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Rough And Tumble Play

Rough And Tumble Play

Often seen as a Boy Thing, rough and tumble play is popular with many girls, especially when they understand it’s okay to get physical. Social convention often signals girls that such play is not for them.

Rough and tumble play, also known as roughhousing, play fighting, or horseplay, is a form of power play involving wrestling, tumbling, hitting, kicking, chasing, and other full-contact energetic antics. It is an opportunity for children to engage in physical activity while exploring physical and social boundaries and developing crucial life skills.

Rough and tumble play can be rowdy, involving mock battles and physical interaction between children. This play is done with ground rules intended to avoid injuries. Most humans are pain-adverse and wired to avoid physical harm.

While it is highly beneficial for child development and fun for the kids who engage in it, adults often shut down rough and tumble play. Stopping or prohibiting such play tends to happen because adults find it philosophically or aesthetically displeasing, can not see the underlying benefits masked by the play aggression, or are unsure how to support it safely.

Playful Aggression

The aggression in rough and tumble play is not mean-spirited, nor does it sprout from a place of anger. It’s usually not particularly aggressive, either. The fierceness of playful rough and tumble battles is more acting, preening, showmanship, and peacocking than truly aggressive. If you’re pretending to be The Batman, a Ninja Turtle, a tiger, or Wonder Woman, you must get into character.

That said, play aggression can turn into real aggression. Say Superman accidentally steps on Donatello’s toe as they battle over the last slice of pizza. Donatello feels a throb of pain, thinks Superman is really trying to hurt him, and lashes out by scratching The Man Of Steel’s face. Things have just gotten real.

Helping kids navigate such challenging situations is vital to keeping rough and tumble play safe. Understanding Play Face, I Want To Eat You Face, and the difference between angry and Plangry can help. With thoughtful adult support and some practice, most kids quickly learn there’s no malice behind such accidental injuries. Instead of lashing out in anger, Donatello learns to self-regulate and asks Superman to watch where he’s stepping.

Flavors Of Rough And Tumble Play

Rough and tumble play can take many forms. Here are some examples:

  • Pillow or pool noodle battles
  • Superhero and fantasy play
  • Wrestling
  • Tag and other chasing games
  • Pretending to be, or to battle ferocious animals
  • Being or fighting monsters or aliens

Some children may be ready to jump into any of the above at a moment’s notice. Others will have preferences and restrict themselves to those. A few will prefer to observe or serve as MC or referee. Some will have no interest at all in rough and tumble play.

The Importance Of Rough And Tumble Play

Rough and tumble play is developmentally valuable in many ways, including:

  • Cognitive Development–Rough and tumble play supports cognitive development, providing opportunities for building problem-solving and spatial awareness skills.
  • Physical Development–Rough and tumble play enhances physical strength, coordination, and motor skills. It plays a significant role in sensory integration and enables children to gain better control of their movements and body.
  • Social And Emotional Development–This form of play fosters social bonds and emotional regulation. It teaches children the value of reading social cues, practicing self-control by regulating impulses, and understanding consent and personal space.
  • Conflict Resolution–Rough and tumble play provides a platform for children to cooperate and negotiate rules and boundaries, helping them develop essential conflict resolution skills. They learn when to stop and respect others’ limits.
  • Creativity And Imagination–Often, children infuse imaginative elements into rough and tumble play, such as pretending to be superheroes or characters from their favorite stories—this enriches their creativity and storytelling abilities.
  • Energy Release–Horseplay burns a lot of energy. Regular opportunities for such play may help very energetic kids to be still when you need them to be.
  • Affection And Connection–Physical contact is a human necessity. The grabbing, grappling, pushing, and punching this play overflows with is a way some kids—usually boys—show affection and comradery.

Consent In Rough And Tumble Play

Rough and tumble play is a chance for children to learn about seeking and giving consent. Two children agreeing to punch, kick, and grab each other is play. One child walking up to another and punching, kicking, or grabbing them is an aggressive act. Here are some tips:

  • Emphasize Consent–Teach children from a young age that all play requires consent. It’s not real play if someone is forced to participate.
  • Understand Boundaries–Kids should understand the importance of mutual agreement and respecting each other’s boundaries. Negotiating rules helps clarify boundaries. For example, kids may agree that pinching and hair-pulling are not allowed.
  • Use Words And Signals–Encourage children to use words or non-verbal signals (saying NO or raising a hand) to communicate during rough and tumble play or to pause the action. Encourage them to check in with each other during play, asking questions like “Are you okay?” or “Do you want to keep playing?” They should be able to express their feelings and desires and be attentive to their playmates’ cues. It’s never too early to learn about Play Face and I Want To Eat You Face.
  • Differentiate From Aggression–Help children understand that rough and tumble play is different from aggressive behavior. There is no intent to harm in rough and tumble play, and all participants must choose to participate.

Safely Navigating Rough And Tumble Play

Here are some thoughts on keeping rough and tumble play safe and fun for everyone that chooses to take part:

  • Set Ground Rules–Establish clear boundaries for rough and tumble play. Better yet, trust the kids to set the rules since they are engaged in the play. Encourage children to be clear on what’s allowed and not allowed—rules about not hitting or hurting sensitive areas like the face and groin, for example.
  • Supervise And Intervene When Necessary–Adults should supervise rough and tumble play to ensure it remains safe and playful. Intervene as little as possible but as much as necessary. Jumping in too soon steals opportunities for kids to solve problems on their own.
  • Benefit- Risk Assessment–Formally assessing the benefits and risks associated with rough and tumble play in your environment helps keep kids safe and provides a paper trail proving you’ve put some thought into the subject. You’ll find a free assessment form here.
  • Hazard MitigationHazards are potential dangers kids may not anticipate or see. Eliminating them or making them more noticeable helps keep kids safe. There’s more on hazard mitigation here.

Additional Resources

Here are some links to more on the topic of tough and tumble play:


While popular with children, rough and tumble play is often frowned upon by adults. This is a shame since it offers numerous physical, social, and emotional benefits. By emphasizing consent and differentiating between this form of play and acts of actual aggression, parents and early learning professionals can support such play. In doing so, they create environments where children reap the developmental benefits and have a lot of fun.

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Jeff A Johnson
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Jeff Johnson is an early learning trainer, podcaster, and author who founded Explorations Early Learning, Playvolution HQ, and Play Haven.

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