By Meg Anastasi on 24 Apr, 2024

If you’ve ever worked in an early years setting, you’ll know that rough and tumble play is irresistible for young children. They are inextricably drawn to the physicality of this form of play, which is not only physical but active and at times competitive. 

An exercise in restraint

Rough and tumble play, sometimes known as playful aggression, has long been contested by early childhood professionals. It’s a form of risky play which is often noisy, loud and rough, and can sometimes seem aggressive. However, despite our own perceptions, theorists in the area such as Peter Gray, have indicated that “play fighting is much more controlled than real fighting; it is always an exercise in restraint”. This means that playful aggression is simply that; a form of play, and nothing more sinister. 

Valuable for development

Rough and tumble play can be viewed as important for children’s development. Health and medical researchers indicate that physical, unlimited movement promotes development of the senses, muscles and brain. It also helps develop social skills, boundary setting, and risk assessment skills, as children navigate promoting their own sense of safety in play (Hanscom, 2017). 

Three simple ways we can embed rough and tumble play safely in our learning settings

As with any form of play, rough and tumble play requires adult supervision to ensure that all participants feel safe and that any aggression is playful. Here are three ways to embed this play safely in your service:

1. Crash mats 

Crash mats are an incredible resource to utilise for rough and tumble play. Not only do they allow the children a soft surface to play on, but they also go some way to defining a play area. At my service, sometimes we simply place a crash mat on the floor outside, without any intention or thinking behind it. Sometimes it will be utilised for children to practice their somersaults on, and other times the children may use it for tackling. 

Sometimes, we place a crash mat underneath a high balance beam, and the children immediately run to it and jump off it. It’s amazing to see how they organise their play, insisting that their peers line up and take turns. 

(Note: Crash mats can be heavy so consider workplace health and safety and whether to conduct a risk assessment for educators) 

Alternatively, you can create a crash mat using a large duvet/doona cover, transforming it into an oversized pillowcase filled with foam offcuts. Simply stitch the open end closed to secure the contents. For the outer cover, opt for a sturdy paint drop sheet. This provides a durable canvas that the children can decorate with fabric paints, allowing them to personalise their crash mat and take ownership of it. The removable cover can easily be taken off for washing, ensuring cleanliness and longevity. 

Foam shapes 

Foam shapes can promote rough and tumble play by allowing for a safe, yet heavy and challenging outlet.

My service uses a large triangle one often, and place a crash mat behind it. We encourage the children to take turns running and crashing into the triangle; pushing it over and landing on the mat. It is great fun, and a great way for children to get the required sensory input, whilst building core strength. We also have a large cylindrical tunnel, which children can push along, sit inside, or move around the yard.   

Involve children to help set boundaries and rules

To ensure a balance between the children's safety and their developmental needs for such play, it's essential to establish clear boundaries. Engaging the children in discussions about their safety during these activities is crucial for setting rules and ensuring their consent to participate. 

Open and closed-ended questioning will be your friend here, questions along the lines of: 

  • Are there any rules we need for when we play these kinds of games?  
  • Do you feel safe when people are tackling you and hit your head/grab your neck/are close to your eyes? 
  • Where in our yard do you think is safest to play those kinds of games? 
  • Is there anything in the room/shed/storeroom which would help you to feel safer when you’re playing those games? 


Here are some tips on how to confirm whether children are willing participants:

Educate on consent: Before play begins, explain to the children what consent means in the context of play. Discuss the importance of respecting each other’s personal space and choices. 

Implement verbal check-ins: Regularly ask children if they are comfortable and wish to continue. For example, phrases like "Is everyone still having fun?" or "Does anyone want to stop or change the game?" can be used. 

Use visual aids: For younger children, visual aids such as thumbs up/thumbs down or happy/sad face cards can help them communicate their consent or discomfort non-verbally. 

Role model: Demonstrate asking for consent and accepting responses through role-play.  

Establish safe words: Introduce a safe word or signal that all children can use to immediately pause play. Ensure that every child understands the importance of this word and how to respond when it's used. 


Here are some key indicators that playful aggression is occurring: 

Participants will be smiling or laughing. 

  • There is some structure to the play; turn taking, or communication about roles.
  • Restraint is used with the amount of force used.
  • If adult intervention is required, I will generally ask a question like “is everyone feeling safe over here?”, with the aim of prompting thinking about personal safety, without placing any restrictions on the play taking place.


Note: It is always a good idea to talk to parents and carers about the benefits of rough tumble play. Encourage families and children to work collaboratively with you and the service to develop this further. Some parents may initially be concerned if they aren’t aware of the benefits and how safety is supported. 

Other ideas for facilitating rough and tumble play: 

  • Boxing bag 
  • Chasing games/tip 
  • Tug of war 
  • Obstacle courses 
  • Animal role play 
  • Parachute games 
  • Soft block/pillow forts 
  • Spinning/dancing while holding hands 

Further reading: 

Understanding Rough and Tumble Play - Playvolution HQ
Movement Leading Learning by Meg Anastasi - Amplify! Blog, CELA
Boys and Rough-and-Tumble Play - First Five Years
Rough and Tumble Play: Essential for Development? - Rasmussen College
Love in Wrestling by Teacher Tom - Teacher Tom's Blog

CELA professional development relating to this topic: 

About Meg

Meg is an Early Childhood Teacher in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne on Wurundjeri land. She has worked across a range of settings throughout her decade of work in the early learning sector, and is now pursuing postgraduate study in adult education. Meg is very passionate about advocating for the early childhood profession in a way that both challenges and empowers educators.



Charli Leggett
Posted on 30 Apr, 2024
this reading gave me a better understanding and more information on how to support rough and tumble play
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