Rough and Tumble – Learning Through Play

Rough and Tumble – Learning Through Play

Written by Dr Tessa Grigg and Bindy Cummings

Children can be found wrestling each other, playing chasing or imitating fighting. Who can remember pillow fighting with siblings? We can! What is the role of ‘rough and tumble’ play? Why is it good for children? Who does most of the ‘rough and tumble’ play? These are some of the questions that this article will address.

We all know how important play is for learning – some refer to play as ‘children’s work’. If children have lots of opportunities to play, then their learning opportunities are improved – both at the time they are playing and later in school. ‘Rough and tumble’ play needs special attention when it comes to playing. This type of play involves rolling around on the floor (wrestling), falling over each other or pretending to fight. It is usually a high-energy activity, involving strength and spatial awareness.

Along with these physical aspects, important social learning is happening around boundaries, relationships, and turn-taking. Children benefit from this type of play. ‘Rough and tumble’ play can be easily distinguished from aggression. Children play with soft hands while pushing and shoving and will help someone who appears hurt. They laugh and smile and will often play together afterwards. When the play is aggressive, children hit hard, kick and shove. They frown or scowl and then move away.

As you may expect, historically, research has shown that dad’s do quite a bit of the ‘rough and tumble’ play. 1 They usually play more with their sons, whereas mothers tend towards more caring type play, but any ‘rough and touble’ play they engage in is equally devided between sons and daughters. Interestingly, recent Danish research 2 found that Dads were more involved in play activities, both with sons and daughters,  whereas  mothers were seen to play ‘rough and tumble’ more with sons.  While dads tend to be more vigorous – they are also more inclined to encourage children to play out-of-doors activities that involve a bit of ‘rough and tumble’.  It does not matter whether it’s dad, mum, a sibling or a significant carer, what matters is that children get an opportunity to engage in this type of play.

Research into ‘playing with dad’ lead by Dr Richard Fletcher of The University of Newcastle 1 , found that when fathers regularly engage in quality playtime, it  boosts  childrens’ vocabulary, and that ‘rough and tumble’ play is an excellent way for children to learn how to manage strong emotions, such as anger. The research also shows that fathers’ high-quality ‘rough and tumble’ play is linked to fewer behavioural problems in pre-schoolers.

Self-control and language develop rapidly in the pre-school years, and both aspects are influenced by interaction with both parents. Fletcher believes that the playtime parents engage in with their children, sets them up for a successful classroom experience. When children move to group situations, they need to be able to wait for their turn, cooperate with other children, and explain themselves. Social norms and their complexities are learned through play.1

Two ideas for ‘rough and tumble’:

There are many things that parents do, but here are two that anyone can engage in:

Pony rides:

Giving children pony rides on your back, (assuming your back can withstand it), is a great way to play in this manner. Of course, the pony tips the children off on to a soft surface, and so the wrestling begins.

Tickle fighting:

Young children enjoy very gentle tickle fighting. Remember to be responsive to the amount of tickling the child can manage. Often all you have to do is suggest you are going to tickle them and that is enough to start the game. (A note from Tessa: Many hours were spent in my family playing tickle fighting. My son would arrive into our bed and begin the game. It was mainly about the anticipation of being tickled, and it involved a lot of scuffling and laughing.)

What is the child learning?

These activities will help children develop spatial awareness and problem-solving skills. They also stimulate the balance organs in the inner ear, the brain stem and the cerebellum, and this enables the brain to organise itself so that the body can appropriately respond to gravity. These types of games develop tactility and coordination and assist in speech and literacy. Talk from the perspective of the ‘pony’, add emotional language associated with the tickling. This is a good way to practice communication and vocabulary while doing something fun!

Increasing the degree of challenge:

  • Let your child lead the activity.
  • Ask questions about their actions.
  • Have fun with the activity… falling over/off is part of learning!

So parents, have a great time with your children, they will love you for it!

  1. Fletcher, R., J. StGeorge, and E. Freeman, Rough and tumble play quality: Theoretical foundations for a new measure of father–child interaction. Early Child Development and Care, 2013. 183(6): p. 746-759.
  2. Fliek, L., et al., Rough-and-Tumble Play and Other Parental Factors as Correlates of Anxiety Symptoms in Preschool Children. Journal of Child & Family Studies, 2015. 24(9): p. 2795-2804.