Printer Friendly

Preschool teachers' views of active play.

This study surveyed 98 teachers of 4-year-olds about dramatic play in their classrooms and about their attitudes and practices about rough-and-tumble play. Gender differences emerged in the nature of dramatic play reported and in the ways in which teachers interacted with children engaged in different forms of dramatic play. Teachers also reported their coursework in early childhood education as the greatest influence on their beliefs and attitudes about rough-and-tumble play. The findings have implications for curriculum planning, school behavior policies, and teacher education programs.

Keywords: play, prekindergarten teachers, early childhood education


Four-year-olds are entering school in the United States in record numbers. Currently, 39 states serve more than a million children in state-supported prekindergarten (pre-K) programs (Barnett, Hustedt, Robin, & Schulman, 2005). Public support for pre-K comes from many fronts. First, advances in understanding the impact of early experiences on brain development and schooling have prompted public interest in early schooling (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). Second, research findings clearly suggest that high-quality pre-K experiences can benefit children, particularly those children considered to be at risk for school failure (Barnett et al., 2005), and high-quality programs save money for taxpayers through fewer grade retentions, fewer special education placements, less delinquency, and lower incarceration rates for adolescents and adults (F. A. Campbell, Ramey, Pungello, Sparling, & Miller-Johnson, 2002; Lally, Mangione, & Honig, 1988; Schweinhart & Weikart, 1997). Third, pre-K is seen as a tool for increasing equity among children, ensuring that children enter kindergarten with the skills they need to succeed in school (Gormley, Grayer, Phillips, & Dawson, 2005; Magnuson, Ruhm, & Waldfogel, 2007).

The public attitude toward early learning has shifted. It is now accepted that all children can learn, not only those from privileged homes (Camilli, Vargas, Ryan, & Barnett, 2008). Standards-based instruction and school accountability assume that, regardless of family circumstance, children can achieve. Program assessments suggest that children are learning academic skills even if behavioral challenges remain (Zill, Sorongon, & Kim, 2003). State standards for pre-K reflect a focus on learning specific skills, particularly related to early literacy over social skills (Scott-Little, Kagan, & Frelow, 2006). Although play, particularly pretend play, is regarded as a valuable tool for promoting early literacy (Bennett-Armistead, Duke, & Moses, 2005; Spodek & Saracho, 2006), curricula in many programs focus more on the teaching of isolated skills related to reading and math than on play, the traditional tool of early childhood education (Neuman, 2006). The consequences of these choices are not yet clear.

The changing nature of pre-K may be affecting boys and girls differently. Although the activity level of 4-year-olds is higher than that of older children (DiPietro, 1981), there are gender differences among the 4-year-olds, particularly when they play with same-gender peers. Girls who play with other girls are less active than boys and often choose to play in areas close to adults. Boys playing with other boys are more aggressive in their play and tend to play farther away from adults (Martin & Fabes, 2001). Observational and biological studies show that the level of physical activity among boys is higher than among girls (Fromel, Stelzer, Groffik, & Ernest, 2008; Pellegrini, 2002). As 4-year-olds enter public schools in increasing numbers, discussions about what children should learn must be coupled with discussions of how they should be taught to help boys and girls be equally successful. The purpose of the current study is to explore pre-K teachers' ideas about the role of dramatic play, a traditional component of early childhood curriculum. Embedded in this research question is an exploration of teachers' attitudes and practices toward rough-and-tumble play, the form of active dramatic play most often favored by young boys.


Boys are falling behind girls in achievement and surpassing girls in terms of special education placements (Rathbun & West, 2004). "Young boys are spending more time in highly structured experiences and are not achieving, even with the weight of state and national educational reform.... For the most part, boy problems have not become part of the national discourse on education" (Tyre, 2008, p. 7). Only recently has public attention turned to the struggles of boys and the implications for society (Riley & Jones, 2007). As academic expectations become higher, pressure for focused attention and achievement increases among teachers and parents. Although all pre-K children have the capacity to learn, not all pre-K children have an equal capacity to sit quietly and learn. The gender gap in achievement begins early, as reflected by a study on pre-K expulsion (Gilliam, 2005) showing that boys were expelled at a rate 4.5% higher than that of girls. (Most of the expulsions were for behavioral reasons.) It is unclear from this study whether the curriculum had an impact on children expelled in the Gilliam study or how the teachers defined the challenging behavior underlying the expulsions. As yet, few studies investigate whether female teachers remove themselves from boys' active play. When Logue and Shelton (2008) actively engaged children's interest in "bad guy" play, rather than stopping or ignoring it, children increased their levels of conversation and writing. Pellegrini and Smith (1988) suggested that the scant extant research on children's high levels of physical activity reflects adult ambivalence about the role of such play in learning and development.


During the preschool years, active, physical play peaks at around age 4 and often co-occurs with pretend play (MacDonald & Parke, 1986). From infancy, boys are more physically active than are girls (D. W. Campbell & Eaton, 1999; Fromel et al., 2008; Maccoby, 1974; Martin & Fabes, 2001; Whiting & Edwards, 1988), and boys' play is more vigorous, often co-occurring with play fighting and superhero themes (Holland, 2003; Pellegrini & Perlmutter, 1987). Active, physical pretend play involving such activities as running, chasing, climbing, playfully wrestling, grabbing, kicking, and tumbling constitutes almost one fourth of children's behavior (McGrew, 1972; Smith & Connolly, 1980). The term rough-and-tumble play was originally used to describe the play fighting, chasing, and wrestling in rhesus monkeys (Harlow & Harlow, 1965) and was picked up by ethologists to describe a type of human juvenile play.

