Rough play: Joyful chaos

Researchers are finding that this type of very physical interaction between children can be beneficial as well as enjoyable.

Would you like to engage your child in a type of play that supports a broad range of physical development skills, language skills and social skills?  Try giving them a chance for rough play.  Sometimes called rough-and-tumble play or horseplay, rough play used to be looked down on as the “bad boy” of play for young children.  But, researchers are finding that this type of very physical interaction between children can be beneficial as well as enjoyable.

What frightens adults, parents and teachers is that rough play will turn violent and someone will get hurt, but in fact, researchers report that less than one percent of the rough play episodes turn into fighting.  Early childhood education specialists agree that there is a distinct difference between rough play and fighting and the signs are pretty obvious.  When children are fighting, they’re serious; their faces are rigid and their hands are clutched into fists.  One child may be trying to force another child, through violence or threats of violence, to do his/her bidding.  According to Michigan State University Extension, there is no turn-taking in fighting and there are no rules.

Researcher Frances M. Carlson characterizes rough play as, “a predictable pattern of unique characteristics: Running, chasing, fleeing, wrestling, open-palm tagging, swinging around and falling to the ground—often on top of each other.”  Some can remember a great game where you and your brother and sister played that involved racing from one end of the living room to the other and screaming with laughter while getting swatted with throw pillows.  Others may have witness safe, but rough play, when they see knots of boys and girls tumbling around in the grass and giggling. What all of these activities share in common is the joyful aspect of play - smiling faces, laughter and exclamations of agreement. 

Young children need to learn to recognize these cues to the emotional state of their playmates and rough play gives them the opportunity to do just that.  And, of course, it’s a great way for a child to explore the use and control of their large and small muscles. They can also learn about turn-taking and negotiating in rough play – two skills that are critical to a child’s social development.  Another positive thing about rough play is that it allows children to experience the excitement of taking risks in a safe way. 

We can encourage safe rough play by taking a few precautions before the play session begins.  Set up a few simple rules like “always use open hands” and “no biting or kicking.”  Make sure that the play space, whether outdoors or indoors, is free of hazards and there is enough room to roll, tumble and move around without running into anything.  Finally, it’s always a good idea to have an adult nearby to intervene if there is an accident of over-enthusiasm.

In recent years, adults have tried to curb a child’s inclination for rough play with organized games. Sports like football and soccer have been created that proscribed rules for safety.  Organized races also give children the opportunity to run but not run rampant.  We teach gymnastics to give children a chance to move their bodies and accomplish feats of dexterity and coordination.  But, the urge to “rumble in the jungle” is as natural for our human babies as it is for puppies and kittens.  As long as adults are there to keep it safe, let the joyful chaos begin.

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