Educator’s Guide to Navigating Rough and Tumble Play in the EY

Learn how to effectively facilitate, support, and fully embrace rough and tumble play in the Early Years, transforming it into a cornerstone of growth and learning.

Lisa Kane
5 min read

The unmistakable sounds of children’s laughter and energetic shouts, punctuated by an excited squeal, reach your ears. You observe a scene of pure, unbridled joy: a group of children tugging at a rope, each pitching their weight against the others in a lively effort to win. Nearby, another child tries with all their might to lift a boulder wedged into the grass, their determination visible in every strained muscle. Just a stone’s throw away, a trio engages in a pile-up, throwing their bodies on top of each other in a playful effort to squeeze together. 

This is rough and tumble play in its essence—a vivid tableau of the physicality, challenge, and camaraderie that characterise these interactions.How do you ensure this spirited play remains a positive, developmental experience rather than veering into chaos or danger? This is the challenge that brings you to our comprehensive guide.

Our resources are designed to demystify the complexities of rough and tumble play, providing you with the knowledge and tools to navigate its challenges confidently. Despite its sometimes contentious nature, such play is crucial for childhood development, offering unmatched opportunities for children to hone their physical abilities, emotional regulation, and social skills, including empathy, and understanding boundaries.

A taxonomy of play

We can’t begin exploring the world of rough and tumble play without understanding the role it plays in early childhood development. To do this, we can look at Bob Hughes’ taxonomy of play, which is a testament to the rich, varied ways children learn, grow, and connect. Within this framework, rough and tumble play is highlighted for its vital role in physical and social development.

This raises questions: How many more types of play are there? Can you name them? Are you familiar with the full spectrum outlined by Hughes, each with its unique developmental contributions?

A poster of EY theorist Bob Hughes and his contribution to EY

Download our poster to familiarise yourself with the 16 types of play as defined by Bob Hughes. This visual guide not only enriches your understanding of play’s diversity but also underscores the importance of embracing all types of play in supporting comprehensive child development.

Pedagogical Pioneers in EY:
Introducing Bob Hughes

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Recognising rough and tumble play

We understand the complexities and concerns surrounding rough and tumble play, and we are here to support you in exploring this important aspect of childhood development. Our focus begins with recognising the features of rough and tumble play. What does it actually look like in practice? Envision children engaging in playful wrestling, their movements energetic yet non-aggressive. Observe their facial expressions, often marked by smiles and laughter, reflecting the enjoyment and social bonding inherent in this play. The body language is lively and expressive, yet mindful of personal boundaries.

A poster detailing what rough and tumble play looks like in the early years

This resource is designed to help educators identify these key elements, clearly differentiating rough and tumble play from aggression or bullying. It outlines the various benefits of this play type, including physical development and social-emotional skill-building. By offering practical strategies and insights, the resource aims to equip educators with the knowledge to facilitate rough and tumble play safely and effectively, creating a balanced and supportive learning environment for all children. Let’s embrace the positive aspects of play in our Early Years settings.

Explore benefits and features of rough and tumble play

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Embracing rough and tumble play

To effectively embrace and manage rough and tumble play in your setting, it’s crucial to focus on creating a culture of respect and understanding through play. This involves emphasising the importance of consent and appropriate interaction among children. You can subtly guide and shape rough and tumble play using language that ensures it remains safe, positive, and inclusive. Additionally, facilitating meaningful discussions with children about rough and tumble play can be highly beneficial.

A poster to be used by educators to guide them on how they can support rough and tumble play in the early years

These discussions help children understand the boundaries and values associated with this type of play, such as respect for others, recognising personal limits, and the importance of mutual consent. By adopting these strategies, educators can foster a healthy, respectful environment where rough and tumble play is not only accepted but also leveraged as a medium for learning and development.

Dive in to support and embrace
rough and tumble play

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Facilitating playful adventures

By understanding and embracing the often-misunderstood rough and tumble play, you can create richer, more inclusive learning environments. We encourage you to get risky with play, to see beyond its potential challenges and focus on the myriad benefits it offers.

An example of a rough and tumble activity contained in the activity booklet

Recognising the pivotal role of physical play in children’s development, this collection of rough and tumble engagements offers a variety of safe and structured activities tailored to promote coordination, social skills, and emotional and physical regulation among young learners. Each activity is thoughtfully crafted to encourage exploration, imagination, and joyful interaction, providing educators with the tools to guide energetic play in a positive and developmental manner. Whether indoors or outdoors, “20 Playful Games” empowers educators to turn playtime into an opportunity for growth, learning, and boundless fun.

Discover 20 dynamic activities of rough and tumble play

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As we conclude our journey through the spirited world of rough and tumble play, it’s clear that this form of play is not just about the physical exertion and laughter it brings. It’s a crucial component of a child’s developmental tapestry, offering unique opportunities for learning, growth, and connection. By understanding and embracing the nuances of rough and tumble play, and situating it within Bob Hughes’ broader taxonomy of play, educators can create environments where every child feels safe, included, and encouraged to explore their physical and social worlds.

As educators, our role in facilitating these playful adventures is pivotal. We are the guides who can transform potential moments of tension into opportunities for learning and joy. Let’s continue to foster environments where rough and tumble play, and all forms of play, are celebrated as vital avenues for development, ensuring every child can thrive through the power of play.

Lisa Kane
Lisa Kane
Lisa is a passionate early years educator, having found her way into the field after being fascinated by the rapid and wondrous development in the first years of her own children’s lives. Following these curiosities has taken her through a degree and post-grad in Early Years education, and clocking up over 20 years of hands-on experience in a variety of international school settings. Lisa believes that learning is co-constructed alongside the smallest humans, and is energised by the curiosity, awe and wonder they generate.

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