A recent study examining preschool boys' play failed to find differences in physical and verbal aggression between children playing with superhero toys and those playing with other toys (Parsons & Howe, 2006). The boys in this study incorporated weapons into their play, with or without the prompt of superhero toys. The authors suggested that superhero play may be a subcategory of rough-and-tumble play and not a separate category. For purposes of the current study, the definition of rough-and-tumble play used by the ethologists was expanded to include superhero play. Based on a comprehensive literature review and the scale development process, as suggested by DeVellis (2003), rough-and-tumble play in the current study was defined as superhero play, play fighting (including wrestling), chase games, and protect/rescue games.

Rough-and-tumble play has been observed in all animal species as well as in humans (Fry, 2005). Although its exact function is debated, it is unlikely that rough-and-tumble play would be so widespread if it was not adaptive from an evolutionary perspective. It allows individuals to explore social boundaries, to practice and test their level of strength, and to determine agility and social placement in the group. It also allows children to develop and practice restraint as they pretend to be aggressive.

Rough-and-tumble play differs from real aggression in many key ways. Threat is absent, smiles and play faces are evident, roles reverse, and children of different sizes and dominance levels play together (Fry, 2005). Among children younger than age 8, aggressive signals rarely co-occur during the same interaction (Fry, 1987; Smith & Lewis, 1985). Children remain in each other's company after a bout of rough-and-tumble play, but separate after an aggressive episode (Smith & Lewis, 1985). Rough-and-tumble play also typically involves more than two children, reflecting a willingness or even an eagerness to allow others to join (Fry, 1987). According to the noted ethnologist and anthropologist Gregory Bateson (1972), rough-and-tumble play helps children develop symbolic thinking and metacommunication. Children learn the difference between a "nip" and a "bite" through play, important distinctions between behaviors that seem similar. It is through such play, according to Piaget (1965), that children appreciate games with rules and learn about justice. Children learn about their personal limits and the impact of their behavior on others. Much of this learning is nonverbal, and adults do not direct it. Some children fail to make distinctions between play fighting and real fighting. The inability to differentiate subtleties in others' social behavior contributes to social risk (Coie & Kupersmidt, 1983; Pellegrini, 1988).

Children can differentiate between episodes of rough-and-tumble play and aggression (Costabile et al., 1991; Smith, Smees, & Pellegrini, 2004). When asked why they play fight, the boys responded, "Because it's fun." Most play-fighting partners are friends (85%), and half are best friends (Smith et al., 2004; Smith, Smees, Pellegrini, & Menesini, 2002).

Researchers have noted benefits to rough-and-tumble play in the early childhood classroom (French & Pena, 1991; Holland, 2003; Logue & Shelton, 2008). This type of play allows children to practice skills in a play setting that are not possible to duplicate in the "real world." It also allows children to begin to distinguish between aggression and play. Schafer and Smith (1996) estimated that approximately only 1% of all pretend play develops into real aggression. Of that 1%, 75% of episodes were among children who were socially marginalized or who had previously demonstrated aggressive tendencies. For children who lack language skills, rough-and-tumble play can be an entry to social play. Comparing popular and unpopular children, Coie and Kupersmidt (1983) found that both groups of children engaged in rough-and-tumble play at similar frequencies. The difference is not in the frequency of the play, but rather in how other children perceived the experience. Pellegrini (1988) noted that the popular children saw the interaction as playful, whereas the unpopular children perceived it as aggressive. For the unpopular children, the play did escalate into aggression. Pellegrini argued that the likelihood of rough-and-tumble play turning into aggression was high only for unpopular children. For popular children, this form of play contributed to increased social competence, reciprocal role taking, flexibility, and problem solving. The benefits to rough-and-tumble and superhero play are clear for popular children. Because boys engage in rough-and-tumble play more often than girls do, this avenue to social competence among boys may be different than the route taken by girls.


Although studies looking at gender differences in children's play were common in the 1980s, they are less frequent now. Beverly Fagot's play study (1985) suggested that though preschool teachers reinforce quiet, "feminine" behavior and not rough-and-tumble play, it did not stop boys from engaging in it. Humphreys and Smith (1984) noted tremendous variation in how much preschools permitted, accepted, or banned rough-and-tumble play. While seeking schools in which to conduct research, they found some head teachers viewing rough-and-tumble play as harmless and fun and were happy to include it as long as no one was hurt, whereas others saw all behavior that appeared to be aggressive as truly aggressive. Heaton (cited by Humphreys & Smith, 1984) showed videotapes of rough-and-tumble play and episodes of aggression to 4-year-olds and adults. Although the children and adults agreed to a significant degree about the playful aspects of rough-and-tumble, one teacher used her own knowledge of children to make a judgment and achieved comparatively low levels of agreement with the children. Heaton believed this was because the teacher was unable to concede that play-fighting encounters between certain children were playful.

Educators are taking a new interest in the challenges that boys are facing in school (Garbarino, 2000; Katch, 2001; Kindlon & Thompson, 2000; Tyre, 2008) and, as such, are viewing rough-and-tumble play as a legitimate and valuable way for boys to interact. However, this sentiment is not widely shared in schools, as reflected by the comment, "Most educators don't consider that they need to fix the environment that these boys are learning in .... They'd rather try to fix the boy" (Tyre, 2008, p. 81).

Zero tolerance of rough-and-tumble play was historically supported based on the belief of a connection between children's early involvement in aggressive play themes and the development of aggressive behaviors (Holland, 2003). The historical struggle to align what is happening in the classroom with personal philosophies of peace education may lead many teachers to validate the zero tolerance approach as a proactive intervention to early expression of male violence. Holland suggested that zero tolerance inhibits children from developing and practicing imaginative and negotiating skills and may mediate the real risk factors present in those children's lives in relation to aggressive behaviors. To consider rough-and-tumble play as a potentially valuable activity, teachers must be willing to suspend their personal views.


