Rough Play, Joyful Chaos

Sep 23, 2013

This is another in a series of articles for families from Michigan State University Extension.

Would you like to engage your child in a type of play that supports a broad range of physical development skills, language skills and social skills?  Try giving her a chance for rough play. 

Sometimes called rough-and-tumble play or horseplay, rough play used to be looked down on as the “bad boy” of play for young children.  But, researchers are finding that this type of very physical interaction between children can be very beneficial as well as enjoyable.

What frightens adults, parents and teachers alike, is that rough play will turn violent and someone will get hurt but, in fact, researchers report that less than one percent of rough play episodes turn into fighting.  

Early childhood education specialists agree that there is a distinct difference between rough play and fighting and the signs are pretty obvious.  When children are fighting, they’re serious.  Their faces are rigid and their hands are clutched into fists.  One child may be trying to force another child, through violence or threats of violence, to do his/her bidding.  There is no turn-taking in fighting and, like the joke goes, there are no rules.

Researcher Frances M. Carlson characterizes rough play as “a predictable pattern of unique characteristics: running, chasing, fleeing, wrestling, open-palm tagging, swinging around, and falling to the ground—often on top of each other.”  

Janet remembers a great game that she and her siblings played that involved racing from one end of the living room to the other and screaming with laughter while getting swatted with throw pillows. 

Kittie has led a more genteel life but she witnesses safe but rough play when she sees knots of boys and girls tumbling around in the grass and giggling. What all of these activities share in common is the joyful aspect of play - smiling faces, laughter and exclamations of agreement. 

Young children need to learn to recognize these cues to the emotional state of their playmates and rough play gives them the opportunity to do just that.  And, it’s a great way for a child to explore the use and control of their large and small muscles. They can also learn about turn-taking and negotiating in rough play – two skills that are critical to a child’s social development.  Another positive thing about rough play is that it allows children to experience the excitement of  taking risks but in a safe way. 

We can encourage safe rough play by taking a few precautions before the play session begins. 

  • Set up a few simple rules like “always use open hands” and “no biting or kicking”. 
  • Make sure that the play space, whether outdoors or indoors, is free of hazards and there is enough room to roll, tumble and move around without running into furniture. 
  • It’s always a good idea to have an adult nearby to intervene if there is an accident of “over-enthusiasm.”

In recent years, adults have tried to curb a child’s inclination for rough play with organized games.  We’ve created sports like football and soccer proscribed with rules for safety.  We’ve organized races to give children the opportunity to run but not run rampant.  We teach gymnastics to give children a chance to move their bodies and accomplish feats of dexterity and coordination. 

But, the urge to “rumble in the jungle” is as natural for our human babies as it is for puppies and kittens.  As long as adults are there to keep it safe, let the joyful chaos begin.

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Kittie Butcher and Janet Pletcher

This is part of a series of articles on early childhood development by Kittie Butcher MSU Extension Educator, Children Youth Families & Communities and Janet Pletcher MA, Adjunct Faculty, Child Development and Early Education Program, Lansing Community College.