Within early childhood education, we understand the importance of building secure attachments with children and we strive to follow their interests and cater for their individual needs. If a child cries, we tend to them; if they need a nappy change, we change it; if they are hungry, we feed them; if they need reassurance, we reassure them. If they need a hug or a cuddle, we cuddle them – there should be no hesitation. Why is it, when they need to ‘rough-and-tumble’, we are horrified and try to redirect their attention elsewhere?

Take a moment to think back to your own childhood. What sort of games can you remember playing? Did they ever involve running, chasing, being chased, tickling, wrestling or fighting baddies? Did your play make links with the popular culture of the time? For me, the answers to both these questions are ‘yes!’ Now consider what you were learning through playing in these ways. What skills were you practising? Perhaps to socialise? How to take risks or set limits? Were you learning about friendship and family roles? Rough-and-tumble play is a natural thing for children to want to engage in. We need to work out for ourselves how we can enable this play whilst setting appropriate limits that keep children safe.

Rough-and-tumble play is very physical and active play and could involve actions such as wrestling, tickling, pinning others down, pouncing, climbing or sitting on each other, ‘bundles’ and chasing games like ‘tag’ and ‘it’. It could be argued that play-fighting is also a form of rough-and-tumble play. When you observe children playing in this way, you will hear lots of giggling and laughing and you will see children smiling and grinning, you may also observe some pretence and imaginative storytelling.

Rough-and-tumble play is regularly linked to fantasy-play or pretence, and can involve rule-negotiation and concepts of fairness and justice. It can support children to develop these ideas further throughout their lives and there are many noted benefits.


Rough-and-tumble play:

  • Helps to develop our sense of proprioception, working out where our bodies are in relation to space and people around us.
  • Is a very social activity which contributes to our understanding of social rules.
  • Improves self-regulation as children need to learn when to stop and to balance what they want with the desires of others.
  • Develops empathy and helps with ‘theory-of-mind’ as children learn that other people have feelings and emotions that might be different to their own.
  • Enables children to safely manage risk for themselves.
  • Allows children to manage aggressive feelings in a safe environment.
  • Develops gross motor skills and physical dexterity.
  • Offers children the opportunity to win and not gloat, or lose and accept defeat graciously.
  • Provides an opportunity for children to use their imaginations as they create their narratives.
  • Allows children to bond with adults and other children.
    Is enjoyable for those who participate.
  • Even enables children to learn about pain in an appropriate way!

Despite the many benefits, many early childhood educators do not feel comfortable with this play. There are usually several anxieties that educators express when responding to rough-and-tumble play. Firstly, they fear that if a child gets hurt or upset, they may be blamed for allowing this play to happen; secondly, they feel that this type of play is not ‘effective practice’ and therefore shouldn’t be encouraged; and thirdly, they are concerned that rough-and-tumble play will lead to real fighting and violence.

Here are some tips to help you to distinguish between aggressive play or real violence:

  • Watch body language and facial expressions – are their eyes smiling or are they frowning?
  • Listen for laughter, play-shouting and giggling, not crying or screaming in pain.
  • Closely observe the play, listen to any words spoken – is there a narrative? Are the comments personal?
  • Are all children consenting to this play and willingly joining in?
  • Are there positive rewards for all players? – i.e. this is not bullying when one child dominates the play.
  • Do stronger children sometimes allow their opponents to win?
    Closely watch the contact, is it unrelenting, hard and harsh (violent) or relatively gentle and playful?
  • Do children sometimes change roles or take alternate roles? For example, the chaser starts to be chased.
  • Do the children know each other well? Rough-and-tumble promotes attachments – children tend not to rough-and-tumble with strangers!
  • Count the number of children involved. Violence tends to involve two children, rough-and-tumble or aggressive play can incorporate several children at once.
  • Violent acts often draw a crowd whereas aggressive play does not draw spectators in the same way.
  • Ask the children – most children know that rough-and-tumble or aggressive play is not real fighting. They will tell you if things go too far.

In the light of the many benefits linked to aggressive play, perhaps early childhood educators should focus their efforts on closely observing children in order to recognise the difference between violence and aggressive play. This will enable them to permit this play in appropriate ways and in a safe environment. The educator’s role then becomes one of effective supervision, role-modelling and close observation to ensure that all children are happy and still consenting to the game.

So next time you’re told, “I’m the goodie and you’re the baddie…” join in and enjoy this play for what it is… play!



About the author

Tamsin GTamsin Grimmer photo2rimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.

Tamsin has written two books – Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children and School Readiness and the Characteristics of Effective Learning.

You can contact Tamsin via Twitter @tamsingrimmer, her Facebook pagewebsite or email info@tamsingrimmer.co.u

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