Observing, Supporting and Celebrating Rough-and-Tumble Play in the Classroom

By Colin Johnson, Head Teacher

No matter how you define play, it is a dominant activity of children’s daily life in all cultures. –Mariana Brussoni and colleagues, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2012 

On the slide in East Room, children crowd in groups large and small, pulling each other up, nudging each other down, and piling together in soft sand at the bottom. A din of gleeful laughter and effortful groans combines with playful calls for help from children climbing up and answers of support from those already at the top. The apparent chaos soon resolves into a pattern, as children climb up one side of the slide and slip down another. They watch for openings above and below them, they reach their hands up and down to grasp each other and to achieve, again and again, the impossible goal of going up a thing that is designed to make you go down. 

We all have fond memories of our own play in childhood—for many of us they will be creating artwork, digging in the sand or splashing in puddles after rainfall. But research suggests that every one of us, in one way or another, enjoyed learning through just a little bit of risk. According to Ellen Sandseter, professor of psychology at Queen Maud University in Norway, we enjoyed six types of risky play: climbing to great heights, travelling at rapid speeds, using real tools, exploring natural elements, hiding from others (real or imagined) and tumbling, wrestling and chasing in rough-and-tumble play with friends. This article explores the last type—rough-and-tumble play—through its manifestations, its challenges, and, in the end, its profound value in young children’s development. 

Rough-and-tumble play is a ubiquitous childhood experience and, perhaps, the oldest form of play. It is a common theme in all human cultures, writes Sandseter in a 2011 article for Evolutionary Psychology, and the most frequent play observed in non-human mammals. In a 2011 article for the journal Young Children, Frances Carlson, author of the book Big Body Play: Why Boisterous, Vigorous, and Very Physical Play Is Essential to Children’s Development and Learning, posits a set of predictable physical interactions that derive from early play in toddlerhood: “running, chasing, fleeing, wrestling, open-palm tagging, swinging around, and falling to the ground—often on top of each other.” In fact, rough-and-tumble play shares all of the characteristics of play in general, as defined by Catherine Garvey, author of the seminal book Play: It is enjoyable, void of extrinsic goals or rewards, it is spontaneous and voluntary, and it involves active engagement by all players. Yet there seems to be a logical paradox in all of this play, according to Anthony Pellegrini, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, and Peter Smith, professor emeritus at Goldsmiths, University of London. In their landmark 1998 article for the journal Child Development, the authors assert that in order for a behavior to exist as universally as play does, it must have both immediate and long-term benefits for those who do it; but, if play is defined by its lack of purpose, then what are its benefits? Why do all children, everywhere, do it? 

In East PM, teachers observed evolving rough-and-tumble play over the course of the year, ever incorporating new themes, new children and new patterns. In the first days of the autumn quarter, while much of the class selected activities like building block structures, molding clay, or “cooking” with sand and water, small groups of children chose to run over the grassy hills, in and out of corners and covered areas, approaching each other with feigned claws and toothy-grinned snarls. At first glance, this type of interaction may seem to present challenges, but closer inspection revealed clear benefits for our newly forming classroom community. Shortly after the onset of the play, two boys, after exchanging roars, began to sprint together in a new direction. Spontaneously, one stopped and turned to the other: “You’re my friend!” “Yeah. You’re my friend!” Their faces switched from intense focus to joyful agreement, if only for a moment, as they celebrated their new and powerful connection. 

As children revisited this rough-and-tumble play, they underwent the refinement that lies at the base of development. The initial immediate pleasure of a “roar and run” game developed, over time, to include narrative scripts that bolstered and sustained the collaboration, props constructed out of open-ended materials that extended the symbolic nature of the play, and negotiations that helped children define and adapt to new ideas and new players on a given day. The “rules” that they developed were not only specific to the game at hand, but also applied their understanding of themselves and others in general. Through this play, children learned about their comfort, their ability to control their own behavior and the skills needed to sustain interactions with peers. 

The interactive nature of rough-and-tumble play promotes the development of reciprocal relationships and mutual understanding, both key aspects of social development. By depending on others within play—and being depended on—children develop trust in each other. In East PM, one girl, fascinated by the chase play of her peers, began to approach the fast-moving group. This proximity drew some of the players to chase her too, and her role quickly shifted from observer to participant. Day after day, she approached the group and then, when chased, ran away with an expression of joyful fear, a rider cresting the peak of a roller coaster, and asked the chasers to stop (she wasn’t quite ready for the plunge). Teachers supported this interaction, reminding her that she could stand still and tell other children that she was not playing the game. She also began to understand the other children’s perspective that, in seeing her run, it seemed that she wanted to be chased. Yet, in spite of her trepidation, she continued to approach the players. She revisited the observer role, and, at her own pace, prepared to join. She developed trust in watching how her peers listened to her desires and respected her comfort level. At the same time, the chasers refined their understanding of the game and how it could be maintained: They responded to cues that this child wanted to join based on her proximity and gaze; they included her by running with her as they did with other established players; and they exercised self-control and flexibility when they shifted their goal after hearing her say “stop.” 

