Rough and Tumble Play

Rough and Tumble Play

Rough and tumble play has been defined as physically vigorous behaviors, such as chase and play fighting, that are accompanied by positive feelings between the players. This play type was first named by anthropologist Karl Groos in his books “Play of Animals” (1898) and “Play of Man” (1901).1

Children enjoy engaging in rough and tumble play. As they are wrestling, hitting, and chasing one another, they are laughing and squealing as willing participants and keep returning for more. While adults may be concerned that their play is real fighting or aggression, children are adept at discerning the difference and will indicate if the play has gotten too aggressive and respond accordingly to continue the play.2 If a child gets hurt, the play pauses for a moment to resolve the issue, and then the play resumes. Children will learn how far they can go in playing rough and discover the boundaries for healthy play.3 Rough and tumble play allows a child to understand the limits of their own strength and discover what other children will and won’t allow them to do.4

There are many social benefits to rough and tumble play. Children discern the give-and-take of appropriate social interactions and learn to read and understand the body language of other children. The social skills of signaling and detecting signals developed through play will be used throughout their lives. They also learn to change roles in their play as at times they are chasing others and then being chased themselves.5

Rough and tumble play often requires intense physical exertion that aids cardiovascular health as well as developing motor skills and muscles as they play in chase games or wrestle with one another. These activities especially give boys the opportunity to address their need for power and to physically touch each other while playing. In the spirit of play, children work hard to demonstrate their ability to be competent through rough and tumble play.6 They may be playing King of the Mountain, pretending to be superheroes, or engaging in mock karate. In time, rough and tumble games expand into more sophisticated games like organized sports, continuing the need to be physically active as they move into adolescence.7

School age children spend 17% of their play time as rough and tumble play. The amount of time spent in rough and tumble play peaks during the elementary school years and then declines in middle school. Boys generally engage in physical play more often than girls and choose other boys to play with, while girls will select both boys and girls.8 Boys enjoy wrestling and holding each other down, while girls prefer chasing games.9

From the 1960s through the 1990s, it was thought that aggressive behavior in young children was acquired mainly through observation and imitation of others. Roughhousing was discouraged, because it was thought it would lead to aggressive hostile behavior. Recent research has shown that aggression emerges naturally in children and diminishes as children learn to express themselves appropriately through the social interaction of rough and tumble play.10

With the reduction of opportunities for children to engage in free play in today’s society, there has been a rise in concerns about the poor socialization of children as a whole.11 Lack of rough and tumble play hinders the normal give-and-take experience necessary for social mastery and has been linked to poor control of violent impulses later in life. Dr. Stuart Brown studied the play histories of young murderers in Texas and found an absence of rough and tumble play in their childhoods. Rough and tumble play is necessary for the development and maintenance of social awareness, fairness, cooperation, and compassion.12

  • 1. Jarvis, Pam. “ʽRough and Tumble’ Play: Lessons in Life.” Evolutionary Psychology. < > 10 Nov. 2010.
  • 2. Carlson, Frances. “rough and tumble play 101.” < > 10 Nov. 2010.
  • 3. Brown, Stuart with Christopher Vaughan. Play. How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. New York, NY: Avery, Penguin Group. 2009. p. 190.
  • 4. “Rough-and-tumble play.” Raising Children Network. < > 10 Nov. 2010.
  • 5. Op. cit., Carlson.
  • 6. Uba, Greg. “Rough and Tumble Play.” A Place of Our Own. < > 10 Nov. 2010.
  • 7. Op. cit., Brown. pp. 90-91.
  • 8. Frost, Joe L., Sue Wortham, Stuart Reifel. Play and Child Development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001. p. 241.
  • 9. Op. cit., “Round-and-tumble play.”
  • 10. Klein, Kevin. “Why Boys Need Rough-and-Tumble Play.” < > 10 Nov. 2010.
  • 11. Op. cit., Jarvis.
  • 12. Op cit., Brown. pp. 88-89.