The nature of pre-K programs is becoming increasingly academic, despite a strong research base supporting dramatic play as a valuable tool for promoting academic achievement (Roskos & Christie, 2001). The study reported in this article was designed to survey teachers' perceptions of dramatic play, including rough-and-tumble play, commonly observed among young boys. Few studies examine how teachers' perceptions of rough-and-tumble play affect their instructional and guidance choices (Logue, Robie, Brown, & Walt, 2009). Discussions of the roles that adults play in supporting dramatic play (including rough-and-tumble play), with its potential for strengthening oral language, storytelling, role taking, and metacognition, is missing from the school readiness literature. From the child development literature, it is clear that active, rough-and-tumble play, including superhero play, will likely be prevalent in any program serving 4-yearold boys (DiPietro, 1981; Parsons & Howe, 2006; Pellegrini & Smith, 1988). How that play is received is likely to affect boys' success in preschool.

The purpose of the current exploratory study is to survey current practices and beliefs surrounding pretend play in classrooms of 4-year-olds. Understanding teachers' views on pretend play, including rough-and-tumble play, will help inform dialogue about realistic behavioral expectations for 4-year-old children. The working definition of rough-and-tumble play used for the current study includes superhero play, play fighting, chase games, and protect/rescue games. The questions guiding this research attempt to describe pre-K teachers' perceptions of dramatic play and, specifically, rough-and-tumble play. Four research questions derived from the literature were examined:

1. What dramatic play themes are evident in classrooms for 4-year-olds, and what gender differences exist among the play themes?

2. To what degree do teachers stop or discourage rough-and-tumble play?

3. How prevalent are no-tolerance policies in schools and classrooms serving 4-year-olds?

4. What do teachers report as major influences on their attitudes toward rough-and-tumble play?



Participants were recruited through direct invitation. Letters of invitation, along with surveys and return envelopes, were mailed to all public pre-K teachers in one northeastern state in the United States. Head Start and child care teachers were recruited through the regional training centers that support Head Start and child care training in the state. Participation in the study was voluntary. Additionally, faculty from the state' s community colleges and 4-year programs offering early childhood degrees distributed questionnaires to teachers in programs where their students were placed. The target population was preschool teachers of 4-year-old children.

The sample population included 98 teachers of 4-year-olds, with an age range from 18 to 60+ years old. Fifteen percent of the teachers were between 18 and 25 years old, 17% were between 26 and 30, 19% were between 31 and 40, 23% were between 41 and 50, 23% were between 51 an d 60, and 1% were older than 60. This group of teachers averaged 9.2 years working with 4-year-olds, ranging from teachers in their first year to one with 32 years of experience. Teachers' educational levels ranged from only a high school degree (12.2%), to child development associate (9.3%), associate's degree (19.6), bachelor's degree (44.3%), master's degree (9.3%), and higher than master's degree (5.3%).

Teachers from a range of early education programs participated in the study; public school pre-Ks made up 39.2% of the sample. Head Start, including collaborations with public schools, made up 40.2%. Other settings sampled included private nonprofit (4.1%), private profit (5.2%), and child care and family child care (10.3%).

Children with disabilities were represented in most of the programs sampled. Only 3.1% of the teachers reported not serving children with disabilities and 81.3% included children through inclusive programs (61.5%) or pullout programs (19.8%). Another 13.5% stated that they did not currently have children with disabilities in their programs but would serve them if they enrolled. A total of 225 surveys were distributed, with a 43% return rate.


After approval from the Human Subjects Research Committees at both authors' institutions, surveys were mailed or distributed to potential participants. The completed surveys were mailed to one of the researchers. Upon receiving the surveys, the last page (including the names and/or phone numbers or e-mail addresses of those willing to participate in a follow-up interview) was removed from the surveys and placed in a separate file to protect the participants' confidentiality. Surveys were numbered based on the order in which they were received.

The data were analyzed using Statistical Package for Social Sciences (SPSS, 2002). Qualitative data from open-ended questions were analyzed by themes and used to support the quantitative data.


Preschool Teacher Beliefs and Practices Questionnaire

Preschool teachers completed the Preschool Teacher Beliefs and Practices Questionnaire, a self-developed instrument designed by the researchers. The questionnaire was developed based on key variables and themes presented in the dramatic play and rough-and-tumble play literature. The initial questionnaire included a demographics section and contained an additional 46 items, loaded onto three main factors as determined by factor analysis: (1) Prevalence of Dramatic Play Themes, (2) Play Interventions and Rules, (3) and Attitudes Toward Rough-and-Tumble Play. The questionnaire was tested for internal reliability using item analysis and tested for face validity and content validity through the use of a pilot study and factor analysis. Item analysis was performed on the individual factors (excluding demographics), as was an item analysis for the all factors combined. Item analysis revealed a Cronbach's alpha coefficient for Factor 1 (Prevalence of Dramatic Play Themes) of .68 and a coefficient for Factor 2 (Play Interventions and Rules) of .79. A review of the item-total statistics for Factor 1 revealed two negative items, increasing in reliability from .68 to .79 with item deletion. Item-total statistics for Factor 2 revealed no negative items, and the deletion of two items increased Cronbach's alpha coefficient from .79 to .81. Item analysis for Factor 3 (Attitudes Toward Rough-and-tumble Play) revealed that by deleting one item, the Cronbach's alpha coefficient increased from .65 to .74. No additional items were added, due to a high number of items needed to increase reliability to .80 for Factor 3. Item analysis also was calculated for all three factors combined and resulted in a strong internal reliability ([alpha] = .70). A review of the item-total statistics revealed that no deletion of items was necessary to increase reliability for all factors combined. After eliminating poorly worded and irrelevant items, the survey resulted in a pool of 43 items.

