Friday, August 31, 2012

Boys Play: Rough and Tumble

Since the start of my daycare, boys have always outnumbered the girls. During the early days, the difference in the nature of play between the girls and the boys seemed indistinguishable. However, last summer, this all changed. (All 4 of the boys in the daycare at that time were at least 2 and a half years old.) It seemed to happen so suddenly, with a steep increase in pushing or hitting incidents in a matter of days. I responded to each of these incidents (that I saw, at least), with "time-outs". However, it quickly became clear that to them, the crime was worth the punishment. Either that or they simply couldn't strop themselves. And this was true for each and every one of the boys. Each of them took turns being perpetrators and victims. What confused me most, was that the most recent victim would immediately jump back into the game for more.

Picture the scenario: I see Tom, Henry, Jimmy and Mike happily playing together. Their play gets increasingly boisterous, but still harmless as they walk, one after the other, in a circle, giggling. Jimmy playfully pushes Mike, causing Mike to fall down and hurt his knee. Mike comes running to me, crying, screaming "Jimmy pushed me!" Jimmy promptly gets put in time out, and, once removed, apologizes to Mike for having pushed him. Mike accepts his apology and moments later, everyone is having a good time. Then the incident repeats itself, but this time with a different child becoming too rough, and/or a different child being hurt.

Sounds like great fun, doesn't it? Yeah, I don't think so either. Yet the boys favoured this kind of play again and again. Let's be clear that I am talking about a something entirely different than aggression acted out in the heat of anger, intended to harm another. We still had those incidents, now and then. But this new behaviour I was seeing was in the spirit of play. There was no bully, nor victim, since they were all willing participants. And it was impossible to deter them from this play. The popularity of this new craze continued to grow. It was like a genie had been let out of a bottle. It was clear that disciplining this behaviour was doing nothing to decrease it.

I searched the internet for help, expecting to find more stringent disciplinary measures. Boy, was I enlightened! Although there is relatively little research on the subject, the value, yes, the value of rough and tumble play is starting to gain recognition.


First of all, let's define "Rough and Tumble Play." Some experts define is as "Children who display acts involving running, climbing, chasing, play fighting, fleeing, wrestling, falling, and open- handed slaps" (Pellegrini & Smith, 1998; Reed & Brown, 2000) A larger list of examples of behaviours one might exhibit in rough and tumble play can be found at the following website,,  page 31). It can involve hitting, pushing or pulling, and thus it has some overlap with aggressive behaviours. However, unlike aggression, rough and tumble has a different feeling about it. As I stated above, it is undertaken in the spirit of play, observable in the child's body language, which will likely include "Display of the cheerful play face" (Reed & Brown).

  • "Rough and tumble play has considerable merit in a young child’s overall development (Pellegrini, 1987; Pellegrini & Smith, 1998; Pellis & Pellis, 2007)." This type of play teaches children how to read the social cues in others'. They are able to understand when others intend to play, and when they intend to harm. Consequently, they also learn how to exhibit the behaviour that matches their intentions.
  • The same article states that this type of play allows children the chance to play different roles, and that this helps them learn turn-taking in social interactions and conversations.
  • "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..."
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Rough and tumble play may be one of the few socially acceptable ways for males to
    “Express care and intimacy for another male”



Considering the above information, are we doing enough to promote or at least allow this kind of play? Probably not. Part of this is due to ignorance. I, for one, had no knowledge of this research. And, having grown up with only one sister, this type of play is not intuitive to me. Sure, maybe I engaged in some rough and tumble play as a kid, but not nearly as much as I'm seeing from these boys. I was not aware of the extent to which many boys (and some girls) gravitate to this kind of play. I surely would never have guessed that there were social, physical and emotional benefits involved. Perhaps ECE programs contain this information, but isn't this something every parent should know? 

Okay, so now I am informed on the subject. My ignorance is gone.

Which brings me to the second barrier to this kind of play: monitoring the interactions to ensure the children's safety. This is a very tricky task, especially for the faint of heart (and here I am speaking from personal experience!) Sometimes it can feel as if you are allowing the children to injure each other, since inevitably, there will be times things go awry. Here are my recommendations for the safest (though not fault-free) way to facilitate this type of play:
  1. Monitor the group closely. Especially when children are just beginning to engage in this type of play, be there to guide them. New groups of children (which will have different group dynamics) also require close supervision. 
  2. Degree of Force It is difficult to monitor because they should be allowed to push and pull, for example, but not so hard that they are hurting another. It is not black and white. It is a matter of degree. You can be there to tell them when they are pushing too hard, and yes, sometimes it will be too late. They are learning.
  3. Play must be Consensual Kids should be taught to ask their friends if they'd like to play rough and tumble. They need to know that if their friend is not happy with what is happening, they need to stop. The friend who is 'not happy' should also be required to say aloud "I don't want to play rough and tumble". This not only informs the other children of their desire, but also informs the caregiver, who can make sure the others do not try to engage this child in the game.
  4. State any other Safety Rules For instance, I tell the children there is no rough and tumble play allowed on the couch (for obvious reasons). Similarly, there is no rough and tumble allowed in the kitchen, around the baby, etc. There are also times when I just feel uneasy with the play. I guess it's intuition that they aren't in the right frame of mind, or are too tired (or perhaps it is me who is too tired, or not up to supervising it). In these instances I just tell the children there is no rough and tumble play "right now". (FYI - The kids are playing with spongy pool noodles in the photo above. I wouldn't let them play R & T with hard sticks!)
  5. Deal Appropriately with Rule Breaking Even when children don't intend to use too much force, it is still important to give them a time out so that they can recognize their mistake in their play. We need to flag that behaviour for them, so they can realize "I guess I pushed Jimmy too hard". Children wanting to engage in this kind of play learn quickly (for the most part) to abide by the rules, because if they don't, the supervisor will end the game, and that's no fun!

I hope this information is as enlightening to some of you out there as it was for me! Play on, kids! 

#roughandtumble #roughandtumbleplay #roughhousing

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