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Rough-and-Tumble Play: A Teacher’s Guide 2024

Rough-and-tumble play is a form of physical play that encourages risk-taking and conflict resolution. Here are strategies to encourage safe play.

Rough and Tumble Play: A Teacher’s Guide 2024

Rough and Tumble Play

We have all witnessed rough-and-tumble play among children at some point. Remember games like freeze tag, king of the mountain, red rover, or duck-duck-goose?

Although rough-and-tumble play may be among children's favorite activities, it isn’t the most celebrated in school or at home. Adults may be concerned about children adopting aggressive behavior or being hurt, and choose to limit this essential play. However, this physical and vigorous type of play is vital to a child’s healthy development. 

This guide will explore the benefits and importance of play fighting and how to monitor this play as a preschool teacher.

Children playing tug of warSource

What is rough-and-tumble play?

Young children have lots of energy and it is sometimes too much for them to handle. Physical play is a great way for children to expend some excess energy by tiring out their bodies. Rough-and-tumble play, or play fighting, is an example of physical play. It differs from activities such as running or climbing a jungle gym because it is intentionally playful contact with other children, without aggression. Rough touching, wrestling, chasing, tumbling, kicking, and grappling are a few examples of rough-and-tumble play.

Rough-and-tumble play is a fun and positive social activity for children. It is also an effective tool for promoting social-emotional development because it involves risk-taking and conflict resolution, and can build empathy and social awareness. Teachers may also incorporate rough-and-tumble play in play-based learning because it is enjoyable, unstructured play that children self-direct through their own decisions and creativity.

What are the benefits of play fighting?

According to a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, both boys and girls benefit from rough-and-tumble play, but they may play and interact differently. While boys are more interactive during rough-and-tumble play, most girls focus on big-body play and will often do it without having physical contact with friends.

Rough-and-tumble play is an important part of a healthy, well-rounded learning environment. Here are some of the key benefits of rough and tumble play in early childhood.

Promotes physical development

Rough-and-tumble play promotes overall physical development, providing an opportunity for children to develop their gross motor skills, balance, coordination, and spatial awareness. As they engage in active movements, such as running, jumping, climbing, and wrestling, children strengthen their muscles, improve their agility, and enhance their overall physical fitness.

This type of play also promotes body control and helps children understand and regulate their own strength and movements.

Develops social-emotional skills

Engaging in rough-and-tumble play allows children to practice important social and emotional skills. They learn to negotiate, take turns, establish boundaries, and cooperate with others. Through this play, children develop a sense of empathy, as they consider others' feelings and reactions during the playful interactions.

Additionally, rough and tumble play provides a safe space for children to experience and express a range of emotions, helping them build emotional resilience and self-regulation skills.

Supports cognitive development

Rough-and-tumble play stimulates cognitive development in various ways. It encourages problem-solving as children strategize and plan their movements during play. They learn to anticipate and react to their playmates' actions, fostering quick thinking and adaptability.

Furthermore, rough-and-tumble play often involves imaginative scenarios, allowing children to exercise their creativity and engage in pretend play, which enhances their cognitive abilities and fosters abstract thinking.

Encourages relationship building

Through rough-and-tumble play, children develop and strengthen their relationships with peers. This type of play builds trust and fosters positive social connections.

Children learn to read non-verbal cues, understand personal boundaries, and develop a sense of reciprocity and fairness. As they engage in rough-and-tumble play with their peers, they build bonds and create shared experiences, which can contribute to the formation of lasting friendships.

Builds self-confidence and resilience

Rough-and-tumble play provides children with opportunities to take risks, try new strategies, and overcome challenges. As they navigate the physical interactions and test their abilities, children develop a sense of self-confidence and resilience.

They learn to trust their own judgment, handle setbacks, and bounce back from minor conflicts or falls. These experiences contribute to the development of a strong sense of self-esteem and a growth mindset.

Two young girls chasing each other during recess. Source

How to ensure safe rough-and-tumble play

Your role as a teacher is to help children have positive play experiences. Rough-and-tumble play is intended to be fun, and you can make sure it stays that way. You are the key to facilitating the play and considering the risks. It’s imperative to actively supervise the environment and ensure it’s safe for adventurous play.

Balancing risk and reward is the best way to facilitate challenging activities like rough-and-tumble play. Your responsibility is to prevent unnecessary risks to children's safety by offering them learning opportunities to manage their safety levels.

By implementing the following strategies, teachers can ensure that rough and tumble play remains safe and beneficial.

1. Establish clear guidelines and expectations

To ensure safe rough-and-tumble play, create ground rules and establish them at the beginning. These rules can be shared with the children using age-appropriate language. You can also discuss examples of what’s permitted and what’s not and when a teacher will stop the game. 

Here are a few ground rules to consider:

  • Listen to the needs of others.

  • Keep contact below the shoulders.

  • Always use open palms and not your fists. Kicking, choking, or any other form of aggression is not permitted.

  • Play outdoors on soft grass or any other comfortable area with ample space. Make sure you designate the areas where rough play is safe.

  • Use a code word. Give them a code word that they can use to let other players know it’s time to stop. 

2. Teach safe techniques and movements

Provide explicit instruction on safe techniques and movements to minimize the risk of injuries. Teach children how to properly use their bodies during rough-and-tumble play, such as landing softly, keeping their hands open, and avoiding dangerous maneuvers like jumping from high surfaces. Encourage them to be mindful of their own and others' safety at all times.