A pilot study was conducted to test the face validity and content validity of the questionnaire. Participants for the pilot study included 36 preschool teachers, with an age range from 18 to 50 years old. The teachers were from three different early childhood programs, including a private preschool, a university child development center, and a Head Start preschool. First, participants were instructed about the purpose of the questionnaire. In addition to completing the survey, participants were asked the following three questions to determine face validity: (1) Is the title of the survey aligned with the purpose of the study? (2) Are the directions clear, and do they accurately relate the intent for which you should be answering the question? and (3) Does the overall language and reading level of the survey reflect the ability of the group for which the survey will be given? To determine the content validity, participants were asked if additional sections should be added to sufficiently address the topic, and if the items in each section belonged in that section. From the pilot study, 85% of the participants suggested the removal of one item that was unclear. Participants from the pilot study reported a clear understanding of the directions and a clear understanding of the purpose of the study. Of this group, 85% recommended the removal of one item. Removal of the item in Factor 3 did not change the Cronbach's alpha, and it remained at .74. Item analysis was again run on the data from the pilot study. The results reported were as follows: Prevalence of Dramatic Play Themes, [alpha] = .77; Play Interventions and Rules, [alpha] = .80; Attitudes Toward Rough-and-Tumble Play, [alpha] = .74.


After the data were gathered, item analysis was conducted to determine the reliability of the sample responses. Similar to the previously reported reliability, item analysis revealed Factor 1 (Prevalence of Dramatic Play Themes) had a Cronbach's alpha coefficient of .77; Factor 2 (Play Interventions and Rules) had a coefficient of .80; and Factor 3 (Attitudes Toward Rough-and-Tumble Play) had a coefficient of .74. A combination of all three factors revealed a Cronbach's alpha coefficient of .68.

Question 1: What dramatic play themes do teachers report as evident for 4-year-olds, and what gender differences exist among play themes?

Table 1 presents means and standard deviations for the prevalence of dramatic play themes for girls and boys combined and separated by gender.

A series of t tests were performed to examine differences between boys and girls on the prevalence of dramatic play themes. Results showed a significant difference between the amount of superhero play for boys (M = 3.53, SD = 1.51) versus girls (M = 2.34, SD = 1.23), t(194) = 5.98, p < .05 (see Figure 1), a significant difference between house/family play for boys (M = 4.0, SD = 1.01) versus for girls (M = 4.46, SD = .75), t(194) = -3.51, p < .05 (see Figure 2), a statistically significant difference between pretend fighting for boys (M = 3.52, SD = 1.59) versus girls (M = 2.06, SD = 1.16), t(194) = 6.88, p < .05 (see Figure 3), and a significant difference between nurture/care games for boys (M = 3.35, SD = 1.09) versus girls (M = 3.83, SD = 1.05), t(194) = -3.04, p < .05 (see Figure 4). No significant differences were found between boys and girls on the prevalence of protect/rescue games and chase games. Figures 1 through 4 present the reported percentages of how often girls and boys engaged in each dramatic play theme daily and 2-4 times per week.





Qualitative evidence provided by participants suggests two themes illuminating these findings. First, some teachers view rough-and-tumble play themes as legitimate play choices, whereas others do not:
 Both dramatic and rough-and-tumble play are vital to early
 childhood development. Too many social skills to count are
 practiced while pretending and engaging in the give and take of
 "puppy play ."

 I think there is real value in the normal choices the children
 make for dramatic play: superheroes, animal play, run and chase,
 rescue, families, doctor, etc., because so many real-life feelings
 come up within the context of those play themes.

 My idea of dramatic play is experience created by an adult with a
 specific purpose in mind. In our learning environment, we perceive
 dramatic play as homemaker in the kitchen, postal worker (sorting
 mail, etc.). Rough-and-tumble play is not an acceptable social
 interaction at our school.

 Rough play is too dangerous ... playing house, going fishing,
 doctors, office work, and grocery store keeps dramatic play

 I have a concern that some schools are not giving room for some
 rough and tumble play. I feel that some physical contact (friendly)
 is helpful to children and sometimes creates close bonds.

A second theme suggests that factors beyond the teachers' views influence the incidence of any dramatic play in classrooms. The following comments illustrate the conflict new teachers face when their own beliefs conflict with those of their supervisors:
 I would love to incorporate more dramatic play in our curriculum,
 but because of the academic demands of the school system, I find it
 extremely difficult to incorporate it.

 As a first-year teacher, I find myself greatly influenced by the
 demands of the administration.

Question 2: To what degree do teachers stop or discourage rough-and-tumble play?

To examine the degree to which teachers report stopping or discouraging rough-and-tumble play, descriptive data were first examined. Percentages of how often teachers reported stopping or redirecting any type of dramatic play revealed that 25% of the teachers stop or redirect dramatic play 2-4 times a week for boys and 23% reported they stop or redirect dramatic play daily. For girls, the results revealed that 23% of the teachers stop or redirect play less than monthly and 29% stop or redirect play weekly. A series of t tests were performed to examine the difference between boys versus girls. Results demonstrated no overall significant difference between how often teachers stopped or redirected dramatic play for boys versus girls. A t test revealed a significant difference between how often boys (M= 4.43, SD = .92) versus girls (M= 4.06, SD = 1.1), t(157) = 2.1, p < .05 have social conflicts that require a teacher's intervention.

To look more specifically at the types of interventions that teachers were likely to use when children engage in rough-and-tumble play, a one-way ANOVA was calculated. Results indicated a significant difference, F(8, 821) = 9.607, p < .05. Table 2 presents the percentages of how often teachers use particular interventions when children engage in rough-and-tumble play.

It appears from the teachers' comments that some teachers anticipate children's desire for rough-and-tumble play and prepare for it, whereas others anticipate danger and prohibit or stop it immediately.
 Rough-and-tumble play typically leads to someone getting hurt, so I
 redirect. When a child talks about jail, using karate, etc., I'll
 ask questions and redirect.

