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Observing young children's rough-and-tumble play.


According to Pellegrini and Smith (1998), rough-and-tumble play includes, 'running, climbing, chasing, and play fighting' (p. 577). From this categorisation of the play, the elements of rough-and-tumble play have been further defined by Reed and Brown (2000) to include fleeing, wrestling, falling and open-handed slaps.

One common element of recent descriptions and definitions of rough-and-tumble play is the inclusion of a 'play face' where participants are smiling and laughing (Reed & Brown, 2000). This play face is an important characteristic as it distinguishes rough-and-tumble play from aggression. According to Reed and Brown (2000), and supported by DiPietro (1981), aggressive behaviour involves anger and a determination to cause harm to another, unlike the playful nature of rough-and-tumble play.

This study identified forms of rough-and-tumble play exhibited by young children. The specific questions for this study were to what degree, and in what forms, is rough-and-tumble play being engaged in by young children enrolled in daycare programs. Daycare programs were selected for use because children attend for a full day, providing consistency of participants for morning and afternoon observations.

Is rough-and-tumble play really play?

Rough-and-tumble behaviours are considered to be play behaviour (Pellegrini & Smith, 1998; Reed & Brown, 2000) and yet are also at times referred to as non-play behaviour. As stated by McCune (1998), 'play has been difficult to define because it occurs as an aspect of many activities rather than being limited to a specific kind of activity; thus it rarely occurs in isolation' (p. 601 ).

Rough-and-tumble play has not yet been accepted universally as a form of play, although research appears to support its inclusion as such (McBride-Chang & Jacklin, 1993; Reed, 2005). Further, the identification of rough-and-tumble play as behaviour manifested cross-culturally (for example, Jarvis, 2007) supports its inclusion as a form of play. However, Pellegrini and Smith (1998) highlight the need for research on physical activity play. Specifically, 'there is a need for more descriptive data on the forms of physical activity play and their age trends through childhood and adolescence' (p. 589).

Rough-and-tumble play is a relatively new area of exploration. Previous research on such play by children involved the utilisation of interviews, observations, and videotaping of rough-and-tumble play events. While video recordings have been utilised in other studies (for example Flanders, Leo, Paquette, Pihl & Seguin, 2009; Reed & Brown, 2000), an observation sheet was chosen over the use of videotaping in this study because it was less intrusive in the participants' activities.

Rough-and-tumble play

The history of scholarly interest in the play of preschool-age children has addressed general and specific areas of interest, such as gender differences (for example, Evans, 1998); creativity (for example, Singer & Singer, 1985); pretend play (for example, Paley, 1988), and play group entry techniques (for example, Trawick-Smith, 1988). While each of these topics contributes to our understanding of the social nature of play, there is much to describe to understand fully every aspect and element of play.

Within early childhood settings, children engage in a wide variety of play. Sutton-Smith and Rosenberg (1982) examined the popularity of children's games over a 60-year period from 1898 to 1959. The results of their review indicate that one continuously popular game throughout this period was the physical game of wrestling. The physical nature of play has been explored in research, primarily in terms of aggression (Goldstein, 1995). The role of positive physical contact within rough-and-tumble play is in need of further consideration.

The need for consideration of the function of such play is further highlighted through animal research. Pellis and Pellis (2007) conducted research examining brain development among rats that were either accorded or denied opportunities to engage in rough-and-tumble play. The results indicate that the lack of social experience through rough-and-tumble play resulted in organisational changes in the brains of young rats. These findings, when related to the development of young children, indicate that 'it may not be the case that the more socially competent children engage in more play fighting, but rather that the play fighting may promote the development of social competency' (Pellis & Pellis, 2007, p. 97). Similar cognitive implications have been identified in additional research (for example, Burgdorf, Panksepp, Beinfeld, Kroes & Moskal, 2006; Scott & Panksepp, 2003).

Rough-and-tumble play has been considered a 'neglected aspect of play' (Pellegrini & Smith, 1998, p. 577). While rough-and-tumble play has recently become a topic of growing interest to more researchers, more understanding is needed. Specifically, more understanding of rough-and-tumble play within the context of early childhood is in need of exploration. The research on rough-and-tumble play which has been undertaken has primarily involved elementary school-aged children, mostly with boys as participants (for example, Pellegrini & Smith, 1998; Reed & Brown, 2000). There is a need to understand the rough-and-tumble play behaviours of both boys and girls (Reed, 2005).

