Why Is Rough And Tumble Play Important?

Why is rough and tumble play important? - Header Image

Key Points

  • Rough and tumble play involves grappling, wrestling, pretend fighting and other types of “play aggression”
  • Fathers engage in RTP differently to mothers - they are more vigorous, directive and encourage more bravery in their children
  • Rough and tumble play helps children learn a balance of competition skills and cooperation skills - important for their entire lives
  • Rough and tumble play with fathers help children learn limits, self-control and emotion encoding
  • Children with fathers who exhibit high levels of physical play tend to be more popular, as they have learned good peer competence

Children play in all different ways. Although it seems like just fun, it’s also how they learn a host of important skills - for now, but also to serve them well in adulthood.

To begin with, play consists of repetitive, gross motor movements in infancy (rhythmic stereotypies), and then develops into exercise play and rough and tumble play.

What is Rough and Tumble Play? Rough and tumble play (RTP) is a type of physical activity play that is characterised by behaviours like climbing over each other, grappling, wrestling, rolling around, pretend fighting, chasing and jumping.

It can occur between children, but we are going to focus on father-child RTP in this article, and discuss the many benefits it brings like peer competence, and learning a good balance of competition vs. cooperation behaviours .

Why is there such little scientific research into RTP?

Scientific research into the long-term effects of RTP has been minimal. It’s thought that the increasing interest in this subject now may be as a result of the changing lens on parenting . Generally-speaking, fathers are now more involved in parenting their children and so their role is generating more interest from a research perspective.

To date, research has revealed that mothers still tend to have a more involved role with children, but there is a particular exception - that is with rough and tumble play.

When does RTP occur?

RTP tends to start naturally. Fathers just seem to have an instinct as to when they can start throwing their children in the air, chasing them or wrestling on the floor safely.

24 to 43% of fathers engaged in RTP with their children on a daily basis, and only 4 to 16% of fathers never do

Children in all cultures engage in RTP . This type of play peaks in the late preschool years, and at 3-4 years of age, it accounts for 8% of total parent-child interactions . Although more common in these younger years, it does continue up to early adolescence .

Why do fathers do more RTP than mothers?

Mothers are instinctively more nurturing towards their children. So, while some mothers may engage in RTP, it tends to be calmer and safer. More often, mothers have a tendency to contain their children and are opposed to aggressive behaviour - even in a play setting. Mother-led play is usually more focused on role-playing or cognitive object-mediated play.

Father and son wrestling

Fathers approach RTP differently. They naturally are more directive in their approach and excite their children with vigorous play. Taking this perspective, it’s easy to see why fathers are the preferred playmate of children.

In fact, what takes place during RTP says a lot about fatherhood. Fathers “ open the child to the outside world .” They encourage initiative-taking , even when faced with the unfamiliar. This flows on to risk-taking, exploration and overcoming obstacles. Fathers also tend to incite their children to exhibit more bravery among strangers and use assertive behaviour, like learning to stand up for themselves.

Looking at the aforementioned list, it may seem as though we are saying fathers only push their children onward and upward in life. It’s important to recognize that in each of these instances, the father’s role is imperative in helping their child understand their limits . We’ll talk about this further in the “benefits” section below.

Is RTP different for daughters?

Despite the fact that “ both boys and girls enjoy physical play over other types of play”, play usually is different for daughters. That is true when it is initiated by mothers or fathers.

For example, mothers encourage role-playing activities more in their daughters than their sons. While fathers tend to engage in more vigorous rough and tumble with sons than daughters.

Why is rough and tumble play important and what are the benefits?

Rough and tumble play is not about fostering aggression in children - quite the opposite. It is about teaching them skills to deal with common life situations that actually don’t require an aggressive response or reaction at all.

Competition behaviours

What stands out most - and that studies agree upon - is that rough play between father and child has a stronger link to competition behaviours . The motivational system of competition (whether in children or adults) involves facing up to adversity , defending themself and also dealing with conflict in healthy, prosocial ways.

Father with son on shoulders

It’s so important that our children develop high enough self-esteem that they want to stand up for themselves . This is what rough and tumble play between father and child can achieve.

It’s not all about competition though. Otherwise children would be at high risk of social isolation because they have not learned how to work with others.

Cooperation behaviours

The opposing skillset of cooperation (or collaboration) is also developed through rough and tumble play. Cooperation encompasses taking turns and sharing. But also listening to others. It’s interesting (but makes complete sense) that a vigorous physical activity like rough and tumble play requires learning how to listen to others’ needs and respect their limits as well as your own.

It’s critical that our children learn cooperation, but equally, without competition skills they lack assertiveness and the ability to adequately defend themselves should the need arise.

Children playing nicely with each other

These are basic skills but they reverberate throughout a person’s life. Developing them early - through rough and tumble play as a child - underpins a well-balanced adult later.

As a child, collaboration may seem to be favoured as a motivational system, while competition behaviours and attitudes can be frowned upon. But this does not remain the same and a balance between cooperation and competition skills are crucial to succeeding in adulthood.

Peer competence

Children who engage in rough and tumble play have the benefit of developing peer competence - even when they are playing with their father, rather than another child. Specifically, peer competence refers to emotion regulation and emotion encoding.

So, these children learn how to deal with their big emotions in a healthy way, keeping them under control. And they can share their emotions (whether via verbal cues, facial expressions or gestures) so their intent is clear.

This peer competence manifests in a measurable way. It has been found that “ the most popular children are those of fathers who exhibit high levels of physical play with both sons and daughters (3–4 years) and elicit high levels of positive feelings during play sessions”.

Simply put: fathers who engage in RTP with their children help them make friends among their peers.

Understanding limits

It may not be obvious at first glance, but during RTP fathers are teaching their children how to be sensitive to others and have self-control. It seems likely fathers are better positioned to teach about limits in aggressive play - as they are more likely than mothers to have need to learn how to control their aggression.

Cognitive and language skills

Even for very young toddlers, RTP has significant benefits. A study found that “the more fathers played with their toddlers at 14 months, the higher the child’s cognitive and language scores at age 24 months.” Such an early boost to cognition and language can only mean the start of wonderful things for those children’s lives.

When is RTP most successful?

RTP certainly has abundant benefits when it comes to children’s development. And there are ways that fathers can really maximise these benefits for their sons and daughters.

Father and kids wrestling on floor in living room

Ways to maximise the benefits of rough and tumble play include:

Fathers being responsive to frustration cues from their children

If a father continues to hold all the power during RTP, or withholds something from the child, they may start to feel helpless. Frustration negates the benefits of these interactions, so it’s important that fathers notice frustration cues quickly and help to resolve them, even if that means taking a short break from RTP.

Fathers challenging their children, in a warm and positive way

When wins come too easy and aren’t earned, they lose their sparkle. Fathers should be helping their children aim a little higher, but without making the challenge impossible.

Frequency of rough and tumble play is important too

When fathers play with their children for a short time most days , it has a cumulative effect. It helps the children build on skills they’ve begun developing - and consistency does a lot for the father-child bond too.

Rough and tumble play may seem like a simple occurrence, but it is actually making a significant difference to many areas of a child’s life. Fathers should continue to engage in rough and tumble play for the ongoing benefits to their sons and daughters.