 Rough play is too dangerous--if allowed, someone is almost always
 hurt, so we just try to eliminate it as much as possible.

 Rough-and-tumble play is not allowed in my classroom. At recess,
 the children may play chase. If it gets rough, the play is stopped.

 I don't see any harm in chase games, as long as guidelines are in
 place for safety. I don't allow the kids to grab each other because
 it too easily ends up in injury.

 I think children need some rough-and-tumble play within reason. I
 will play on the floor with children and say, "I am getting some
 energy out," but I emphasize that we do not hit each other.

Several teachers acknowledged the value that rough-and-tumble play holds for boys and reflected on the teacher's role in supervising the play.
 It is possible to redirect superhero play, but inevitably, the
 children are back at it again a short time later. We ban superhero
 toys at schools. There is no "shooting"; however, Batman,
 Spiderman, Transformers, and Ninja Turtles are the preferred means
 to pretend play among the boys.

 Rough-and-tumble play is inevitable, particularly with boys. It
 seems to satisfy innate physical and cultural drives. As long as
 all participants are enjoying the play and are safe, I don't
 intervene. Play is the basis of all learning in all domains.

 My concern with rough play is, of course, somebody getting hurt,
 but also it disrupts the whole class. I find the pots and pans,
 broom and sink are the most difficult parts of dramatic play to
 control. I find myself removing items from the area after a verbal
 warning. But I don't feel this solves the problem.

 I think it's great! I think children need boundaries and once
 they are known, the children can play well together. I think that
 by not allowing the play, we would be restricting their creative
 ability. I think by telling children "being a superhero is bad"
 that they will wonder if being a hero is bad. The majority of
 children are playing the "good guy."

Question 3: How prevalent are no-tolerance policies in schools and classrooms serving 4-year-olds?

Results from the survey indicated that 46% of the respondents have a "no-tolerance" policy toward rough-and-tumble play and 54% do not. This would suggest that some decisions about rough-and-tumble play are made by teachers alone and others are institutionalized. To further examine the prevalence of no-tolerance policies in relation to specific types of programs (public pre-K, Head Start, or neither public pre-K or Head Start), a chi square test was performed. Results showed no significant differences between the type of early childhood program and their policies on no tolerance.

Our working definition of rough-and-tumble play encompasses several different play styles. To better understand which parts of rough-and-tumble play presented the greatest challenges to teachers, a one-way ANOVA was calculated on the degree to which teachers allow each of five rough-and-tumble dramatic play themes in their classrooms. On a 1 to 5 (1 = always allow, 5 = always prohibit) scale, teachers were asked to report the degree to which they allow variations of rough-and-tumble play. Results indicated a significant difference among the variations of rough-and-tumble play, F(4, 474) = 72.09, p < .05. A Tukey's HSD post hoc test revealed that teachers' attitudes about allowing pretend fighting (M = 4.17, SD = 1.01) was significantly different than for all other types of rough-and-tumble dramatic play: superhero play (M = 2.75, SD = 1.29), t(96) = 1.33,p < .05; protect/rescue (M= 1.75, SD = .83), t(96) = 2.41,p > .05; and chase games (M = 2.43, SD = 1.11), t(96) = 1.74, p > .05. Table 3 presents the reported percentages for how strongly teachers agree or disagree with allowing the four different types of rough-and-tumble dramatic play themes. In addition, the dramatic play theme of protect/rescue was also significantly different than all three other types of rough-and-tumble play: superhero play, t(96) = -1.07; pretend fighting, t(96) = -2.42; and chase games, t(96) = -.68.

Play fighting is viewed differently than other parts of rough-and-tumble play. This finding was corroborated by teacher comments. The frequent co-occurrence of superhero play and play fighting is confusing to many teachers:
 At recess, the children may play chase. If it gets rough, the play
 is stopped. Superhero play is allowed as long as it doesn't get
 rough. Power Rangers are not allowed.

 My center does not allow any rough play; however, my belief is
 that children love to act out what they are familiar with and most
 are put in front of the TV when not at school. I wouldn't mind
 letting it happen safely.

Teachers' comments suggest that the incidence of rough-and-tumble play in pre-K programs is more than a teacher's preference. Several teachers point to the ways that school policy and parents' preferences affect the play they allow and discourage:
 I personally don't like play fighting and never permitted it at
 home with my own children. My superintendent does not allow any
 outside play.

 It's necessary, but public pre-K programs are so short there
 isn't a lot of time to allow for dramatic play/r&t. Also, parents
 seem to dislike THEIR children participating in this type of play
 "at school."

 Most of the families I have worked with strongly discourage or
 prohibit rough-and-tumble play in a school environment. This is a
 public pre-K: academic and socially focused. There is no need for
 rough-and-tumble play here ... home is the place for it, but not

 Rough-and-tumble play is not allowed in public school here, so we
 try to follow the same rules.

 Because we are located in a public school where most
 rough-and-tumble play is not allowed, we try to follow suit. I
 allow r&t play as long as it is safe, but the school has a
 "hands-off" policy that they try to adhere to, so we do as well.

 Rough-and-tumble play was encouraged in one program I was at with
 a written policy. Where I am now, it is all but forbidden. I think
 the program I am at now is too safe.

Question 4: What are the major influences on teachers' attitudes toward rough-and-tumble play?

Figure 5 presents the three most influential factors on teachers' attitudes toward rough-and-tumble play. Results indicated that 78% of the teachers reported that their coursework and training in early childhood education was the most influential factor on their attitudes toward dramatic play. Forty-one percent of teachers reported that the second most influential factor was their own childhood experiences. Last, 32% of teachers reported that "beliefs and attitudes of their co-workers" was the third most influential factor on their attitudes toward dramatic play.