Most studies on the rough-and-tumble play of school-aged children have involved gathering the thoughts of boys engaging in such play. There appears to be a gap in the research literature on the parents' perspectives regarding such play. Equally, as young children may be in the care of educators, there is a need to understand how early childhood educators interpret and respond to rough-and-tumble play. The thoughts of each of these interest groups are in need of exploration in order to better understand how different interest groups interpret and support, or restrict, the rough-and-tumble play of children.

Piaget's developmental stages and rough-and-tumble play

Piaget (1951) identified the importance of play in the cognitive development of children. He recognised that, while the confines of cognitive abilities of young children limit the extent of play, play serves as a medium for practising those skills that have been learned. This process of cognitive development, for young children, is defined in specific stages of development, identified as sensori-motor, preoperational, and concrete operational (Piaget, 1951).

The five-year-old children participating in this study would, according to Piaget, be in the preoperational stages of cognitive development (Piaget, 1951). Within his theory, Piaget identified that, during the preoperational stage of play, children are practising skills that will become elements of their concrete operational play. This concrete operational play leads to the development of games with rules. Pellegrini, Dupuis and Smith (2007) further support Piaget's theory by stressing the importance of practical experience through play in young children's cognitive development. Gaining a cognitive understanding of social systems through play serves to provide many practical experiences which enhance learning, including developing an understanding of social rules, social expectations and logical thinking.


This study was conducted in two daycare centres in Western Canada. Daycare centres were chosen over preschools or other early childhood programs owing to the length of time and consistency that children are exposed to one another. Previous research on older children (that is, Reed and Brown, 2000; Pellegrini & Smith, 1998) highlighted the social connections demonstrated between rough-and-tumble play partners. The use of daycare settings in this study most closely replicated this opportunity for established friendships, given the extended period children spend together. While children in preschool programs typically attend for four to six hours per week, those attending daycare programs are in care for longer, typically 35 to 50 hours per week.

The participants in this study included six educators and 17 children from two settings. The six educators were qualified early childhood educators. Qualified educators are licensed by the Province of British Columbia after completing a 10-month training program focused on early childhood development, curriculum planning, and contextual issues such as health, safety, and working with families. The allocation of the participants at each setting is displayed in Table 1. Through the duration of this study, no participants withdrew or were otherwise unavailable to complete their participation in the data collection process. The participating educators were those who typically supervise the participating children.

Setting 1 was a privately owned and operated licensed centre situated in the lower level of a family home in a middle-income residential neighbourhood. The setting was licensed to care for up to 16 children aged 30 months to school age. This first setting employed four regular full-time early childhood educators, all female. Setting 2 was a licensed early childhood setting operating as an independent, non-profit organisation. The setting was situated in a purpose-built facility in proximity to government offices. It was licensed for up to 24 children aged 30 months to school age, and employed four regular full-time early childhood educators, three female and one male.


A total of 10 x 90-minute (900 minutes) observations was made of the daily activities of the participants in their setting. Observations of each setting occurred at different times of the day and on a variety of days, allowing each setting to be viewed under a variety of circumstances. Each participating setting was observed during daily routines, structured activities, transitions, and free-play time. Free-play experiences are those in which children at play have the opportunity to make choices in determining their activity. Essa (2011) recognised that most early childhood programs have time allotted for children to make activity choices and engage in free play. Free play was of particular interest, based on the work of Smith and Connolly (1980). They noted that the frequency of rough-and-tumble play in preschool settings was greater during free-play sessions.

Criteria for inclusion of rough-and-tumble play

Commonly recognised rough-and-tumble play behaviours within current literature were adopted by me, as the researcher in this study, to form the basis of the criteria for identification of play as rough-and-tumble. Children who displayed acts involving running, climbing, chasing, play-fighting, fleeing, wrestling, falling, and open-handed slaps (Pellegrini & Smith, 1998; Reed & Brown, 2000) were considered to be engaging in rough-and-tumble play. The criterion utilised in distinguishing these types of behaviours as play and not aggression involved the display of the cheerful play face (Reed & Brown, 2000).

