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Rough and Tumble Play

By Mary-Anne Tandy, Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist

Much research has taken place on the importance of parent-child interactions, including parent-child play. Play offers children the opportunity to develop social competence, learn, explore and build secure attachments across cultures and social groups. Although mothers have been the primary parent, increasingly more emphasis and research is focusing on the relationship between fathers and their children. This includes the differences in play, as men tend to take on play that is more physical while mothers offer a more caring role.

What is rough and tumble play? It is a specific form of physical play, characterized by aggressive behaviours such as wrestling, grappling, jumping, tumbling, and chasing, in a play context [Pellegrini and Smith, 1998]. Physically active play is emerging as a key component of fathers’ influence on children’s wellbeing. Children’s relations with their peers, for example, are rated more positively by their teachers when fathers physically engage with their children (especially boys.) (Macdonald & Parke 1984)

Play is often seen as a waste of time. Many parents and educators hold the belief that the child is not learning anything useful through play. However, children who have little opportunity to play are more likely to become anti-social and disaffected. Furthermore, it seems that children are being given increasingly fewer opportunities to play both at home and school. Hours are often spent in front of a screen of some sort. There are fewer environments in which joyful and exuberant play can happen. The way in which the curriculum is structured with the focus on sitting down, sitting still, being restricted, places enormous demands on a young child at the expense of more “rough and tumble” or physical play.

Rough and Tumble play with a parent may enable children to learn how to decode emotional cues, regulate their heightened emotions, and express their emotions in appropriate ways. Sadly, playing in natural outdoor spaces has been removed from the lives of too many children. They have too few outdoor rough and tumble opportunities. Instead there are play dates and structured sports for more affluent children and a lot of hanging around unsupervised for children who are not.

In a world where children’s mental health problems are on the rise, in particular anxiety and the inability to regulate, fathers’ can take up the role of opening the child to the outside world. Encouraging children to explore or take initiative in unfamiliar situations, be braver, more courageous and stand up for themselves. This play moderates aggression; it enables children to be competitive without being aggressive.

Rough and Tumble play costs nothing, it only takes time and even then 15 minutes will do.

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