Teachers did not directly address the influences on their thinking about rough-and-tumble play in this survey. However, 54% of the teachers wrote about their beliefs and feelings, and 65% indicated an interest in more training. One teacher's comments reflect the dilemma that many teachers face in trying to balance the results of child development research, the behavior of children in their classes, and traditional teaching approaches:
 I understand there is an importance to rough-and-tumble play. I
 would be very interested in training on how to better facilitate



As expected, the data from the current study suggest that children in pre-K engage in a range of dramatic play options, some sanctioned by teachers and some not. Overall, pre-K teachers report children playing house/family themes with the greatest frequency, although chase and protect/ rescue themes were also high for boys and girls. The working definition of rough-and-tumble play used for the current study, adopted from play literature, included play fighting, chasing games, protect/rescue games, and superhero play (added for purposes of the current study based on recent research suggesting that superhero play is a subset of rough-and-tumble play).

The data from the current study suggest that though rough-and-tumble play occurs regularly in classrooms, teachers treat the specific behaviors making up the standard definition differently. Play fighting was significantly less often allowed in comparison to other forms of rough-and-tumble play, including chase games, protect/rescue games, and superhero play. The qualitative data from teachers' comments revealed that for those who allowed rough-and-tumble play, particular behaviors of play involving use of weapons or certain characters (e.g., Power Rangers) were not allowed. The qualitative data suggest a strong ambivalence among pre-K teachers about what types of play are acceptable and not acceptable. Finally, consideration of the home-school connection is important in understanding acceptable play themes in pre-K classrooms. Some teachers revealed the differences between their own beliefs and what they thought parents would view as acceptable classroom behaviors.

Clear gender differences emerged in teachers' reports of child behavior and in the behavior they stopped or prohibited. Almost half (48%) of teachers stopped or redirected boys' dramatic play daily or several times/week, whereas only 29% of teachers reported stopping or redirecting girls' dramatic play weekly. Teachers intervene in boys' social conflicts significantly more often than they do for girls. We already know that more rough-and-tumble play exists among boys and that superhero play is considered a subcategory of rough-and-tumble play (Holland, 2003; Pellegrini & Perlmutter, 1987). The current study revealed significant differences in the prevalence of dramatic play themes for boys versus girls. Boys engaged in superhero play and play fighting significantly more often than girls, whereas girls more often engaged in house/family play and nurture/care play themes. No differences emerged between how often boys and girls engaged in chase games, suggesting that this type of play may be integrated into various play themes.

The current study suggests that teachers more frequently stop rough-and-tumble play than other forms of dramatic play. Within dramatic play, play fighting, while occurring daily for 40% of boys' play, was the least tolerated play category among teachers. Protect/rescue play was the most tolerated form of rough-and-tumble play. Most teachers perceived chase games and protect/rescue play as acceptable forms of rough-and-tumble play. However, for many teachers, these two specific types of play were not even categorized, from their perspective, as components of rough-and-tumble play. This view contradicts the literature, suggesting that chase games and protect/rescue can be categorized within rough-and-tumble play. The current study helps to further clarify the components of rough-and-tumble play as defined by classroom teachers.

Limitations of the Study

The current study solicited teacher perceptions of children's play. There are no direct observations of either the play itself or the teachers' interventions in the play. The study used the definition of rough-and-tumble play reported in the play literature, adding superhero play as a dimension, because it is supported in recent literature. Examination of the various components of this definition show that, for this sample, play-fighting games are viewed very differently by teachers than other aspects of rough-and-tumble play. Our definition may have led teachers to under- or overreport rough-and-tumble play because the definition had several components. Also, because girls and boys engage in chase games (a component of the definition) at relatively the same frequency, but boys engage in play fighting and superhero play more frequently, the data may have underestimated gender differences in play. The survey also did not make a distinction between play allowed inside and outside of the classroom. Future studies should make this distinction.

Additionally, all participants in this study were female. Male teachers might view rough-and-tumble play differently.

Implications and Future Research

Pretend fighting occurs cross-culturally and, for most children, does not escalate into true aggression. It appears from these data that teachers may not be making the distinction between play fighting and real fighting in their interventions. If, as the literature suggests, there is social and cognitive value to rough-and-tumble play, and if boys are prohibited from engaging in it at high rates, future research on the relationship between rough-and-tumble play to school achievement and social adjustment is warranted. If boys, due to their choices of dramatic play themes, are discouraged from dramatic play, how will this affect their early language and literacy development and their engagement in school?

Many teachers expressed ambivalence about the function that rough-and-tumble play serves for children, as well as about their role in allowing or disallowing it. It is evident from the teacher comments that some teachers describe play themes they plan and supply with props (e.g., housekeeping or firefighter) as valuable play, whereas child-initiated rough-and-tumble play themes (e.g., superheroes or play fighting) are viewed as problematic. For one teacher, the idea that child-initiated rough-and-tumble play is viewed by others as dramatic play was a new (and unwelcome) idea. Several teachers indicated a desire for training and discussion about rough-and-tumble play. Further research on these topics may help us better understand the growing achievement gap for boys. Recent curriculum projects integrating boys' active play and the teaching of literacy skills suggest the need for reevaluating how teachers plan curriculum (Logue & Shelton, 2008; Logue et al., 2009). As 4-year-olds enter the public school system in greater numbers, a more in-depth understanding of the gender difference in play can inform curriculum and program policies.

A high percentage of teachers in the current study reported that their attitudes toward rough-and-tumble play were developed though their coursework in early childhood education. Pellegrini and Smith (1993) suggested that adults' ambivalence about active play underlies the underrepresentation of studies about it in the dramatic play literature. To promote research-based practice, it is important to examine the content of early childhood coursework related to rough-and-tumble play and to examine the attitudes of faculty members teaching these courses.