Routine observations

Most early childhood programs tend to follow somewhat predictable routines. The researcher had observed daily routines in several settings and recognised that the typical daily routine was commonly applied across settings. The observations for this study encompassed the following typical daily routines: (1) arrival and free play of children during the early morning, (2) snack and circle times during the morning, (3) lunch and nap times in the middle of the day, (4) afternoon activity and play times, and (5) departure and free play during the late afternoon.

Each of the identified elements, or daily experiences, for both settings were observed twice. Only one predominant activity (for example, morning arrival and free play, lunch and nap, etc.) was observed within either setting on any single day. Setting 1 was observed for a total of 15 hours while Setting 2 was observed for a total of 15 hours and 25 minutes. Both settings were observed 10 times over five weeks.

Recording behaviours

The observations focused on incidents of rough-and-tumble play as displayed by the participating children. The observation of this form of play holds some inherent difficulties. Because uniform descriptors of this form of play have not been explicated, there is no uniform assessment tool. Given the descriptors by Pellegrini and Smith (1998), and Reed and Brown (2000), a uniform method for the assessment of rough-and-tumble play can be developed. However, utilising the descriptors provided through previous research provided only a starting point. Several are general in their form (that is, wrestling and play-fighting) and require observers to be aware of individual components which form larger play behaviour. For example, play-fighting can include hitting, kicking, rolling on the ground, grabbing, and lifting a player. Separate observation sheets were used for each incident of rough-and-tumble play observed.

They detailed the setting, date, time and place (indoor or outdoor) of the observation. Recordings of the children's behaviour included comments made by the children and behaviours directly observed by the researcher.

Recorded behaviours and comments of the participating children were reviewed by three trained observers at each site, two of whom were classroom teachers of participating children and the third the primary researcher for this study. Classroom teachers at each site were trained on recognition of rough-and-tumble play and the recording of such play. Inter-rater reliability of recorded behaviours was 95 per cent, as determined by practice sessions.

Participant identification coding system

For this study, coding was utilised in an effort to clearly identify each individual participant and the behaviours observed. The settings were identified as Setting 1 and Setting 2. The participant roles were identified as 'E' for educators and 'C' for children. Individual participants were identified by two separate methods. The educators were identified numerically and children were identified with individual capital letters. For example, the second educator from Setting 1 was coded as 1:E:2. Similarly, a child from Setting 1 was identified as 1:C:F. The analysis of the observations involved the categorisation and frequency counts of behaviours observed.


Observed rough-and-tumble play behaviours

A total of 116 demonstrations of rough-and-tumble play behaviours was recorded during the duration of this study (refer to Table 2).

The recorded behaviours were grouped into three categories that had common actions: (1) physical contact between players, (2) play behaviours in which an object is an instrumental component, and (3) independent physical play behaviours (see Figure 1).


Physical contact between players

Each of the behaviours within the first category involved direct physical contact between players. This category included the most commonly and least commonly observed behaviours during this study. As indicated in Table 2, the most commonly observed rough-and-tumble play behaviour was when one player grabbed the body of another. For example, at Setting 2, 'U' (a boy) grabbed 'W' (a girl) around the waist from behind and proceeded to lift 'W' up off the ground before setting her back down. Both children involved in the play were displaying the play face as they laughed through the event (2:0:2-2).


Even though the child participants routinely described rough-and-tumble play as wrestling, only one incident of wrestling was observed (see Table 2). Wrestling is defined in this study as the display of several rough-and-tumble play behaviours with a peer (for example, lifting the body of another, rolling around on the ground, grabbing another, pushing, running, falling, banging bodies) in a single incident. This incident of rough-and-tumble play resulted in the educator responding, 'That's way too rough!' Both children then stopped their play, grinned at one another, and ran to the climber together. This display of the wrestling sequence combined several rough-and-tumble play behaviours into a sequence.

Physical contact

The physical contact with another rough-and-tumble player included children banging their bodies into one another. At times, the children would incorporate rolling movements into their play. Typically, rolling around on the ground was an element of conjoined play behaviours. The children did not roll around independently of other rough-and-tumble play behaviours. For example, at Setting 2 three boys banged into one another and the walls as they danced. After banging into the wall or each other they would fall down and roll on the floor before getting up and repeating the play sequence (2:0:6-3).

