by Kathy Eugster
What is rough-and-tumble play?
Rough-and-tumble play, sometimes called roughhousing, horseplay, rough play, or play fighting, is a type of social play between two or more participants, where the participants try to gain an advantage over one another, however, they do it without the serious consequences that happen with real fighting.
Rough-and-tumble play can be classified as a form of physically active play, may incorporate chasing, and involves some kind of physical contact or even aggressive behaviors, such as grabbing, pushing, shoving, holding, rolling, tussling, jumping, tumbling, grappling, tickling, and wrestling, which all take place in a play context.
Rough-and-tumble play involves some level of cooperation between participants within the context of playful competition, so that it is reciprocal and is seen as being “fair.” Participants will alternate in roles of attack and defense where they try to “win” over each other.
Rough-and-tumble play is not the same as real fighting or aggression
It’s important to recognize the difference between rough-and-tumble play and real fighting or aggression. With rough-and-tumble play, the emotional tone of the play is happy, all participants want to engage in the play, and there is no intention to hurt the other participant, whereas in real fighting or aggression, children may be expressing anger or fear and may be reluctant or not even want to continue to play.
Learn more about rough-and-tumble play
Rough-and-tumble play is a very commonly observed and popular type of play in childhood. Rough-and-tumble play has also been observed across many animal species, including most notably mammals and birds, but also including reptiles, fish, and insects.
Rough-and-tumble play can happen in the context of both parent-child play and child-child play. Researchers have found that although mothers and fathers both engage in this type of play with their children, in general, fathers seem to spend more time with their children in physical play than mothers.
Some parents enjoy engaging in rough-and-tumble play with their children, while other parents are less enthusiastic engaging in this activity, or even allowing their children to engage in this activity. Roughhousing can be very physically rough, loud, chaotic, and disruptive, and for these reasons, many parents find it hard to engage in or accept rough-and-tumble play in their children.
It is important also to remember that although roughhousing is common and a natural activity for children, and some children seem to prefer this type of play, other children are less drawn to rough-and-tumble play.
Why is rough-and-tumble play important?
Rough-and-tumble play has been found to encourage cooperative behavior in children, which is an important factor in the development of social skills.
One of the defining features of rough-and-tumble play is that it is both competitive and cooperative and it allows children opportunities to balance skills in both these areas, which is very beneficial for children’s healthy development.
Rough-and-tumble play supports the development of children’s impulse control and self-regulation skills as it allows children opportunities to develop skills in selecting the most appropriate action or inhibiting an emotional over reaction in unexpected situations where they may experience a loss of control such as competitive or conflictual situations.
How can parents keep rough-and-tumble play safe?
While most children know that roughhousing isn’t real fighting, it can escalate quickly when emotions escalate. To keep rough-and-tumble play safe, there are two things parents should do:
- Set firm limits around this type of play
- Supervise the play
Set limits for unsafe and destructive behaviors. Nobody gets hurt and nothing gets broken. For example, no kicking, hitting, punching, or biting allowed as these are aggressive behaviors and are not part of rough-and-tumble play.
Rough-and-tumble play involves physical contact, however, limit contact to below the shoulders. It is not okay to grab someone’s face or head.
Keep things emotionally safe as well. No teasing or humiliating the other participants.
Rules and limits can be repeated frequently, for example, “Remember, no hitting allowed,” to remind all participants to keep them in mind.
Establish a “stop” or “time-out” cue so that whenever a participant says the word, the play must immediately stop.
Ensure that all participants want to engage in as well as maintain rough-and-tumble play. Frequent check-ins are important to ensure everyone is having fun and wants to keep playing.
Identify some nonverbal cues that would indicate someone is unhappy with how the play is going, such as frowning, scowling, disengagement, or tension. This would indicate time for a check-in.
Be available to supervise rough-and-tumble play. Be ready to step in to stop the play immediately if necessary. Then have a time-out for everyone to cool off before going over the rules for rough-and-tumble play again.
Please see my Blog on setting limits and rules with children for more detailed information about this very important parenting skill.
Should parents engage in rough-and-tumble play with their children?
Research says yes! High-quality parent-child rough-and-tumble play will incorporate fundamental parenting constructs such as warmth, reciprocity, assertive control, sensitivity, touch, and playfulness. With parent-child rough-and-tumble play, parents can challenge their children and at the same time set appropriate limits during stimulating interactions to ensure safety and prevent over-arousal. By doing this, parents provide an optimal balance of arousal and challenge. The positive emotions that arise during this play will encourage the development of a strong parent-child relationship.