The role of play in learning continues to be an important issue as the numbers of preschool-age children entering public school programs increase, many of which are highly focused on academics. The current study highlights the different attitudes and beliefs held by preschool teachers, all of whom support dramatic play. Academic success for all children requires that early educators continue to examine their own beliefs and build curriculum on sound, research-based practices.

DOI: 10.1080/02568540903439375

Submitted July 3, 2008; accepted February 16, 2009.


Barnett, W. S., Hustedt, J. T., Robin, K. B., & Schulman, K. L. (2005). The state of preschool: 2005 state preschool yearbook. New Brunswick, NJ: National Institute for Early Education Research. Retrieved December 1, 2006, from

Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to ecology of mind. New York: Ballentine.

Bennett-Armistead, V. S., Duke, N. K., & Moses, A. M. (2005). Literacy and the youngest learner: Best practices for educators of children from birth to 5. New York: Scholastic.

Camilli, G., Vargas, S., Ryan, S., & Barnett, W. S. (2008). Meta-analysis of the effects of early education interventions on cognitive and social development. Teachers College Record, 112(3), 2010. Retrieved March 3, 2009, from

Campbell, D. W., & Eaton, W. O. (1999). Sex differences in the activity level of infants. Infant and Child Development, 8, 1-17.

Campbell, F. A., Ramey, C. T., Pungello, E., Sparling, J., & Miller-Johnson, S. (2002). Early childhood education: Young adult outcomes from the Abecedarian Project. Applied Developmental Science, 6(1), 42-57.

Coie, J. D., & Kupersmidt, J. B. (1983). A behavioral analysis of emerging social status in boys' groups. Child Development, 54, 1400-1416.

Costabile, A., Smith, P. K., Matheson, L., Aston, J., Hunter, T., & Boulton, M. J. (1991). A cross-national comparison of how children distinguish serious and playful fighting. Developmental Psychology, 27, 881-887.

DeVellis, R. F. (2003). Scale development: Theory and applications (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

DiPietro, J. A. (1981). Rough & tumble play: A function of gender. Developmental Psychology, 17(1), 50-58.

Fagot, B. (1985). Beyond the reinforcement principle: Another step toward understanding sex role development. Developmental Psychology, 21, 1097-1104.

French, J., & Pena, S. (1991). Children's hero play of the 20th century: Changes resulting from television influence. Child Study Journal, 21(2), 79-95.

Fromel, K., Stelzer, J., Groffik, D., & Ernest, J. (2008). Physical activity of children ages 6-8: The beginning of school attendance. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 23, 29-40.

Fry, D. P. (1987). Differences between playfighting and serous fighting among Zapotec children. Ethology and Sociobiology, 8(4), 285-306.

Fry, D. P. (2005). Rough-and-tumble social play in humans. In A. D. Pellegrini & P. K. Smith (Eds.), The nature of play: Great apes and humans (pp. 54-88). New York: Guilford.

Garbarino, J. (2000). Lost boys. New York: Anchor.

Gilliam, W. (2005). Pre-kindergarteners left behind: Expulsion rates in state pre-kindergarten systems. New Haven, CT: Yale Child Study Center.

Gormley, W., Grayer, T., Phillips, D., & Dawson, B. (2005). The effects of universal pre-k on cognitive development. Developmental Psychology, 41,872-884.

Harlow, H. F., & Harlow, M. K. (1965). The affectional system. Behavior of Non-Human Primates, 2, 287-334.

Holland, P. (2003). We don't play with guns here: War, weapon and superhero play in the early years. Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Humphreys, A. P., & Smith, P. K. (1984). Rough-and-tumble in preschool and playground. In P. K. Smith (Ed.), Play in animals and humans (pp. 129-151). Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell.

Katch, J. (2001). Under deadman's skin: Discovering the meaning of children's violent play. Boston: Beacon.

Kindlon, D. J., & Thompson, M. (2000). Raising Cain. New York: Random House.

Lally, J. R., Mangione, P. L., & Honig, A. S. (1988). The Syracuse University Family Development Research Program: Long-range impact of an early intervention with low-income children and their families. In D. R. Powell (Ed.), Parent education as early childhood intervention: Emerging directions in theory, research, and practice (pp. 79-104). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Logue, M. E., Robie, M., Brown, M., & Waite, K. (2009). Read my dance: Promoting early writing through dance. Childhood Education, 85, 216-222.

Logue, M. E., & Shelton, H. (2008). The stories bad guys tell: Promoting literacy and social awareness in preschool. The Constructivist, 19(1). Available at

Maccoby, E. E. (1974). The development of sex differences. Stanford, CA: Stanford University.

MacDonald, K., & Parke, R. (1986). Parent-child physical play: The effects of sex and age of children. Sex Roles, 15(5/6), 367-378.

Magnuson, K. A., Ruhm, C., & Waldfogel, J. (2007). Does prekindergarten improve school preparation and performance? Economics of Education Review, 26(1), 33-51.

Martin, C. L., & Fabes, R. A. (2001). The stability and consequences of young children's same-sex peer interactions. Developmental Psychology, 37, 431-446.

McGrew, W. C. (1972). An ecological study of children's behaviour. London: Academic.

Neuman, S. (2006). How we neglect knowledge--and why. American Educator, 30(2), 24-27.

Parsons, A., & Howe, N. (2006). Superhero toys and boys' physically active and imaginative play. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 20, 287-300.

Pellegrini, A. D. (1988). Elementary-school children's rough and tumble play and social competence. Developmental Psychology, 24, 802-806.

Pellegrini, A. D. (2002). Rough-and-tumble play from childhood through adolescence: Development and possible functions. In P. K. Smith & C. H. Hart (Eds.), Handbook of childhood social development (pp. 438-453). Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Pellegrini, A. D., & Perlmutter, J. C. (1987). A re-examination of the Smilansky-Paten matrix of play behavior. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 2, 89-96.