After weeks of this reciprocity—interest, chase, trepidation and, ultimately, empowerment—the children developed an understanding not only of their own level of comfort with the rough-and-tumble narrative, but also trust in the playfulness, control and understanding of their peers. Now, the girl observes a group of rough-and-tumble players, hurries toward them and, skirting the group, gleefully shouts “Chase ME!” She tears away with friends in hot pursuit and bolts over the hills with a gleeful smile across her face. 

In a skillful dance that’s crucial to good relationships, children learn to discern the signs that indicate others’ comfort. In the “dominant” role, such as the chaser, children respond to social and emotional cues that help them refine their understanding of how to interact with others. A smile or laughter, for instance, is usually a sign that the current play is fun and can be continued. In the event that their partner becomes uncomfortable, shifting to tears, shouts or even leaving the play, children exercise the natural process of finding out why. Why did my friend do that? What was she feeling? What caused it? And what can I do next time to keep the game going for longer? This process has led Pam Jarvis of Leeds Trinity University to assert that rough-and-tumble play “creates valuable practice scenarios for complex social interactions that creatures need to undertake in order to become competent, socially mature adults”—as she wrote in Evolutionary Psychology in 2006. 

Research has shown time and again that—just as we see with the children in East PM, beings of all species often choose the seemingly subordinate role: being chased, tagged or pulled. But why? The proverbial “line” between delight and discomfort must be discovered somehow, and no individual—adult or child— can define that line for another. What is “just right” for one is “not enough” for another, and children must learn to understand this in themselves. This early experience has both immediate and long-term benefits. From a public health perspective, “If children were not provided with sufficient risky play opportunities, they will not experience their ability to cope with fear-inducing situations. Furthermore, they will maintain their fear, which may translate into anxiety,” say Mariana Brussoni and co-authors in a 2012 article in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Sandseter notes, from a developmental perspective, that the positive emotions and deep learning born of the social, physical and cognitive demands of successful rough-and-tumble play far outweigh the potential fear within it. 

Of course, supporting rough-and-tumble play goes far beyond merely letting it happen. Adults must also be realistic and aware of children’s developing competencies—the burgeoning perspective-taking that is just now making them aware of others’ feelings, or the self-control that seems to grow exponentially with each passing year. In order for the play to be safe, teachers maintain a safe environment; and in order for the interaction to reach its full learning potential, teachers observe carefully and respond appropriately to the rapidly changing contexts of rough-and-tumble play. 

Frequently, children encounter each other in the classroom, embrace, laugh and playfully tumble to the ground. Though the social connection is clearly joyful, the physical and emotional safety is paramount, and a teacher quickly gets to the children’s level. “I see you smiling,” they say to the child on the bottom of the scrum. “I wonder if you like that?” In another scenario the teacher may note important social cues: “I see your face, and you look upset,” “You’re trying to get up; let’s give you space,” or “She’s trying to catch you; do you like this game?” In these and other situations, adults use their observation skills (learned through years of their own play and interactions) to note implicit rules and subtle changes in the play. 

An adult’s central role, then, during rough-and-tumble play is to help bring these physical, social and emotional currents to the surface—to make the invisible visible for the young children engaged. Indeed, supporting rough-and-tumble play leads to some of the most active teaching in the classroom. Teachers remain close by, watch for facial expressions, listen for tones of voice and speak with the authority of a caring and understanding guide. 

In pursuit of the pleasure that comes from this interactive play, children undergo social, physical, emotional and cognitive growth that is both a means and an end. Their development builds on itself to improve the play over time, making it even more enjoyable. At the same time, it supports a set of skills that prepares children to observe, act and collaborate confidently in a variety of future contexts that we cannot predict. Yet, in both schools and neighborhood parks, this play seems to be dwindling. In creating her vision of Bing Nursery School over 50 years ago, founding director Dr. Edith Dowley committed to “giving back to children some of the things that modern life has tended to take away from them.” Her words related to all aspects of a child’s world. As such, children’s rough-and-tumble play—as rich, natural and ubiquitous as it is—begs the same support, care and preservation as the rest of the early childhood experience.