Parent-child rough-and-tumble play is not the same as child-child rough-and-tumble play. With parent-child rough-and-tumble play, parents are bigger and more knowledgeable, so they can guide and support children more directly in developing appropriate skills during this type of play.
Basically, all children benefit from some kind of physically active play with their parents. With this type of parent-child play, naturally physically active children benefit from parental guidance and quieter children benefit from parental encouragement.
The cooperative and competitive aspects of rough-and-tumble play involve the participants balancing wins and losses. With this type of play, you can decide how much to challenge your child. This can range on a continuum from no challenge or resistance from you at all and letting your child win, to gradually increasing your challenge or resistance up to the point your challenge would result in a win for you, but just barely. Please keep in mind that you must keep you and your child safe in this play.
Remember, in this type of play, you do not want to overwhelm your child with your power so they feel totally powerless! However, you want to give your child some sense of power and control without hurting you. It is up to you to pay close attention to your child and to use your parental judgement to know what your child needs in that particular play situation. Does he need to win? Does she need more of a challenge from you?
Drawing on the concept of co-regulation, where parents can regulate their child’s emotions and nervous system by regulating their own, during rough-and-tumble parent-child play, parents need to stay emotionally regulated themselves. Don’t let your feelings of anxiety or frustration, for example, take over. Instead, notice these feelings, take some deep breaths, stay emotionally regulated, and keep your child’s needs in mind, for example, whether they need more or less challenge or resistance from you. Please see my Blog on self-regulation that explains more about co-regulation and a parent’s capacity for self-regulation.
Parent-child physically active play can begin with infants where the parent playfully incorporates movement and physical touch, for example, by carefully bouncing and lifting the infant through the air or moving the child’s arms and legs. It should be noted that there are no competitive aspects of this play with very young children.
As children grow, physically active play can begin to include chasing, hiding, and catching. This will develop into true rough-and-tumble play, such as grabbing, holding, rolling, and wrestling. Parent-child rough-and-tumble play will increase from toddlerhood through preschool and will peak at about age seven years.
What if I don’t like to wrestle with my child?
Many parents don’t feel comfortable engaging in rough-and-tumble play with their child. For any parent who feels this way, here is one way you can engage in rough-and-tumble play with your child that you may feel okay with.
I call this game the “I’m Gonna Get You Game.” This is a modified chase game (chasing is considered rough-and-tumble play). With this game, you reach for and try to grab your child in a way where they want to get away from you. You don’t need to necessarily run and chase your child; rather you approach your child slowly and then quickly reach for and try to gently grab your child. Think cat stalking mouse! When your child engages in this game, they will want to try to escape your reach.
You can make the game less challenging by never contacting your child with your reach, just “chasing,” or you can increase the challenge by actually making contact with your child as you reach out. Contact could range from a brief light touch, to a firm but gentle hold, on to a big bear-hug. Don’t forget to release your child soon after the hold or hug. You can also reverse roles, so that you are trying to get away from your child. Most children, from toddlers on up to school age children, love this “chasing” game.
Because rough-and-tumble play may be confused with real fighting, it has been viewed ambivalently at times for children’s healthy development. However, the play context of rough-and-tumble play distinguishes it from real aggression. The majority of studies on children’s rough-and-tumble play indicate there are benefits for children’s development with rough-and-tumble play.
Amodia-Bidakowska, A., Laverty, C., & Ramchandani, P. G. (September 2020). Father-child play: A systematic review of its frequency, characteristics and potential impact on children’s development. Developmental Review Vol 57. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2020.100924
Feldman, J. S. & Shaw, D. S. (2021). The premise and promise of activation parenting for fathers: A review and Integration of extant literature. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review 24, 414-449. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10567-021-00351-7
Fleming, J. W. (December 27, 2021). Why roughhousing is good for kids, and how to keep it safe. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/parenting/2021/12/27/roughhousing-benefits-kids/
Pellis, V. & Pellis, S. (2013). Rough and tumble play. Scholarpedia, 8(3):30363. doi:10.4249/scholarpedia.30363
Rough-and-tumble play: a guide. (2022). https://raisingchildren.net.au/preschoolers/play-learning/active-play/rough-play-guide
Smith, P. K. & StGeorge, J. M. (2022). Play fighting (rough-and-tumble play) in children: developmental and evolutionary perspectives. International Journal of Play Vol 12, Issue 1, pp 113-126. https://doi.org/10.1080/21594937.2022.2152185
Copyright Kathy Eugster, MA, 2023.
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