By Raising Children Network
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Most children love rough-and-tumble play and play fighting. It helps them understand their own strength, and work out their social relationships. You can usually tell play fighting from the real thing.

Why children play rough

Rough play might have developed among children as a way of learning the fighting skills they’d need to survive.

These days, play fighting helps children avoid actual fights. This is because it helps children learn who among their friends is stronger and weaker. It allows them to work out who they can beat and who’ll beat them. It’s a way of setting up a hierarchy of stronger and weaker children in the play group.

Climbing over one another and rolling around also helps young children:

  • understand the limits of their strength
  • explore their changing position in space
  • find out what other children will and won’t let them do.

Play fighting vs real fighting

You might worry that your child is being aggressive, but you can usually tell rough-and-tumble play from genuine fighting.

In rough-and-tumble, children will be smiling and laughing. Once they’re finished, they’ll keep playing together. Children who are really fighting each other will separate once the fight is over.

    Rough-and-tumble play can easily lead to real fighting, so try to establish some rules about what is and isn’t acceptable during play.

    Play fighting: ages and stages

    Babies and toddlers enjoy exciting movement, as long as they feel safe. Toddlers and babies like to be bounced on your knee or lifted into the air. It’s best to be gentle with young children, though, to avoid any accidental injury.

    Toddlers love playing chasey or tiggy, spinning around and dancing. This kind of active play works best when your child is wide awake and not expected to go to bed or sit quietly any time soon.

    Primary school children are the biggest rough-and-tumblers.

    Play fighting is most common among boys during primary school years (both because of their hormones and because grown-ups tend to play more roughly with boys). Boys tend to like wrestling and holding each other down. Girls who enjoy rough play prefer chasing each other around. 

    Video: Rough play with your children

    Download Video  23.6mb

    This short video is about rough play like chasing and wrestling. You can use rough play to have fun with your children and strengthen your bond. It’s also good exercise and helps kids work out how strong they are. You should always be gentle with young children so they don’t get hurt.

    Rough-and-tumble play is often a ‘dad specialty’ – an activity that is particularly good for dads to do with their kids.

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    • Last Updated 11-03-2010
    • Last Reviewed 02-11-2009
    • Berk, L. E. (2005). Infants and Children. Boston: Pearson Education Inc.

      Manning-Morton, J. & Thorp, M. (2003). Key Times for Play: The first three years. Maidenhead: Open University Press.