terms; provided it is safe for everyone involved.
7. Don’t dictate how they should play and what choices they should make – let them make some choices to encourage responsibility.
8. Do learn to relax when you see playful aggression. Boys will let you know whether they are having fun or not.
9. Don’t overestimate any perceived danger – know when to break it up.

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