Pellegrini, A. D., & Smith, P. K. (1988). Physical activity play: The nature and function of a neglected aspect of play. Child Development, 69, 577-598.

Pellegrini, A. D., & Smith, P. K. (1993). School recess: Implications for education and development. Review of Educational Research, 63(1), 51-67.

Piaget, J. (1965). The moral judgment of the child. New York: Free Press.

Rathbun, A., & West, J. (2004). From kindergarten through third grade: Children's beginning school experiences (NCES 2004-007). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Roskos, K., & Christie, J. (2001). Examining the play-literacy interface: A critical review and future directions. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 1(1), 59-89.

Riley, J. G., & Jones, R. B. (2007). When girls and boys play: What research tells us. Childhood Education, 84, 38-43.

Schafer, M., & Smith, P. K. (1996). Teachers' perceptions of play fighting and real fighting in primary school. Educational Research, 38, 173-181.

Schweinhart, L. J., & Weikart, D. P. (1997). Lasting differences: The High/Scope preschool curriculum comparison study through age 23 (Monographs of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, 12). Ypsilanti, MI: High/ Scope Press.

Scott-Little, C., Kagan, S. L., & Frelow, V. S. (2006). Conceptulation of readiness and the context of early learning standards: The intersection of policy and research. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 21, 153-173.

Shonkoff, J. P., & Phillips, D. (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. Washington, DC: National Research Council.

Smith, P. K., & Connolly, K. (1980). The ecology of preschool behaviour. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University.

Smith, P. K., & Lewis, K. (1985). Rough-and-tumble play, fighting, and chasing in nursery school children. Ethology and Sociobiology, 6(3), 175-181.

Smith, P. K., Smees, R., & Pellegrini, A. D. (2004). Play fighting and real fighting: Using video playback methodology with young children. Aggressive Behavior, 30(2), 164-173.

Smith, P. K., Smees, R., Pellegrini, A. D., & Menesini, E. (2002). Comparing pupil and teacher perceptions for playful fighting, serious fighting and positive peer interaction. In J. L. Roopnarine (Ed.), Conceptual, social-cognitive, and contextual issues in the fields of play: Play and culture studies (Vol. 4, pp. 235-245). Westport, CT: Ablex.

Spodek, B., & Saracho, O. N. (2006). Handbook of research on the education of young children (2nd ed.). New York: Erlbaum.

SPSS for Windows, Rel. 15.0.1. (2002). Chicago: SPSS Inc.

Tyre, P. (2008). The trouble with boys. New York: Crown Publishers.

Whiting, B., & Edwards, C. P. (1988). Children of different worlds: The formation of social behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Zill, N., Sorongon, A., & Kim, K. (2003). FACES 2003. Research Brief." Children's outcomes and program quality in Head Start. Washington, DC: Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Mary Ellin Logue

University of Maine, Orono, Maine

Hattie Harvey

University of Denver, Denver, Colorado

Address correspondence to Mary Elfin Logue, Child Development and Family Relations, Early Childhood Development, University of Maine, Orono, ME 04469. E-mail:
Means and Standard Deviations for Prevalence of Dramatic Play Themes

 Overall Girls Boys
Type of Dramatic Play M SD M SD M SD

Superhero play * 2.96 1.22 2.34 1.20 3.53 1.53
House/family play * 4.24 .79 4.46 .75 4.00 1.01
Pretend fighting * 2.83 1.19 2.06 1.15 3.52 1.59
Chase games 4.09 1.24 4.03 1.22 4.20 1.22
Protect/rescue play 3.28 1.03 3.58 1.01 3.40 1.03
Nurture/care play * 3.58 .98 3.83 1.05 3.35 1.09

Note. 1 = less than monthly, 2 = monthly, 3 = weekly,
4 = 2-4 times per week, 5 = daily.

* significant difference between gender at the .05 level.

Reported Percentages of Interventions Used for Rough-and-Tumble Play

Type of Intervention Almost Always
Immediately stop it 34 25
Redirect play to safe area 40 23
Hug, cuddle, rock, comfort 17 13
Talk to parents 8 12
Have conversations w/children about safety 34 25
Modify environment 20 22
Redirect play to quiet activity 14 27
Observe play uninterrupted until someone is hurt 3 19
Give a warning, then consequence 16 10

Type of Intervention Possibly Unlikely
Immediately stop it 32 6
Redirect play to safe area 24 8
Hug, cuddle, rock, comfort 39 18
Talk to parents 51 19
Have conversations w/children about safety 24 14
Modify environment 42 10
Redirect play to quiet activity 38 18
Observe play uninterrupted until someone is hurt 32 24
Give a warning, then consequence 37 20

Type of Intervention Never
Immediately stop it 3
Redirect play to safe area 5
Hug, cuddle, rock, comfort 12
Talk to parents 10
Have conversations w/children about safety 3
Modify environment 6
Redirect play to quiet activity 2
Observe play uninterrupted until someone is hurt 22
Give a warning, then consequence 17

Teachers' Reported Levels of Tolerance for Rough-and-Tumble
Dramatic Play Themes (data in percentages)

 Always Always
Type of Dramatic Play Allow Allow Neutral Stop Prohibit

Superhero play 17 35 20 15 13
Pretend fighting 1 9 9 32 50
Protect/rescue 45 40 12 2 1
Chase games 19 41 25 7 7
COPYRIGHT 2010 Association for Childhood Education International
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

 Reader Opinion




Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Logue, Mary Ellin; Harvey, Hattie
Publication:Journal of Research in Childhood Education
Date:Jan 1, 2010
Previous Article:Helping children and their parents ask better questions: an intervention study.
Next Article:Physical activity lessons in preschools.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2015 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters