What is Rough & Tumble Play?

  • Rough and Tumble Play is physical, high energy play that is not aggressive. It is common play seen in all highly developed mammal species including us!

    What does Rough and Tumble Play look like:

    • It is play that involves an adult and a child. Generally, men engage in this type of play very naturally, but it does not need to be gender specific once a parent understands the art and the science behind this type of play.
    • It must be energetic – children engaging in this play will become excited.
    • It must have physical contact.
    • It will involve competition and dominance swapping.
    • It will involve emotion.
    • It will be free flowing with only a few rules (no hurting).
    • It must be fun!
  • An example of Rough and Tumble Play is a child launching themselves onto the back of an adult lying on the floor and the adult then will wrestle with the child. The child may use every ounce of its strength to hold the parent down and the parent will engage to add to the enjoyment and excitement by matching the strength of the child. The play will continue with the adult controlling the level of excitement and physicality to keep the play positive and engaging for the child. During the play the child may become over excited and aggressive. This is controlled by the adult by naming what is going on and backing off in the intensity of the play with firm boundaries on hurting. The idea is to allow the child to regain self-control and then start the play again.


  • What happens in the brain during Rough and Tumble Play?

    Once the excitement levels build your child will come to a point where the prefrontal cortex (executive control) may be pushed to overload and the limbic system will take over leading to a stress response (aggression, emotional overwhelm). The art of the parent engaging with this type of play is to take the child to the point where the tolerance level for excitement does not overwhelm. The more the Rough and Tumble Play occurs, the tolerance level will increase and this is where the learning really happens.

  • What are the Benefits of Rough & Tumble Play for children?

    • emotional resilience through better self-regulation; understanding of their own emotions, managing excitement so it does not move into overwhelm and when to pause to calm down to then play again.
    • increased social skills; being able to judge the emotions of others through learning the meaning of facial expressions and how to interpret body tension of others.
    • problem solving skills; working out different options for situations and trying them out.
    • and of course, the physical benefits of the play itself; increased aerobic capacity, balance and use of large muscles to increase strength.

    The only rule for Rough and Tumble Play is that aggression is not allowed. The adult guiding the play will control this golden rule!

  • References

    The Dad Factor, Richard Fletcher (2011)
    What is Rough & Tumble Play? www.benevolent.org.au Pilot program resource developed in conjunction with Explore & Develop North Ryde and Explore & Develop Macquarie Park (2015)

    Author: Libby Klingberg, Explore & Develop North Ryde

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