Research on Rough & Tumble Play: Child Development & Psychology

Instructor: Abigail Cook
When observing a group of kids playing together it is common to see them rough-housing or wrestling, especially young boys. This type of play begins in the toddler years and can continue through elementary school ages. Let's take a look at what the research says about rough and tumble play. Updated: 06/29/2020

Rough and Tumble Play

Rough and tumble play is sometimes called 'play fighting,' 'wrestling,' or 'horse play.' Many kids begin play fighting when they're between two and four years old. This behavior can be reinforced with parents who wrestle and play fight back. As children get older, rough and tumble play often becomes more common, particularly among boys. Due to differences in hormone distribution that begins in utero, boys are typically more active than girls. Data indicates that about 60% of elementary age boys enjoy rough housing, while the other 40% prefer to play something else. While it's typical for teachers and parents to intervene and end play fighting when they see it, it's worth examining the research and potential benefits.


Experts in childhood development have found that rough and tumble play can have significant positive advantages. It includes many different types of skills that kids develop and figure out in real-life play with other kids their own age. Since rough play is spontaneous, it doesn't require an adult to facilitate or get the game going. Kids engage in a real learning experience with unpredictable variables that have to be navigated. Let's look at some other specific advantages of rough and tumble play.

Physical Activity

During play fighting, kids are heavily engaged in physical activity. They get exercise, and practice gross motor skills including jumping, swinging, running, and balance. Wrestling also builds muscle strength in different areas of the body. Children learn to take risks, and figure out their specific physical abilities and boundaries instead of having to guess later in life.

Social Skills

Rough and tumble play is also an excellent way for kids to practice social skills. They learn how to join in with a group of kids, and how to include others. They practice working together to make decisions about how to play as well as compromising to make everyone happy. They learn to deal with conflict and difficult peers through the competition of play fighting. All of these experiences are proven to build confidence in children, which helps them make friends and resolve conflict later in life.

Other important social skills such as taking turns, sharing, cooperation, and seeing another person's perspective can all be practiced through pretend fighting.

Research indicates that the children who are most liked typically engage in rough and tumble play. This means that it can also be an easy avenue for making friends and building relationships based on common interests.

Play Fighting or Aggression?

Most teachers and parents do not believe that pretend fighting is appropriate play. A common concern is that pretend fighting leads to real aggression, which can cause injury and result in bullying. There are several key indicators that can help distinguish actual aggression from rough and tumble play.

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