Rough & Tumble Play: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

Rough and tumble play is sometimes challenging for preschool teachers to handle even though it is important for children's development. This lesson focuses on helping you understand rough and tumble play.

What is Rough and Tumble Play?

Lilly is a new preschool teacher, and she is so excited to be working with a wonderful group of four-year-olds! The school setting where Lilly works provides plenty of opportunity for children to play freely, since the administrators all understand that play is key for children's learning and well-being.

Lilly loves facilitating and observing play experiences, but she quickly notices that many of her students are drawn to rough and tumble play, or play that seems aggressive, physical and risky even when the children engaging in it are full of joy and excitement. Lilly can see that her students are not suffering, but she is confused when it comes to understanding what this kind of play is all about. She observes her students more carefully to learn more about rough and tumble play.

Defining It Carefully

Right away, Lilly understands that it is important to clearly understand the difference between rough and tumble play and aggressive conflicts or situations in which children might be physically or emotionally unsafe. She speaks to a few experts who help her solidify her understanding of these distinctions. Lilly learns that rough and tumble play:

  • typically generates positive emotions in all parties involved
  • is consensual among everyone who is part of the play
  • involves smiling, laughter, and cheerful yelling
  • helps cement friendships, rather than coming in the way of them.

Lilly knows that sometimes the line between rough and tumble play and real fighting is a fragile one. While she strives to let her students experiment and take risks during their play, she also watches closely and pays attention to when it might be time to intervene.

Examples of Rough and Tumble Play

The more time Lilly spends watching her students engaging in rough and tumble play, the better she is equipped to identify it and see its benefits for children, physically as well as psychologically. She develops a list of classic examples of rough and tumble play in the preschool setting.

Play Fighting

Often, Lilly sees two or more of her students play fighting or pretending to fight with each other even though they are not angry. This might involve wrestling and rolling around on the ground. Play fighting helps students learn their own strength and experiment with how it might feel to work out a difficulty within a social relationship. Play fighting sometimes morphs into real fighting, and it sometimes morphs into gentler play.


When Lilly's students are outside, some of them are almost always engaged in a chase of one kind or another! Often, they do not even know why they are chasing each other, nor do they have a plan for what they will do when they catch one another. Chase games are great ways for students to get vigorous energy out, figure out what is and is not okay with their peers, and get some good physical exercise.

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