Children were observed pushing and pulling one another with hands and feet. Holding hands was also displayed, as when children held hands while dancing, running, or pulling one another.

The physical contact between children during rough-and-tumble play included open-handed slaps. At Setting 2, three boys (R, V, and U) engaged in a game of 'leapfrog with a hit' (2:0:7-5). During this game one child curled himself into a ball shape while the other two children jumped over him, giving him an openhanded slap as they did so. The children took turns in the two roles.

Rough-and-tumble play behaviours with an object

The second category involves those play behaviours in which an object is an instrumental component. The most common rough-and-tumble play behaviour observed within this category was jumping on an object. At Setting 1, B (boy) would jump onto and off the couch in the book area of the playroom (1:0:3-2).

The next most common play behaviour involving an object was kicking a ball or bucket or other objects on the playground. While the most common play behaviour with objects involved kicking, the children would also throw objects. At Setting 2 the children who were kicking a bucket also picked up the bucket and threw it towards one another (2:0:7-1).

At times the children would make crashing motions with a held object. This was observed at Setting 2 when two boys indoors at the car play area were crashing toy cars into the floor as they made sounds like 'wahh' (2:0:6-1). The play at times involved using an object to hit another player. An example occurred at Setting 1 when B and D were in the library area. Both children had books in their hands as one sat on a chair and the other on a couch. They would take turns hitting one another with the books while laughing (1:0:8-4).

Independent physical play behaviours

The third category is independent physical play behaviours, including making hitting motions, running, making large body motions, hitting self, rolling around on the ground, roaring, and using a loud voice. Roaring was the second most common behavioural display, with 11 observed occurrences. An example of the use of a roar was observed at Setting 1. F and B were sitting side-by-side at a table at the end of morning snack time. B held F's forearms down, then roared at F and F roared back. Both children then laughed before leaving the table (1:0:1-2).These roars sounded similar to a roar that might be made by a large animal, such as a lion. The use of a roar in the rough-and-tumble play sequences was distinct from the use of a loud voice, as the roar appeared to be in imitation of an animal sound while the loud voice often involved yelling as though to call another player.

The children participating in rough-and-tumble play used a loud voice on two occasions. On one occasion the children were riding scooters indoors while bumping into one another and crashing into furniture and walls. As they crashed their scooters, they used loud voices when communicating with one another (1:0:1-1).

As well as a loud voice, the children also utilised large body motions as they twirled with arms outstretched as though to make their bodies fill as much space as possible. The large body motion was recognised when children made large arm movements (arms outstretched) while also making large leg movements. For example, at Setting 2, Q, S, and V were 'dancing', with their arms and legs making grand motions (2:0:6-3). At Setting 1, B jumped up into the air while twisting his body with arms and legs swinging wide and fast (1:0:7-3).

The display of hitting motions was classified as an independent behaviour. On one occasion at Setting 2, R and V were making karate motions without any physical contact with one another. They used their feet and hands as they kicked and made karate chops towards one another (2:0:7-4).

On two occasions children were observed hitting themselves as part of their rough-and-tumble play. However, this play behaviour was observed only at Setting 1 where, for example, a child used his hands to hit his own head while a second child watched and copied the action (1:0:4-2).

Falling was an element of rough-and-tumble play displayed at both settings. Children were observed falling as part of play patterns, such as falling before rolling around on the floor (2:0:6-3). At Setting 1, a child with a cape around his shoulders would roll around on the ground after jumping off a bench (1:0:6-1). This demonstration could also be considered within the context of imaginative play. Indeed, rough-and-tumble play is often included in discussions of superhero play as children enter into role-play (Colwell & Lindsey, 2005).

One rough-and-tumble play behaviour observed regularly at both settings was running. While running is displayed in a variety of children's activities, including games with rules, it has also been consistently included within research as an element of rough-and-tumble play. Children would run to or from play areas when transitioning between activities (2:0:3-6, 1:0:2-1, 1:0:3-1). The children would also utilise running as a part of their play, as demonstrated when children ran together across the playground with their arms outstretched as though imitating airplanes (2:0:7-5).

