My Journey with Rough & Tumble Play

I never thought about rough and tumble play until encountering it in my first year of teaching. I immediately nixed it. I would state school rules, “hands to yourself”; possible consequences, “someone might get hurt”; or judgements, “that’s not an appropriate way to play.” I didn’t even think about it. It just seemed like second nature to put an end to it. The words came far too easily out of my mouth (something that I work hard against in my teaching practice: I want to have thought through my words and reasons for saying them).

To my knowledge nobody has ever told me to stop children from engaging in this form of play. Nor had we discussed the nature of play fighting in my teacher education program. Far from it, as rough and tumble play never came up in any lectures or discussions. So why did I innately see it as inappropriate? Was it cultural? Had somebody stopped me from playing this way when I was a young child? Was it modelled to me when I watched countless caregivers, teachers, and parents squash this form of play? Where and why had it been so engrained into me that rough and tumble play was not OK?

The play begins. The children gently test each others boundaries… reading body language, facial expressions, hearing each other… Are both OK with rough & tumble play today?

I know that I am not the only person out there who has struggled with the appropriateness of this form of play. I watch childhood workers, parents, teachers and administrators immediately rush to the sides of children whose arms are wrapped gently, carefully and perhaps even thoughtfully around one another imitating the motions of tackling and grappling. Words like “Hands to yourself,” “Be careful! Someone will get hurt!!” and sometimes even “Hey! Stop that!!” are used.

The play continues. The girl directs her smile towards the teacher to indicate that she is having fun and that this is how she wants to play today. The boy is in character already: a cougar? A bear? A wolf?

I was first exposed to rough & tumble as a positive and meaningful form of play in a series of workshops on play. I can remember a brief discussion with a colleague on the appropriateness of having children play fight at school.  Mainly, we discussed how we thought that administrators might frown upon a teacher condoning the behaviour/activity. We mentioned our concerns to the workshop leader and I honestly can’t remember what she said. But, thinking about her gentle, accepting leadership style she probably listened, didn’t judge or comment on our feelings and then reiterated the benefits of rough and tumble play.

The girl follows suit and becomes her character.

The following year I had a small K/1 class and a new administrator. Many of the children, the majority being girls, chose to engage in and initiate rough & tumble play, so I was faced with finding my position on the matter. Would I ask the children to keep their hands to themselves?

After pondering rough and tumble play last summer I decided to enter this school year with a revised plan on how to address it both inside and outside. I had a new understanding of it as a positive form of play and the benefits that came with it. I decided that if my students engaged in rough and tumble play I would not say anything. I would simply continue to observe and be conscious and thoughtful of body language, facial expression, space, and any uttering of words. In reflection, this isn’t any different from what an early primary teacher would do during any stereotypical center time.

The girl willingly plays dead and falls to the ground. She indicates her state by dramatically sticking out her tongue. The boy plays the part of the successful animal. However, he is gentle and careful to watch the girls boundaries.

I think I’m still convincing myself, though. I am still undoing decades of anti- rough & tumble teachings. I know this because I am hyper aware when parents, senior teachers and administrators are in our classroom. Sometimes, I even re-direct the play … essentially putting an end to it. I suppose that it depends on how confident I am feeling and how I read the facial expressions of the other adults in the room.

The girl directs a smile towards the teacher to continue to confirm her comfort with the play.

This year my principal walked into my room when my kindergarten girls were having a pillow fight. This is the only time that I can remember not being self-conscious and not having the urge to squash their rough & tumble play. Regardless, I still felt the need to assure my principal that I had condoned the activity and was aware of its occurrence. I stated, “the girls are having loads of fun with their pillow fight!” and smiled. She didn’t question my decision or ask me to end their play. I consider myself lucky.

The play session has ended. Pictures are requested.


Earlier post on rough & tumble play: Rough & Tumble Play



  • Being a mother of two boys, I became aware very quickly how necessary and important this type of play is, not just for boys but for all children. Observe any group of young children stuck inside on a rainy day. They quickly figure out how to get exercise and blow off steam, their faces bright pink with the exertion. Something usually gets damaged when this happens, which is probably why many parents discourage it! Every home should have a place where this kind of play can take place (relatively) safely, indoors and out. I say relatively because rough-and-tumble play is inherently rough. There may be bloody noses and tears. This is all part of the experience – children learn their limitations and boundaries this way.
    As an educator, it’s not quite so simple. I have always looked over my shoulder when I allow rough play because often there is a parent observing who has the opposite beliefs – that children should always be protected from everything. This is entirely unrealistic, in my opinion and does not allow children to develop coping skills. Personally, I want my own children and my students to have the confidence and skills to face difficult or dangerous situations. We can’t possibly protect them from everything forever!
    Anyway, to switch to some practical ideas. As a teacher, I have often taught rough-and-tumble skills in the gym. I have done this through gymnastics, creative dance, and wrestling. I always set some ground rules, and I often get the students to help me do so. Should hitting be allowed? How do we respectfully touch or grasp people (within the context of the activity)? Students learn how to physically interact appropriately (more-or-less!!) Then, if you take them outside into a less structured setting, you can re-visit those rules.
    I’m an administrator now and I fully believe in rough-and-tumble play. BUT, I think we have to be patient with the type of parent I described above. Find opportunities to explain and demonstrate your thinking (I don’t mean to judo-flip them to the ground or anything but a planned water fight might be a good start!). It’s a whole paradigm shift for some people.


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