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Most children love rough-and-tumble play and play fighting. Rough play lets children test and practise physical and social skills, take some safe risks, and learn about their bodies, including how strong they are.
Children playing rough credit iStockphotos.com/CREATISTA
 

Rough play: why children do it

Rough play is probably a basic human instinct, something that has developed in us through evolution.

In modern society, rough-and-tumble play helps children develop many skills – but mostly children play rough because it’s fun!

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
  • work out social relationships as they play roles, take turns and sort out personal boundaries.

Play fighting or real fighting?

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

In rough play, children smile and laugh. You might see excitement and pleasure on their faces. No-one gets bullied, hurt or forced to do anything. Once they’re finished, they keep playing together.

If you see frowning, crying, fear or anger, it isn’t play. And children who are really fighting move away from each other once the fight is over.

Rough play can lead to real fighting, so try to establish some rules about what is and isn’t acceptable during play. You can get even young children involved in working out what the rules should be.

Rough-and-tumble play is usually pretty high energy – chasing, wrestling, spinning and play fighting. The key thing is that everyone is having fun. Sometimes children can get hurt, but no-one is actually trying to hurt anyone else.

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.

Never shake your baby or child, because it can cause bleeding inside the brain and likely permanent brain damage.

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 the 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 14-08-2014
  • Last Reviewed 26-05-2014
  • Berk, L.E. (2005). Infants and children. Boston: Pearson Education Inc.

    Carlson, F.M. (2011). Rough and tumble play: One of the most challenging behaviors. Young Children NAEYC, 66(4), 18-25

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