As noted in Table 2, the children engaged in chasing behaviours. In each case observed, the children ran as they chased one another. At Setting 2, children would chase one another while outdoors in the playground (2:0:5-2, 2:0:7-1, 2:0:7-5).

Fleeing behaviours were observed once. At Setting 2, a child was following another child in the indoor playroom. V was darting and weaving amongst the toys and shelves as Q followed, making grasping motions at V with his hands. After a moment of fleeing, V stopped moving and with a change of facial expression from playful to serious, said 'Stop!'. Q continued to follow V when V said, 'Stop, I don't like that' (2:0:3-2). At this point Q stopped following V.

The link between rough-and-tumble play and anger or aggression was an articulated concern for both parents and educators. However, through the 30.25 hours of observation, the sequence noted above involved the only display of anger by one child towards another that was observed during this study.

Gender and rough-and-tumble play

Both boys and girls engaged in rough-and-tumble play, although boys accounted for 79.5 per cent of all observed incidents while girls accounted for 20.5 per cent. The most that one boy engaged in some form of rough-and-tumble play was 21 times, while the least that one boy participated was six times. For the girls, the most was six times, while the least was two. The average number of rough-and-tumble play events by the boys in this study was 10. The average number for girls was four.

There were differences in the type of rough-and-tumble play that boys and girls engaged in. One noted difference was in the display of wrestling. The players were both boys. The boys engaged in all forms of rough-and-tumble play (see Table 2). The girls engaged in rough-and-tumble play that was less intrusive of other players. For example, while girls would chase, fall, roll on the ground and hold hands, they were not observed grabbing and moving the body of another player or wrestling. Not only do girls participate in rough-and-tumble play to a lesser extent than boys, they also engage in somewhat less physically intrusive forms of the play.

Indoor and outdoor rough-and-tumble play

The observations in Setting 1 resulted in a total of 67 incidents of rough-and-tumble play behaviour during 29 play sequences. In Setting 2 a total of 65 incidents of rough-and-tumble play behaviour during 29 play sequences were observed. For Setting 1, 15 of the play sequences occurred indoors, with the remaining 14 sequences occurring outside. In Setting 2, nine of the play sequences occurred indoors and 20 sequences occurred outside. On average, in a one-hour period, 3.63 incidents of rough-and-tumble play were observed.


Gender and rough-and-tumble play

Educators reported that, while girls will engage in rough-and-tumble play, it is mostly the boys who participate in such play. This was congruent with the data collected during the observation portion of this study. For the participating children, boys accounted for 79.5 per cent of all rough-and-tumble play sequences and girls for 20.5 per cent. This supports previous research (Pellegrini & Smith, 1998; Monghan-Nourot, 1997; DiPietro, 1981) which identified gender differences in the display of rough-and-tumble play.

Based on the data collected as a part of this study, it appears that girls display fewer rough-and-tumble play behaviours than do boys. Boys engaged in every rough-and-tumble play behaviour recorded (see Table 2) during this study. However, girls engaged in only 52 per cent (14 of 27). The notable absences from girls' rough-and-tumble play behaviours included banging into another player, making hitting motions, throwing objects, pulling other players, crashing body into an object, and wrestling.

Display of the play face

The display of the play face (Reed & Brown, 2000) was the most common element within the rough-and-tumble play observed within this study. The children in all incidents of such play were displaying the play face of a cheerful expression. Some children would laugh and smile when engaging in the play events observed as part of this study.

Rough-and-tumble play elements

Throughout the study, no displays of play-fighting involving physical contact were observed. Elements of fighting behaviours were observed, including making kicking motions and hitting motions; however, there was no direct physical contact between players. Climbing was not recorded as an element of rough-and-tumble play within this study. The climbing opportunities were limited to the use of composite structures in the outdoor play space. The children participating in this study used these structures on a limited basis, although they had access to the structure for the duration of their outdoor play time (approximately 90 minutes in the morning and 90 minutes in the afternoon).

