“Don’t learn to do, but learn in doing. Let your falls not be on a prepared ground, but let them be bona fide falls in the rough and tumble of the world.”- Samuel Butler
It is a crisp fall day, and I am observing the children at a Waldorf, Maryland School at play. Two boys stand about six feet apart silently facing each other. After a moment, both boys lower their heads and charge each other full speed. They make contact and collapse onto the ground with laughter. The laughter stops, the boys exchange glances, and just as quickly they are up on their feet for round two. Visions of National Geographic specials spring to mind; throughout the animal kingdom, play fighting among youth is the norm.
At this school, I was fortunate to witness an instance of rough and tumble play which adults not only allowed to occur but valued. I have overheard countless conversations where children are told, “You’re playing to rough!” or “Stop horsing around; someone is going to get hurt!” Rough and tumble play is typically defined as physical play that may include running, chasing, fleeing, jumping, and laughing. (1) Pellegrini further states that “A behavior can be classified as `rough and tumble’ play, not aggression, if along with other criteria, children stay together after the conclusion of the bout; if they separate, it is defined as aggression.” (2) Instances where children are engaged in contact play, whether it be wrestling, sword fighting, or even a chasing each other around the house, tend to make adults uncomfortable. The fear on the part of some adults is that these types of games make children more aggressive and lead to real fights.
While it is true that, on occasion, someone may get hurt in the process of playing, it is truly not the point of the game. Very few of us, children included, continue to engage in an activity day after day in which we expect to get hurt. In fact, children engaging in rough and tumble play do an amazing job of adjusting the intensity of their play as the need arises. For instance, I recently saw two boys engaged in a sword fight with foam blocks. After playing for close to an hour, one of the boy’s noses began to bleed after a bop. Contrary to many adults’ expectations, the situation didn’t escalate; the boys moved to a quiet place on the grass and sat talking. Within 20 minutes, they were involved in the game again with a noticeable reduction in their intensity.
Opportunities to play are disappearing for today’s youth across the board, and the misconceptions about rough and tumble play, in particular, place this particular type of play at a further disadvantage. If we can look past our fears that rough and tumble play breeds aggression, we can focus on its merits. Much of the research on rough and tumble play points to its social-emotional benefits: children learn to negotiate social interactions, participate in give-and-take exchanges, and read and understand social cues. (3) To be honest, rough and tumble play extends farther. It benefits children across the domains of cognitive, social-emotional, and physical play. Bjorkland and Brown write that, “despite the social consequences of such activity, the mechanisms involved are every bit as ‘cognitive’ as those associated with math seat work, thus expanding the realm of cognitive benefits afforded by physical play.”(4) Opportunities to observe the physical benefits of rough and tumble play also abound. As children run, jump, wrestle and climb, they are exerting themselves in a manner that supports cardiovascular health while further developing gross motor skills.
So how do we move from the acknowledgement that rough and tumble play is a natural and vital part of children’s development to a space where it is also widely accepted? There is no concrete action to make this happen. I don’t advise that everyone go outside and tackle someone. Rather, I think that honest conversation and a heightened awareness of the benefits of rough and tumble play can help people reframe it in a more accepted light. If we see children rough-housing, our first reactionary inclination might be to immediately shut down that play for fear that someone will get hurt. But what would happen if we paused, for just a moment, to watch? If we looked at the children playing, we likely would see that we could discern the difference between aggressive play and rough and tumble play. Rough and tumble play often is accompanied by smiles and open-fisted hits, whereas more aggressive play is characterized by frowns and closed fists. These simple signals are easy to pick up on – by adults and, even more so, by children engaged in the play. The best way to allow for necessary, beneficial, and fun rough and tumble play might be to cede more space to and trust in children. By letting them play, we let them learn to self-regulate, manage risk, and interact with other. Learning a little self-regulation as adults might serve of all us.
- Jones, N. B (1976). Rough and Tumble Play among Nursery School Children. In J.S. Bruner, A. Jolly., & K. Syva (Eds.) Play its role in development and evolution (pp. 352-363). New York, NY: Basics.
- Pellegrini, A. D. (2005). Recess: its role in education and development. Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
- Carlson, F. M. (2009, July-August). Rough and Tumble Play 101, Childcare Exchange, 70-72.
- Bjorklund, D. F., & Brown, R. D. (1998, June). Physical play and cognitive development: Integrating activity, cognition, and education. Child Development, 69(3), 604-606.
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