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Rough-and-Tumble Play: A Teacher’s Guide 2022

Rough-and-tumble play: Playing it the child’s way

Rough and Tumble Play: A Teacher’s Guide 2022

Mom with two children at laptop

We all have witnessed rough-and-tumble play among children at some point. Remember Freeze Tag, Steal the Bacon, 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 fear 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.

What are the benefits of play fighting?

  • Encourages outdoor play: Children today may lack enough time and space for physical activity and outdoor play. As a result, they can miss out on active and vigorous play, which can stimulate brain activity and healthy growth.
  • Regulates cognition and social behavior: Rough-and-tumble play allows children to explore social dynamics. They may like the control and empowerment these games provide. Additionally, this type of play regulates their social behavior and overall cognition.
  • Safe and friendly interaction: Play fighting teaches children to get along well. In a school environment, they can play according to a set of agreed-upon classroom rules. Play fighting also enables them to recognize the difference between harmful and playful behavior.

Two young girls chasing each other during recess.

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  • Stimulates signal coding: Children learn how to signal to each other and alternate roles during their play. These skills help boost cooperative social interactions, including holding conversations and making agreements. 
  • Encourages experimentation: Rough-and-tumble play offers children ample space to experiment using various social strategies. This freedom can help boost their creativity in solving social problems.
  • Promotes physical activity: Rough-and-tumble play benefits the cardiovascular system. In addition, it stimulates the brain and improves mood, cognition, and academic performance.

Additional benefits include improved self-regulatory skills, positive peer relationships, social competence, social organization skills, safe confrontation, improved social behavior, and more.

How can you benefit from rough-and-tumble play as a teacher?

While observing the children as they play vigorously, you can gain valuable insights into each child’s level of functioning.

Through close observation, you can:

  • Understand each child’s personality

  • Understand their sociometric status

  • Help children nurture their abilities or improve on them

How can teachers monitor rough-and-tumble fighting? 

Your role as a teacher is to help students 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.

So, what can you do as an educator?

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.

Here are crucial elements to consider:

  • Offer positive intervention before play.

  • Empower children to stay safe during play by encouraging them in risk mitigation while respecting their individuality. You’ll be surprised at how good children are at judging what they can or can’t do.

  • Encourage young children to buddy up as their brothers’ keepers. Risky play like rough-and-tumble is a group exercise where children form close bonds while helping and encouraging one another. 

  • Instill discipline in the children and ensure they maintain it during play. They should understand that no aggression is allowed.

Preparing for rough-and-tumble play (rules of the game)

To ensure safe rough-and-tumble play, create ground rules and establish them at the beginning. These rules should be shared with the children using age-appropriate language. You should 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.

  • Rough-and-tumble play should be fun for everyone.

  • Play outdoors on soft grass or any other comfortable area with ample space. Make sure you designate the areas where rough-and-tumble 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. 

How to ensure safe rough-and-tumble play

  • Always go over the rules with the children before they start their game.
  • Maintain frequent check-ins to ensure that they are all comfortable with the game and are playing safely. For instance, you can ask them if they’re having fun, or if they need any help.
  • Reinforce these rules when you need to.
  • Direct every child to self-regulate their feelings and emotions.
  • Give the children a chance to express their emotions to you and their fellow players.
  • Ensure the game remains safe at all times.
  • Create a cohesive classroom environment where children feel supported, nurtured, and have a sense of belonging.
  • Make sure they work together, solve problems, negotiate, share and help each other at all times.
  • Supervise them as they play.
  • Communicate with their parents about the benefits of rough-and-tumble play. Share the importance of engaging their children in this game. You can also create a session where parents can join for a short while.

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. 

Children playing tug of war

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One thing to keep in mind when supervising rough-and-tumble play is that overly monitoring or interfering in the game doesn’t always help the players. Children understand who is playing fair or not and it can be helpful for them to practice social skill strategies for independently resolving conflict. 

However, you must guide them to ensure play fighting sessions are healthy and fun. Remember - their brain is still maturing, and they are still learning to regulate their emotions, which may cause them to misread their friends’ intentions.

Always remind them 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.

Getting parents involved

Parents 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 play.

As a teacher, you can educate parents about the play to assure them of the preschoolers’ safety. One way to do this is to invite them to attend a session when children are playing these games.

Explain the benefits of the play to help them understand that it’s safe and developmentally-appropriate. Assure them of the precautions you’ve taken to ensure the children’s safety. This includes setting rules and supervising play.

An uptick in rough-and-tumble play at school may also increase rough-and-tumble play exploration at home. It’s important to communicate to parents when rough-and-tumble play is happening at school and the established rules so that families can follow similar agreements at home. 

Families can be great coaches in physical play. For example, a parent can engage their child in rough-and-tumble play within the context of an emotionally-safe relationship. 

young girls pillow fighting

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Both boys and girls benefit from rough-and-tumble play, but they may play and interact differently according to this study. 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. With rough-and-tumble play, as with all activities, keeping parents updated on their child's day can help build and nurture a strong home-to-school connection. To help with this, download a free copy of our preschool daily report to keep families informed. 

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Playful fighting: the do’s and don’ts

  • Observe play dynamics and offer guidance along the way. Intervene or stop the game if the children are in danger of injury. 
  • 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.
  • Support the children on how to take turns. However, desist 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. 
  • Avoid dictating what the children should do. Instead, allow them to make some choices and tweak the rules when appropriate. Eventually, they will learn responsibility and build their social skills.

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 and enjoy rough-and-tumble play?

Yes, girls also engage 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?

Play wrestling should not cause actual fighting if you establish rules beforehand. 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 can 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.   

Wrapping up

Rough-and-tumble play offers plenty of physical, social, and emotional benefits to children. It also helps you understand children’s behavior and helps them nurture their abilities and skill levels. However, to ensure they reap these benefits, you must create a safe environment for them. 

For families who may be more hesitant to allow their child to engage in rough-and-tumble play, consider providing parent education on the topic, holding parent group discussions, inviting them to observe the children at play, and giving them strategies for supporting their children in this type of play outside the classroom. The benefits of rough-and-tumble play are numerous and they are just as important at school as they are at home. 


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