3. Maintain active supervision

Active supervision is crucial during rough play to prevent accidents and intervene when necessary. Be present and engaged, closely monitoring the play and ensuring that it remains within the established safety guidelines. This allows you to promptly address any potential issues or conflicts that may arise.

4. Create a safe play space

Designate a specific area for rough-and-tumble play that is free from hazards. Ensure that the space is well-maintained, with soft surfaces such as mats or padded flooring to cushion falls. Remove any sharp objects or furniture that could pose a risk. Regularly inspect the play area to identify and address potential safety concerns.

5. Encourage communication and consent

Teach children the importance of communication and obtaining consent during rough play. Encourage them to ask their playmates if they are comfortable participating and to respect each other's boundaries. Promote open dialogue among children, so they can express their feelings, concerns, and preferences during play.

6. Foster a culture of safety and support

Create an environment where children feel safe and supported during rough-and-tumble play. Encourage positive interactions by praising cooperative play, empathetic gestures, and respectful communication. Foster a culture of inclusivity, where all children are encouraged to participate and where conflicts are resolved peacefully.

Getting families involved

Families may be concerned about their children’s safety during rough-and-tumble play. When they think about the aggression that comes with it, they may have reservations about allowing their children to engage in play fighting. 

The following ideas can help educators effectively engage families and promote a shared understanding of the benefits of rough-and-tumble play.

Create take-home materials

Develop take-home materials such as brochures, pamphlets, or newsletters that highlight the importance of rough-and-tumble play. Include information on the benefits, safety guidelines, and suggestions for incorporating this play into daily routines at home. It may also be helpful to share a do's and don't list such as:

  • Do observe play dynamics and offer guidance along the way. Intervene or stop the game if the children are in danger of injury. 

  • Do watch out for children who are reluctant to participate in playful fighting but don’t hinder the rest from doing so. The best way to handle this is to find alternative big-body play that they can participate in without physical contact.

  • Do support children on how to take turns. However, refrain from making decisions for them. Instead, allow autonomy so they can build their social skills.

  • Don’t overestimate the dangers you perceive. The children will usually tell you when they are happy and safe or not. 

  • Don’t dictate how the children can play. Instead, allow them to make some choices and tweak the rules when appropriate. Eventually, they will learn responsibility and build their social skills.

Resources like these can serve as a reference for parents, reinforcing the value of rough-and-tumble play and providing them with actionable ideas to implement with their children.

Organize family activities 

Host family playdates or picnics where parents can actively participate in and observe their children engaging in this type of play. Encourage parents to join in the fun, promoting bonding and creating opportunities for parents to see firsthand the positive impact of rough-and-tumble play on their child's development.

Use a communication app

Utilize a preschool communication app like brightwheel to consistently share information and updates with families. Send regular newsletters or emails to families, providing resources, articles, and videos related to rough-and-tumble play. Share relevant real-time messages, highlighting the benefits and sharing success stories from the classroom.

Provide home activity suggestions

Give families specific activity suggestions they can implement at home to support rough play. Offer ideas for creating safe play spaces, incorporating props and toys, and engaging in cooperative play as a family. Encourage parents to document and share their child's experiences, creating a sense of community and shared learning among families.

Three young girls pillow fighting Source

Frequently asked questions

What is rough-and-tumble play?

Rough-and-tumble play is an activity that encourages playful fighting and other rough play without aggression. This kind of play is high energy and can involve wrestling, play fighting, spinning, and chasing. 

Do girls engage in and enjoy rough-and-tumble play?

Yes, girls also engage in and enjoy rough-and-tumble play. Most of them like big-body play without any physical contact with their peers.

Can play wrestling lead to actual fighting?

It's important to establish the rules of play beforehand so that play wrestling does not cause actual fighting. The best way to implement this is to involve the children in rule-setting. Doing so helps them take responsibility for their actions and ensure they play safely.

What does rough-and-tumble play look like across different stages of development? 

Children of all ages engage in and benefit from big-body play. In infants, big-body play or explorations may look like rolling, crawling, pulling themselves up, and pushing and pulling objects. 

Toddlers may enjoy spinning around, chasing, dancing, climbing, and jumping on and off furniture. 

Preschoolers may enjoy organized big-body play games (e.g., freeze tag), wrestling or play fighting, jumping off new heights, and climbing taller structures.

When is the right time to intervene in rough-and-tumble play?

Children engaging in play fighting are usually gentle and generally refrain from hitting or pushing their friends. However, the line between rough-and-tumble play and aggression can be a thin one and as the play progresses, you may not be sure if it's time to step in. To be sure, ask if all the players are comfortable with the game. The answer will tell you if it’s time to intervene. 

Remind children how to be gentle, when to take turns, and to ask for help when they feel upset. This will help to de-escalate situations that may lead to someone becoming angry or hurt.

Wrapping up

Rough-and-tumble play offers plenty of physical, cognitive, and social-emotional benefits to children. By embracing and supporting this type of play, educators have the opportunity to create a safe and enriching environment where children can thrive holistically.

Providing children with the tools and guidance they need to navigate this form of play safely can empower them to explore their physical capabilities, develop essential social skills, and build resilience.

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