Rough and Tumble Play: gender, age, and socialisation

In her discussion of the learning and development that takes place through rough and tumble play, Pam Jarvis writes: “R&T [Rough and tumble play] consists of physically active behaviours (e.g., running, chasing, jumping, play fighting) that create positive emotional engagement among players. It is frequently observed between children who are friends, and very rarely observed between children who would not otherwise choose to associate with each other. This clearly differentiates R&T from the behaviour that it might seem to mimic such as aggression. Whilst aggression involves a serious contest of physical strength, [-p.62] in R&T, children voluntarily manage their physical contact and often swap roles, for example from chasing to being chased.

Studies of childhood sociability have found that young children who are popular amongst their peers deal skilfully with the culture of the school playground, recognising teasing and R&T signals from other children as invitation to play. In contrast, children who are rejected by their peers are far more likely to mistake such interactions for real aggression and respond in kind; this is particularly prevalent in boys. Pellegrini and Blatchford (2000) found that, for five-and-a-half-year-old boys, the amount of time spent in R&T with other boys directly predicted their level of success in social problem-solving one year later. An observational study of children’s playground behaviour concluded that engaging in R&T allows children to create complex social hierarchies which ‘seem to reduce aggressive behaviour and help children develop socio-cognitive skills … (for instance, social intelligence)’ (Braza et al., 2007: 209).

Recent research suggests that young mammals engaged in R&T are creating important neuronal connections within areas of the brain that deal with emotion and sociability (Gordon et al., 2003; Pellis and Pellis, 2007). R&T play would consequently seem to be a key topic for educational and developmental research, particularly in view of contemporary concerns about the anti-social behaviour and poor social skills of some children and young people.” (pp.61-62)


Jarvis took gender and gendering into account in her research, explaining that: “Kyratzis (2000) proposed that both genders vie for position in the peer group, boys seeking to be the most dominant, and girls the nicest, on the basis of her finding that girls tell stories to indicate and consolidate alliances, while boys’ stories are designed to emphasise to one another how naughty (authority-flouting/dominant) they can be. Marsh (2000) correspondingly found that when both genders were explicitly invited to engage in superhero fantasy play by an adult, while both boys and girls enthusiastically engaged in the activity, the narratives created to underpin the resulting play showed gendered orientations. Boys engaged in justice mediation, chasing, catching and dealing with ‘bad guys’, while girls used their imaginary powers to help more vulnerable people, small animals and each other. This continues to suggest gendered preferences in play.” (p.63)

Peer-peer and teacher-child interactions

In her research, Jarvis noted distinct differences between teacher’s and children’s responses to other children’s play. What she describes is of relevance to any teacher! She writes: “Throughout my observations, I noted that, while walking around with the adult supervising the playground was a privilege for which the girls competed, reluctant boys were sometimes instructed by the adult to do this for a few minutes as a ‘time out’ punishment! Macoby (1998: 52) correspondingly reported: ‘as early as toddlerhood, boys … have been seen to be less responsive [than girls] to the reactions of their teachers to their behaviour; they are sensitive, however, to the reactions of other boys’.

The interventions of older children tended to be briefer than those undertaken by adults, and, particularly amongst the boys, generally resulted in a type of casual mentoring that led to an enhanced continuation of the original game that the younger children were playing. In contrast, adult interventions tended to consist of ‘supervisions’ that changed the activity altogether, with a risk of introducing ideas that were conceptually beyond the child players….” (p.71)

The questions Jarvis explored in her research are interesting:
“- What narratives can be found within R&T, and how can we use these to understand what the play means to children?
– Do the narratives that children use in R&T differ with respect to gender?
– What might such narratives tell us about complex social learning and skill development taking place within R&T?” (p.65)

… as are the ‘Reflection Points’ she suggests at the end of her essay:
“- What narratives do the children in your setting create when they engage in R&T? Undertaking some non-participant observations could help you to investigate these activities.
– What similarities and differences appear between the narratives used by boys, girls and mixed-gender groups? you could extend your observation focus to the consideration of ‘gendered’ narratives.
– How does your setting decide what is ‘acceptable behaviour in active free play? …
– How does your setting manage free play between different age groups? Has this chapter given you ‘food for thought’ on this topic, in terms of highlighting some potential roles for older children in the development and learning of their younger peers?” (p.73)

Ref: Pam Jarvis ‘Born to play’: the Biocultural Roots of Rought and Tumble Play, and its impact upon Young children’s learning and development pp.61-77 in Eds. Elizabeth Wood, Pat Broadhead, and Justine Howard (2010) Play & Learning in the Early Years. Sage: London

Reference is made to:   Braza, F et al., 2007 ‘Behavioural profiles of different types of social status in preschool children: an observational approach’, Social Behaviour and Personality 35(2): 195-212
Gordon, N et al., 2003 ‘Socially-induced brain ‘fertilization’ play promotes brain derived neurotrophic factor transcription in the amygdala and dorsolateral frontal cortex in juvenile rats’, Neuroscience Letters 341: 17-30
Macoby (1998) The Two Sexes: Growing up apart, coming together. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Pellegrini and Blatchford (2000) The Child at School. London: Arnold
Pellis and Pellis, 2007 ‘Rough and tumble play and the development of the social brain’, Current Directions in Psychological Science 16(2): 95-8


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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