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‘High quality’ rough and tumble play

Associate Professor Richard Fletcher has been conducting research with fathers and families for over 20 years. In this article he looks at the value of rough and tumble play and how to do it well.

If you watch a litter of kittens pouncing, chasing, batting and biting you will notice that in spite of occasional yelps or an angry hiss it is clearly playful. The kittens are honing their hunting skills without causing serious harm.

Children chase and pounce and wrestle too. Like kittens, they sometimes go too far and hurt their playmate even though they do not set out to damage. But what is it they are honing? Not hunting skills surely? Perhaps it is something broader.

We can start by looking at other animals that have some form of this rough play, it turns out that there are many. Tigers, dingoes, rats, monkeys and even dolphins have a special form of play-wrestling where a signal is given, often with the face, to show they want to play, not fight.

Dolphins emit a special tone for ‘let’s play’ and chimps, our closest genetic relative, show their lower teeth with the mouth wide open.  All of these animals also self-handicap when they play-fight. That is, the bigger stronger one backs off and lets the weaker, slower have a turn at being on top. These features, using signals that it is play and self-handicapping, along with excitement and competition, seem to define what we call rough and tumble play.

For children playing with each other, rough and tumble looks similar to the way we see puppies play. However parents can also get into this type of play; in most families, this means dad.

Rough and tumble play is something most dads are drawn to. But not everyone. In some families we interviewed it was the mum who wrestled with the kids and dads stood back. Grandads, older cousins, uncles and aunties can also be exciting to wrestle with. And although boys tend to seek out physical challenges that resemble combat, not all boys want to wrestle, and many young girls find the idea of beating dad equally thrilling.
Dr Richard Fletcher

The value of rough and tumble play

A clue to the value of rough and tumble play came from a study that divided a litter of rats into those who could wrestle with their siblings and those who could see and smell each other through a mesh, but not wrestle. Once they were adults, those rats that were allowed to wrestle as juveniles did better at picking up social clues from other adult rats and got into fewer fights.

We investigated this idea in a research project by asking dads and their four-year-old children to play a ‘Get Up’ game. These were the rules:

  1. Dad is to lie on the floor (on carpet) on his back. His task is to get up.
  2. The child’s task is to hold him down.
  3. If the dad does succeed in standing up, he is to lie down and start again.

Once the rules were explained the research assistant said ‘Go’, turned the video camera on, and left the room. Some things were obvious on the videotapes; the idea of holding dad down was exciting and it wasn’t just the boys who delighted in pouncing on their prostrate father, girls were equally keen to be the stronger one.

But not all bouts went well. Some dads used their superior strength to get up quickly, leading their children to give up. Other dads who were not sure how to wrestle gave up too easily. When the dad presented no challenge, the child would shrug and sit down to wait for the session to end. From this research we could identify some basic guidelines for successful rough and tumble.

The idea of rough and tumble is to let the child win, but with effort.  How high to set the bar, how hard to make it before they win is up to you. Push too hard and the wrestling match will be frustrating instead of fun. Give in too easily and you take away the thrill of beating dad. 

To test the possible benefits of this type of play we had trained observers code the videotapes from the project to assess how well the dad engaged and challenged the child. We matched these scores on what we called ‘high quality’ rough and tumble against the mothers’ judgement of the child’s difficulties in managing their emotions or getting on with others.

The scores on the quality of the father-child rough and tumble predicted better adjusted children. This result was not affected by the level of father’s involvement.

This is hardly surprising. If we look at what a young child needs to succeed in our social environment, in the play area for example, it is clear that physical involvement and social interaction skills are central. We want our children to be physically active, to be confident using their body but we also want them to be able to play with others to socialise.

In the research literature ‘self-regulation’ is seen as a key to children succeeding in social situations and later at school. If a child can manage their feelings of excitement and their urges to ‘win’, that is, to get what they want, their pathway through the early years will be much easier.

Rough and tumble play is something most dads are drawn to. But not everyone. In some families we interviewed it was the mum who wrestled with the kids and dads stood back. Grandads, older cousins, uncles and aunties can also be exciting to wrestle with. And although boys tend to seek out physical challenges that resemble combat, not all boys want to wrestle, and many young girls find the idea of beating dad equally thrilling. In fact, after some of these play sessions dads said that they were surprised by how much their daughters wanted to wrestle. “I’ve been treating her too much like a princess,” one confided. 

Tips for high quality rough and tumble play

  • The play will be most satisfying if it challenges your child to use all of their strength.  
  • For your child, beating you is the goal. At some point you will need to lose. You will know that you have got it right when they want to do it again and again.  
  • If the play ends in tears or angry scowls then you’ve misjudged something. Maybe it was too frustrating or you allowed the game to go on too long. The good part is that your child will almost certainly want to have another go.
  • It is up to you to make it safe. Pick a spot avoiding sharp edges and hard surfaces.
  • It is also up to you to make it safe for your child to really try to win. Any dad is stronger than a young child, stopping his elbow landing in your eye is not hard for you.  If your youngster does go too far, biting for example, then you can stop the play and set limits. With older children its best to make the rules clear before the action starts.
  • Be creative. Here’s how one dad described it “We do World Wrestling. I push him down on the bed, where I am going to slam him, but I do it really slowly, so that he has time to roll away before I crash down on the bed. There’s lots of tickling, too.” Your child will help you figure out the special rough and tumble play style for your family.