Excluding climbing and play-fighting, each of the play behaviours described by Pellegrini and Smith (1998) and by Reed and Brown (2000) were observed during the course of this study. In addition, unlike previous research, 21 supplementary rough-and-tumble play behaviours were observed. As Jarvis (2007) recognised, rough-and-tumble play components are emerging through current research. 'Researchers have tried to study R&T as a complex and composite behaviour, incorporating some elements of social exercise play (for example, chasing) and some elements of play fighting (for example, wrestling)' (Jarvis, 2007, p. 173). These behaviours were: grabbing the body of another player, grabbing and moving the body of another player, pushing another player, pulling another player, banging their body into the body of another player, banging their body into a fixed object, rolling on the ground with another player, rolling around on the ground on their own, holding hands, use of a loud voice, use of the voice as a roar, making hitting motions, making hitting motions while holding an object, hitting oneself, making large body motions, jumping on an object, kicking an object, throwing an object, crashing their body into an object, and making crashing motions with a held object.

Preoperational stage of rough-and-tumble play?

Given that the young children participating in this study displayed rough-and-tumble play behaviours not identified in previous studies involving school-aged children, it may be that rough-and-tumble play is an evolving form of play. It may be that children move into more, or less, complex rough-and-tumble play behaviours as they mature. It might be that, although the young children observed as part of this study exhibit some elements of more sophisticated rough-and-tumble play, sophistication of the play has yet to be developed.

It may be that the children observed by Reed and Brown (2000) engaging in more sophisticated rough-and-tumble play games with rules were, at a younger age, displaying less sophisticated play behaviours similar to the younger children in this study. It might also be that the young children observed in less sophisticated rough-and-tumble play in early childhood settings will be displaying more sophisticated play with rules when they are older. The study by Reed and Brown describes a game called 'Smear' which seven boys aged six to nine years had developed. These boys had created a rough-and-tumble game with defined rules, which is representative of Piaget's concrete operations stage of cognitive development.

The results of this study indicate that children are exhibiting a preoperational level of play which, given a year or two, would arguably develop into the concrete operational stage of rough-and-tumble play identified in the study by Reed and Brown (2000). This finding is of importance for early childhood educators seeking understanding of the behaviours of children in their care. If the rough-and-tumble play components can be recognised and viewed within a developmental framework, educators may be able to more effectively plan for the inclusion of the play.

A longitudinal study of rough-and-tumble players might answer the question of how such play evolves over time. While Pellegrini (1991) conducted a longitudinal study, the focus was on the rough-and-tumble play of popular and rejected children. The observation of a cohort of boys and girls as they move through early childhood settings and elementary school environments would serve to provide an understanding of how rough-and-tumble play develops and changes with children's growth and development.


The research presented in this article serves as a foundation for an increased understanding of the forms of rough-and-tumble play displayed by young children. As demonstrated, rough-and-tumble play behaviours can be categorised into a typology of play styles, including physical contact between players, use of an object during rough-and-tumble play, and independent play behaviours within a Piagetian framework. The results provide educators with an organisational awareness of young children's rough-and-tumble play as they seek to more effectively interpret and manage the play.


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Michelle Tannock

University of Nevada
Table 1: Allocation of participants in each setting

Participants   Setting 1   Setting 2

Educators          3           3
Children           9           8

Table 2: Observed rough-and-tumble play behaviours

Description of behaviour              Frequency

Grabbing body of other player            16
Use of voice--roaring                    11
Chasing (e.g., in pursuit of other       11
Grabbing and moving body of other
Falling                                   6
Banging body into body of other           5
Hitting motions                           5
Kicking motions                           5
Rolling around on ground with other       5

Description of behaviour                Frequency

Running (e.g. without intent to chase
  or flee)
Large body motions (e.g. twirling           4
  body with arms outstretched)
Pushing other player                        4
Open-handed slaps                           3
Jumping on object (e.g. couch)              3
Kicking object                              3
Making crashing motions with held
  object                                    3
Throwing object                             3
Banging body into fixed object (e.g.
Hitting self                                2
Holding hands                               2
Making hitting motions while holding
  an object                                 2
Pulling other player                        2
Rolling around on ground on own             2
Use of a loud voice                         2
Crashing body into object                   1
Fleeing (e.g. avoiding being caught
  by pursuing player)                       1
Wrestling (e.g. lifting other's body,
  rolling on ground, etc.)                  1
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Author:Tannock, Michelle
Publication:Australasian Journal of Early Childhood
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 1, 2011
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