Why rough play is OK

The ‘rough and tumble’ of play has an important role in child development when facilitated safely, writes John Morgan
9th April 2020, 6:01pm
Rough Play - Or 'playful Aggression' - Is Important For Child Development, Research Shows
John Morgan


Why rough play is OK


There's a whirlwind of kicks and chops sweeping across the playground as a cast of miniature Marvel heroes and villains wage an epic playfight. The teacher on duty huffs, "What are they doing?" and marches over to stop it all. If the Incredible Hulk gets a little too excitable, then Red Skull's wobbly tooth may be forcefully and painfully removed ahead of schedule. And that would be a very difficult conversation with Red Skull's mum and dad.

But is intervening to stop rough play actually a good idea? Despite it being common to do so in most primary schools, there is a strong argument to suggest that teachers should leave children to it.

"Playful aggression" has been a research focus for Michael Nagel, associate professor in education at Australia's University of the Sunshine Coast and author of books including Nurturing A Healthy Mind: doing what matters most for your child's developing brain. He explains that "playful aggression" includes "mock fighting, chasing one another, rough and tumble play, superhero play and wrestling", when this behaviour is "not at the expense of hurting one another in any way".

Contrary to what you might think, rough play is not just something boys do, reveals Michelle Tannock, a professor in early childhood education at Douglas College in Canada. She explains that both boys and girls take part in such play, "though it is much more prevalent among boys", and that adult male role models in a child's life "have the most influence on a child's perception of the play, positively or negatively".

Essentially, it's possible girls do it less owing to societal expectation and a lack of role modelling that it is OK for them to do so.

So rough play is natural and possibly more likely in boys. But is it something we should permit or even encourage?

Most of those who work in schools will already know there's a wealth of research showing that play has an essential role in the development of children's language and literacy, cognitive capacity, social skills and physical health - and play is thus recognised as a keystone of early childhood practice in many developed nations' education systems. But does "rough" play bring these benefits?

Without a doubt, believes Nagel. "For psychologists and animal behaviourists, the benefits of playful aggression are well understood," he claims.

Puppy power

Mary Ellin Logue, professor emerita in early childhood education at the University of Maine, reveals that one benefit of playful aggression is that children are taught about their power to hurt, what it feels like to be hurt, and they can then translate this into ensuring safe play. She says an analogy from the late anthropologist Gregory Bateson is useful here.

"He likens [rough play] to puppy play," explains Logue. "The puppies can get pretty rough with each other but when a nip becomes a bite, the one bitten yelps and the biter backs off. They want to play not hurt, so they learn about the limits to the play."

Nagel agrees, stating that it helps children learn "how to get along with one another, how to make and play within a rule structure and how to actually recognise the difference between playful and harmful behaviour".

Another benefit is that rough play encourages the development of essential social skills, says Tannock. She describes it as "a social activity … manifested through physical interactions".

She says: "The play aids children in developing empathy, compassion, cooperation, conflict resolution and control of impulses and aggressive behaviour," she says.

It's also a natural way many children want to play, and therefore can be a conduit to all of those benefits of play explained earlier.

The research suggests that teachers don't usually appreciate these benefits. A study co-authored by Logue surveyed 98 teachers of four-year-olds about their attitudes to "dramatic play", including rough play, in their classrooms.

"Rough play is too dangerous - if allowed, someone is almost always hurt, so we just try to eliminate it as much as possible," is the typical view from one teacher.

"Superhero play is allowed as long as it doesn't get rough," says another. "Power Rangers are not allowed," they add, in an observation that may resonate with parents who have witnessed the absurd behaviour inspired by these absurd characters (or is that just me?).

As a result of these views, Logue's study found that teachers "more frequently stop rough-and-tumble play than other forms of dramatic play", such as chase play or house/family play. It found that 48 per cent of teachers "stopped or redirected boys' dramatic play daily or several times a week, whereas only 29 per cent of teachers reported stopping or redirecting girls' dramatic play weekly".

Given that rough play is "the form of active dramatic play most often favoured by young boys", the study observed, "clear gender differences emerged in teachers' reports of child behaviour and in the behaviour they stopped or prohibited".

The interruptions can mean boys are not getting the level of benefit out of play that girls are, or that they are being forced into less natural forms of play (a fate girls are arguably already experiencing).

Teachers don't do this out of malice, says Logue, but because they misunderstand rough play.

"Typically, teachers of young children are white, middle-class females and haven't engaged in it" and often confuse "play aggression" with real aggression, she says.

That's not to say Logue and other researchers are advocating a free for all, but they do think schools need to change their perspective and make room for "safe" rough play.

Partly, that requires a better understanding that rough play is "beneficial within limits," says Tannock. There has to be an acceptance that rough play has a place in childhood development and a desire to find a way of facilitating it.

Making the rough run smoothly

Teachers would then need to be better trained in recognising where play is imitating aggressive behaviour but there is no intent to harm. That's obviously easier said than done, and very good relationships with pupils would be needed to correctly interpret intent and the social structures present among those taking part in the rough play. Spotting when play is about to kick into violence would also require practice.

And finally, there would need to be a better understanding of how rough play can be facilitated in a school setting. A paper by University of South Carolina researchers Nancy Freeman and Mac Brown, entitled Reconceptualising rough and tumble play: ban the banning recommended several strategies for early education professionals to support safe forms of this play. These included allowing both boys and girls to take part, creating a space reserved for this play, providing close supervision, educating teachers and parents about what playful aggression is and educating children by making clear the rules and giving them options to opt out.

Having understanding and licence from SLT would help here: in the home environment, rough play happens more easily as the parent has no potential negative repercussions to letting it happen. In a school, a teacher has plenty to worry about internally and externally.

Are all these barriers - the extra training, the worry about harm, the repercussions with parents and school leaders if harm does occur - likely to mean that rough play is marginalised despite its benefits?

The hope of researchers - and probably most teachers, too, after reading this article - is that we can find our way to a place where we accept that rough play is a complex, important phenomenon with development benefits for children, requiring a much more nuanced approach than simple bans.

Though perhaps a firm ban on Power Rangers games could be an exception to the rule, at least in my house …

John Morgan is a freelance journalist

This article originally appeared in the 10 April 2020 issue under the headline "Tes focus on...rough play"

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