• Suzanne Axelsson

The Story of Rough and Tumble Play

Rough and tumble play.

It really is an arena of great learning - but as the responsible adult it is also a period of 100% focus.

The rules are clear at the start - if you don’t like something, or it hurts, or is uncomfortable you say a clear “stop”. And if you hear stop then everyone stops straight away.

The play is respectful and built on joy (not anger or frustration). There is no deliberate hitting or kicking but a careful choreography of hands-on wrestling-kind of play.

Rough and tumble play creates the opportunity to practically learn about consent, your own limits, how to communicate that to others and about your own strength and how your actions impact others.



These children are playing dinosaurs after creating their own dinosaur stories in a previous activity.

There is a mix of dino roars and laughter.

There were five children involved. Two dinosaurs at first. Three children watching. One child watched for a while first then joined in. Another watched for a short time then left for another play - as that child needed to verbally control the direction of the play - while rough and tumble is about communicating with bodies... the fifth child wanted to join in but remained on the periphery but would throw a random hand into the play, sometimes to pinch a cheek or hit, this child was reminded about the need to play. As at first I wanted to see if this child's observations would give clues as to how to join in I did not interfere when the periphery movements were play-based attempts at joining in. On the second reminder to keep it play-based I suggested that the child might prefer another style of play instead, pointing out how I was always watching and could see the difference between play intentions and non play intentions. The child, once over the shock that I had observed the deed (implying I was being successfully invisibly visible) agreed, this change of play would allow a greater freedom of play for that child, still working on self-regulation skills.


Rough and tumble play requires a lot of self control.


I intervened three times in the above play to double check when I was not completely sure of how one child was experiencing the play... they all stopped, checked all were well and then resumed play. They kept to the thick mat to keep them protected. But also to keep the all the other play protected too. Rough and tumble play can have the tendency to take over a whole room, and this is why it is so important to limit it to a small area so that the enjoyment of the play does not wreak havoc on other children's play. It also makes it easier for the children to self-regulate, as the play does not get bigger tan what they can manage.

And after twenty minutes my third intervention was to stop it. I could see they were beginning to get tired and the vibe of the play shifted slightly. Much better to stop it while everyone was happy.


Rosy cheeks, twinkling eyes.


The play changed to being in small dens, kittens, parents and making food... calm, positive interactions instead of loud positive interaction


Children need permission to engage in rough and tumble. They need adults who watch the play carefully to keep them safe but not limit their positive play. Being a guardian of rough and tumble is intensive and requires full concentration.


I think we all have to do what we feel comfortable with. And not everyone is going to be comfortable with rough and tumble play, and for a variety of reasons, some more valid than others I feel. I am comfortable with safe rough and tumble with clear rules about respect, stopping and the need for self regulation - so it’s more like choreography than fighting... Scrapping and fighting or even rough and tumble where one of the participants is frustrated or angry or scared means that choreography is lost and the risk increases so that it’s not worth the benefits..

With young children I think ratios also impact what can be offered to children too... as there cannot be many children (max 3, often just 2) at the same time as it becomes tricky for a child to manage... and if an educator has to watch that play and other children at the same time you no longer have the 100% focus that it needs, especially if it is with children you are not very familiar with (and cannot read their play signals), and/or if the children are not used to rough and tumble play.

The sad part is that this kind of play is becoming more rare in homes too... How do children test where the line is, when to practice how and when to say stop, or when they should stop - in safe play experiences - as most play experiences are for the most part planned to eliminate these kind of situations... to minimise risk ...


I constantly strive to create safe opportunities for a rough and tumble play - that is probably less risky than children running and chasing each other outside

My experience over years is no accidents/injuries in rough and tumble PLAY, some when playing chase, and most accidents from children playing team sports... And yet football, etc is seldom seen as high risk yet it actually does have a higher risk of injury than play, even rough and tumble play (in a safe and watched manner)

There is research about the benefits of rough and tumble play.. and some links are provided below (with thanks to Judi Zalles wo shared some of them on my facebook page). One of the links shares how it is mostly dads and males that engage in rough and tumble play with children, and I have clear memories that it was my dad and not my mum that engaged in this play when I was a child. So as an early years educator I made te decision to engage in rough and tumble too with the children too, in order to give a female role-model, to give the girls permission to engage in this play and not just a greater leaning towards boys... and I feel it does make a real difference, and it is a great work out!


The Benefits of Rough-housing by Darryl Edwards

The Conversation - Kids learn valuable life skills through rough and tumble with their dads by Emily Freeman

Observing, Supporting and celebrating rough and tumble play in the classroom by Colin Johnson

Rough and Tumble Play - The Play Encyclopedia

Rough and Tumble play: a guide - Raising Children


Structure for Freedom... a post I have written about the need for rules for children to be able to play freely


Interaction Imagination

© 2017 Suzanne Axelsson. Interaction Imagination. Stockholm, Sweden.
suzanne@interactionimagination.com 

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