Rough and Tumble Play

A part of growing up

Soccer is an active game. It requires physical effort, mental concentration and the execution of varied techniques often under a physical challenge. While it serves a purpose, passive training, i.e. passing a ball back and forth, dribbling through cones doesn’t come close to duplicating the demands of the actual game. A certain level of physical confrontation, challenge is necessary. This element is called "Rough and Tumble Play" and it serves a very important purpose in human growth and development. Below is some guidance on what it is and is not.

Expert Advice - Greg Uba - Former Kindergarten and Pre-K teacher.

"Rough and tumble play allows kids to take some risks, as far as physical activity. Adults are sometimes uncomfortable with rough and tumble play because, to them, it symbolizes aggression, whereas to children, it symbolizes competence. Adults have forgotten how to play and instead construe the rough play as aggression and conflict.

Rough and tumble play is different from aggression. Kids aren’t always smiling during rough and tumble play – sometimes they’re working hard to demonstrate their ability to be competent – but generally, it’s in the spirit of play. Aggression has a spirit of dominating and intimidation.

Boys find it especially appealing because rough and tumble play addresses their need for power and motor skills competence. They’re imitating what society gives them as male role models. Often, they’re imitating how adults play with them at home. For boys, it gives them an opportunity to touch each other. Society doesn’t give men and boys the opportunity to touch each other. Rough and tumble play enables men to have contact with each other in a way that society agrees with.

A child care provider should manage rough and tumble play so it doesn’t turn into aggression. You should constantly supervise the play and have children help come up with the rules. Make it part of the structured day. Rough and tumble play doesn’t have to always involve touching other children or being combative. It can be a noisy center with cans to kick, or plastic bottles to throw against. It can be an obstacle course or even a punching pillow. It could be lifting medicine balls or running with 5 pounds of flour.

A child care provider should make sure the play doesn’t turn negative by checking in with them regularly. Ask the kids, “Are you playing or are you fighting? Do you both agree with this play?” Give both of the kids the opportunity to option out of the activity. Children are exposed to too much media violence which could negatively influence their rough play. Our society is moving toward where everything needs to be more and more extreme. It’s something society has to reflect upon as far as the images that are presented to children. Kids can wind up getting frustrated, however, if you don’t let them have an outlet for their energy. Rough and tumble play can help provide that release."


Play-fighting or real fighting?

Many children love to charge around screaming, shouting, chasing each other, wrestling, rolling around and generally making a noise. As adults we often try to discourage this kind of behaviour, both at home and at school. (Aboriginal kids playing Aussie Rules football. This YouTube video shows what appears to be 10 and 11 year old children in an all-out Rough and Tumble game.)

Of course we all need some peace and quiet sometimes, and no one wants children to get hurt, but do rough-and-tumble play, or ’play-fighting’, have a place too?

Boys especially often love rough play. A play-fight is not the same as bullying or real fighting. A play-fight can last from 20-60 minutes or more and everyone will still be friends at the end. A real fight lasts about 3 minutes and can be physically and emotionally painful.

Rough-and-tumble play - the benefits

Studies have shown that rough-and-tumble play actually helps children to develop. Through play-fighting children can learn to control their emotions, bodies, expression and anger. They learn their own limits and those of others so that they don’t lose control and hurt themselves or others.

Therefore it can be important to allow children time and space where they can just let rip and make as much noise as they like. So long as no one gets hurt, it doesn’t need to be stopped - and it could just help you get some peace and quiet later on!


Risk-taking is a powerful way of learning. When we take a risk, we face success or failure. Success raises our self-esteem. Failure may hurt, but it teaches us to do things differently next time. Children need to learn to make sensible choices as they get older and sometimes this takes a few mistakes.

Of course adults need to limit the risks children take to prevent serious injuries. Ideally, though, we shouldn’t remove risks completely. We can’t prevent every injury, and minor ones can be a useful learning experience, after all.

Researchers find a link between rough and tumble play and social competence

Playground roughhousing has long been a tradition of children and adolescents, much to the chagrin of several generations of parents who worry that their child will be hurt or worse, become accustom to violence and aggression. But animal research may paint a different portrait of rough and tumble play; one that suggests that social and emotional development may rely heavily on such peer interaction.

In an article published in the April issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, Sergio and Vivian Pellis of the University of Lethbridge reviewed multiple studies involving animals, and found a link between rough and tumble play and social competence.

For example, adult rats deprived of peer interaction, (and thus rough and tumble play), reveal an inability to comprehend the hierarchy of social structures. In the rat kingdom, when a young male attempts to establish residency in a colony, he is promptly targeted for attack by the dominant male rat. Rats that have been reared with peers quickly learn to remain crouched and motionless in such an instance in order to avoid the dominant male’s attention. Play deprived rats, on the other hand, continue to scurry about which ultimately invites further serious attacks.

Coordinated movements appear to suffer in the absence of rough and tumble play as well. Rats, as most other mammals, rely heavily on coordinated movement for both cooperative and competitive situations. Rats that are reared in isolation have impaired ability to coordinate their movements appropriately with opponents. This coordination, say the authors, can be learned through the constantly shifting body motions that take place during playfighting.

Deprivation from peer interaction appears to have neurological consequences as well. Juvenile play fighting has been found to stimulate the release of certain chemical growth factors in the cerebral cortex, an area the authors describe as the "social brain." Among the structures in the social brain is the orbitofrontal cortex, an area known to be involved in social discrimination and decision. As logic would tell us, the less growth is promoted in this area, the greater the likelihood of impaired movement coordination, perception of social cues, and the like.

But the does the behavior of rats provides any insight into our own, seemingly more complex development? Apparently so, say the authors, who cite evidence that there is considerable overlap between animal and human play, particularly for play fighting.

"The knowledge thus gained," writes Pellis "can provide the clues to the correlated consequences of those processes that can be studied in humans."

The above was written from a news release by Association for Psychological Science.

University of Pittsburg advice on Rough Play.
Evolutionary Psychology “Rough and Tumble” Play: Lessons in Life.
Raising Children Network | Rough-and-tumble play.
Risky Play Among Four- And Five Year Olds in Preschool.
Rough and Tumble Play, with love. Don Ratcliffe.
Rough and tumble, Local women tackling a tough sport, The Boston Globe.

Sweetness and Light

Schools Go Too Far in Protecting Kids

Listen to this story... 

Morning Edition, October 25, 2006 · School administrators have gone to ludicrous extremes to protect children. For instance, school districts in Wyoming, Washington state and California have banned the game of tag during recess.


Listen to this story... 

All Things Considered, May 11, 2001 · Commentator Stephen Lynch can’t believe that some schools around the country are banning dodgeball. He thinks this trend toward making childhood "safe" coddles kids.