Rough-and-Tumble Play in Early Childhood Education

By Molly Breen

Rough-and-Tumble Play in Early Childhood EducationHow do you feel about wrestling?

I mean it. How does it feel in your body when children in your group begin wrestling or play fighting? Does it stimulate your flight, fight, or freeze response? Can you stay objective and developmentally-focused, asking yourself guiding questions such as: Are they enjoying this? Do they know the limits for themselves and others? Do they have a shared understanding of the game?

Or do you just want to shut it down?

Wrestling is just one example of “rough-and-tumble play” (RTP) and most developmentalists regard this big-body mode of interaction between children as essential and productive for healthy development. But what if we, as teachers and supervisors, can’t handle it? Or what if we don’t totally understand the benefits?

Ready, set, wrestle!

In my classroom, we encourage a little organized wrestling. Sometimes the entire class gets in on it. We set up a mat, along with chairs for spectators/those waiting for a turn, and we make a “versus” list: I want to verse her! We demonstrate the best way to safely bring someone down to the mat (it’s always at the knees, never at the neck); we establish rules like no grabbing necks, no punching, no scratching; and we create limits (for example, no chanting for one child to win over the other).

The timer begins and the one-minute bout takes place. It is usually a full-body experience and there is near-constant verbal and nonverbal communication. The children stare into each other’s eyes, they shout out the rules: “No scratching!” “Stop!” “Too hard!” When the timer goes off, they are shiny-eyed, smiling, curious about what just transpired, and—ultimately—empowered.

When children are given the opportunity to explore physical, whole-body play in safe environments, they begin to develop a more intuitive understanding of body boundaries and consent. But sometimes it’s the caregivers who prevent or restrict rough-and-tumble play.

According to one study, RTP is a more restricted mode of play by early care professionals who, on average, favor nurturing or family types of creative and dramatic play. Some believe that play fighting will lead to real fighting or real aggression. But most experienced educators and researchers agree that immersive, big-body playful experiences translate to important physical and social-emotional learning.

Here is a developmental snapshot of what happens when kids engage in consensual rough-and-tumble play:

Gross-motor engagement (large muscles groups) and proprioceptive engagement through “heavy work” (balance/body position awareness).

Attunement: Children tune into their felt-sense of well-being or risk as caregivers help establish boundaries and continue to check in about whether or not the play still feels good.

Verbal expression and communication: Children must use their words to ask for what they need and to express themselves to one another. Equally, a play partner must be an active listener, ready to adjust to the needs of the other child.

Empathy and perspective-taking: In rough-and-tumble play, children must be responsive to the state of their play partner(s) if they want the play to continue.

Boundary-setting and consent: This may be the most important benefit of RTP! Safe and supported RTP helps children learn to express and uphold boundaries around their physical wellbeing and know that they are in charge of their choices when it comes to their bodies.

When does RTP become too risky? Certainly it is the provider’s responsibility to help keep children safe and to individuate permission for different types of RTP based on a child’s developmental needs. Making sure there are soft enough surfaces and no sharp edges around when children are play fighting, chasing, tackling, and tumbling is important!

In addition, a level of vigilance to observe the play and check in with children should be prioritized: Are you still having fun? Your body looks like it’s still playing, but your face looks like you would like to stop. How are you feeling?

Just because children are drawn to rough-and-tumble play doesn’t mean they instantly have the developmental skill set they need to succeed. Caregivers create the architecture for developmental success.

For example, in our class, if we note that there is interest in play fighting or other RTP, we will read about boundary-setting and consent during a morning meeting. We might demonstrate a scenario or social story wherein one teacher pretends to be interested in play fighting and another teacher begins to play with consent, but then changes their mind. How do we respond? What should each person do? This out-of-action theoretical modeling can help kids conceptualize what it takes to self-advocate, listen, and adapt. A key question in our classroom: Who knows best about you?

When we use a developmental lens to observe RTP, we can see that the benefits—in most cases—outweigh the risks. Allowing for this type of play, and even making it part of the school philosophy and parent orientation (helping parents understand the developmental significance of RTP), creates a needed developmental pathway for early learning. And, critically, it empowers children to explore and develop their understanding of consent and a felt sense of safety in their play—which will also help them stay safe in every aspect of their lives.

Next time your classroom is buzzing with big-body energy and children are tackling one another like a pile of puppies, I hope you will consider setting up some mats, creating some shared boundaries and expectations for rough-and-tumble play, and helping your learners to explore the edges of their interest in RTP.

Additional resources:

Empower kids and families to develop safety rules and to understand consent with the Zero Abuse Project.

The We Say What’s Okay series by Lydia Bowers helps children learn the social and emotional skills they need to understand the complexities of consent.

Molly BreenMolly Breen, M.A., E.C.E., has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.

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