Rough-and-Tumble Play

Benefits & Supports in Preschool and Pre-K


Imagine two children wrestling. Each child is trying to stay upright and to destabilize the other by using their hands to grab the other person’s waist or ankles. Is your first instinct to separate them? What if we told you that those kids were playfully engaging in a learning experience?


Think back to your own childhood.

Do you remember having rough-and-tumble play experiences? Although it may look like a little battle to those passing by, rough-and-tumble play is not fighting. In the words of Frances M. Carlson, author of Big Body Play, “The difference lies in children’s intentions and in the context of their play. In rough-and-tumble play, children don’t intend to harm their playmates. Instead, their mutual goal is to extend the play for as long as possible.” In contrast, when children are fighting, they use aggressive actions to control their playmates.


What is rough-and-tumble play and why is it good?

Rough-and-tumble play is play that seems aggressive, physical and risky even when the children engaging in it are full of joy and excitement. Understandably, many early childhood professionals might feel uneasy seeing it. However, rough-and-tumble play contributes to physical, cognitive, language and social-emotional growth. And adult-supported rough-and-tumble play can enhance learning and classroom culture.

Benefits of rough-and-tumble play:

  • Children can develop key physical, cognitive, social-emotional and language skills.
  • They can also practice learning balance and body control.
  • Activities like wrestling help little learners refine arm and hand movements.
  • Rough-and-tumble play nurtures body awareness.

Some of these skill benefits may seem obvious. When engaged in big body play, children learn balance, body control and what their bodies are able to do. It’s easy to forget, though, that children also use arm and hand movements to develop the muscles they need for refining their fine-motor skills. Finally, children are learning the difference between aggressive movement and more nurturing touch and what each of these feel like.


There are some main differences between real fighting and play fighting (or rough-and-tumble play).

Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between play and real fighting, because the actions of both can appear similar. However, there are a few tell-tale signs to help educators determine the difference.

Real fighting:

  • At least one person is not willing to be a part of this interaction
  • Intention is to inflict pain or harm
  • Rigid, controlled or stressed facial expressions (grimacing or scowling)
  • Children do not voluntarily return to the interaction

Play fighting: 

  • Both are willing participants
  • Intention is to have fun
  • Relaxed facial expressions (smiling)
  • Children come back to the play again and again


Fear of escalation:

Some worry that if we allow rough-and-tumble play, it will inevitably lead to real fighting, even if it starts out as appropriate “play fighting.” Research shows, however, that this simply isn’t the case. Although children spend about 10% of their outdoor time in rough-and-tumble play, it leads to real fighting less than 1% of the time (Scott & Panksepp, 2003).


Rough-and-tumble play is a natural instinct for many children.

Whether it is aggressive-type play with another child or just risky play on their own, like going down the slide head first, tumbling down a hill or jumping off of haystacks, this type of play is a normal part of a child’s healthy development. Also, rough-and-tumble play does not just appeal to boys. Girls love this type of play as well!


Supporting Rough-and-Tumble Play in the Classroom

The first thing to think about when introducing rough-and-tumble play in the classroom is safety. Our job as educators is to set up the environment to support all types of play and to take precautions to ensure that children don’t get hurt. Before allowing rough-and-tumble play, you’ll want to assess the area where you are supporting this type of play (whether in the classroom, active play space or outside):

  • Are all hard edges rounded instead of pointed?
  • Is the area free of tripping hazards?
  • Are the rugs skid-free?
  • Is there enough space for the children to move around comfortably?
  • Are the walls and/or sides of surrounding equipment padded or covered with padding?
  • Is there an indoor or outdoor safety surface to absorb the shock of falling?


Putting rough-and-tumble play into practice.

Maybe jumping straight into rough-and-tumble play isn’t for you right now. Perhaps you have a classroom that is extremely active with one or two overly aggressive children, and encouraging this type of play will make things even more difficult. Even if you agree that the benefits are plentiful, keep in mind that you can introduce big body play in stages. You don’t have to do it all at once!

  • Stage 1: Introducing big body cooperative play
    Example: two children wear the same over-sized shirt and have to work together to play basketball
  • Stage 2: Supporting the need to move freely with other children or risky play by themselves
    Example: outside play — only in a supervised area
  • Stage 3: Encouraging appropriate child-directed rough-and-tumble play
    Example: wrestling mats in a corner of the gym or classroom

Be mindful to create a culture of intentional rough-and-tumble play. And remember: communicate with students, parents, colleagues and community members about how you implement these practices in your classroom.


Helping others see the value and understand the process.

It is important to have a plan in place before allowing this type of play on a regular basis. Gather together any resources on the subject and be sure you feel comfortable explaining the benefits of rough-and-tumble play:

  • Communicate with families. Send home a letter that explains what rough-and-tumble play is, what it isn’t, and the benefits of such play. Let families know that they are welcome to come into the classroom and watch children playing in this manner an how the play is guided to ensure safety and respect for each child.
  • Be sure to listen to other points of view. Practice actively listening to concerns that families may have and express understanding of those concerns. Ask for more information. Does the parent have a particular concern or fear? Is the parent worried about the children getting hurt? What can you do or say to calm those fears?
  • Prepare children. Help children to understand that rough-and-tumble play requires all parties to be interested. Discuss the signs they can use to determine if their friends are interested — or NOT interested — in very active play. It can be helpful to talk about faces, words and actions other children may demonstrate when they do not want to play in that way.
  • Finally, share resources with families. There are several excellent parenting blogs on the internet, as well as professional organizations, such as the National Association for the Education of Young Children, that advocate for the use of rough-and-tumble play at home and in the classroom. This Brighter Futures Indiana article is a great family-facing post you can share through social media or through email.


Want to complete this training? Check in with your local CCR&R and ask about upcoming training sessions!



Carlson, F. M. (2009, July/August). Rough and Tumble Play 101. Exchange, 70-72. Retrieved January 15, 2019, from

Carlson, F. M. (2011). Big Body Play: Why Boisterous, Vigorous, and Very Physical Play Is Essential to Children’s Development and Learning. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Klein, K. (2010, November 10). Why Boys Need Rough-and-Tumble Play. Retrieved from Babyzone:

O’Neill, B. (2018, April 15). Transform Challenging Behavior Conference Speaker Trailer: Mike Huber 1. Retrieved February 1, 2019, from

Redleaf Press. (7, March 2017). Embracing Rough-and-Tumble Play with Redleaf Press Author Mike Huber. Retrieved February 1, 2019, from

Scott, E., & Panksepp, J. (2003). Rough-and-Tumble Play in Human Children. Aggressive Behavior, 29, 539-551. doi:10.1002/ab.10062

Smith, P. K., Smees, R., & Pellegrini, A. D. (2004). Play Fighting and Real Fighting: Using Video Playback Methodology with Young Children. Aggressive Behavior, 30, 164-73. doi:10.1002/ab.20013