Did you rough play as a child? Cops and robbers? Cowboys and Indians? Did you jump from the couch and body slam your playmates like wrestlers on T.V.? Did you chase someone down with a water gun? Did you tie a cape around your neck as a superhero cape and run around like Batman, Superman, or Captain America?
I did. Matter of fact once on a 4th July I remember telling an officer that we did have guns during a check for fireworks. I am sure I even offered for him to play and somehow arrived to the explanation of having water guns. But to a child around age 6 or so that was my reality of guns, they sprayed water at people. My parents never seemed overly concerned; probably were the ones who bought them for us. I am not trying to down play the reality of guns. At some point I remember being told they were dangerous (I had heard the sounds of them go off in the distance as a child – whether during the night when living in the city or in the woods during hunting season) and only seeing one once when my father shot a rabid raccoon. But, somewhere along the lines I began to decipher the difference between gun play and the real deal. And maybe that is the problem nowadays. There is no more conversation, no more sorting out of things as a child. You just get the no, don’t, zero tolerance of it all. Kids are being sent home and punished for pop tart pistols and others are not realizing the danger and permanence of a shooting and going to school with guns and becoming young offenders, changing their own and others lives before they have even began. I don’t believe the world was that much less violent 25 or so years ago. I don’t think I was that much safer than children today. But, I did have the freedom to play and was given the chance to absorb knowledge on these topics in a child friendly way – and not only did I not turn out to be a violent offender, I turned out to be a teacher, a teacher that will probably never own or shoot a real gun.
Rough play was a part of my everyday childhood. Maybe it was because I grew up with mostly boys. For the first 10 years of my life I grew up in a fairly urban setting but most weekends were spent with family members in a rural area and I had the freedom to run about the fields and woods with whatever theme of play came to mind. I am not sure if any adult ever intervened in the play, told us it was too dangerous, told us we were being violent, or asked us to stop. At least I don’t recall. Matter of fact the only time I remember being told to stop is if we were inside the house and too close to knocking over the furniture or if I played the girl card and screamed out “he’s hurting my spleen! (not that I even knew where a spleen was)”. There was plenty of rough and tumble in my family and not one of us has grown to be a violent human being.
Don’t get me wrong. It alarms me when the children sniper shoot each other behind the rocks or they don’t read the social cue of someone being sad and continue to growl at them or push each other over. But, I wonder if we say zero room for rough play, if we don’t let them experience the difference of being the “bad guy” vs. the hero- then how will they know before it becomes real. Isn’t that what play is about: exploring the world and testing theories out, sorting the real from fantasy? When watching the children rough and tumble or entering their play it brings a whole new world to the forefront, an awareness of what their fears are, how media impacts them, and what they believe are their rights and weaknesses. Rough play may be scary but telling the children to bottle up their feelings and not explore the world seems even scarier to me. If we ask them to stop they hide it and what if they bottle up all the curiosity, wonder, misunderstanding until they are older – is that not how we give birth to school violence and bullying? I have to believe that there is value in this type of play. I have to believe that we are taking something away from children by not allowing them to engage in it at all. I am not saying to allow them to rough play without boundaries but just to say maybe it is not time to take the chance away from exploring who is the hero?
Maybe it is time to stop saying no and start saying how…
How can we allow rough and tumble in early childhood in a way that feels right for children, teachers, and parents? What ways do you allow children to explore war play or superhero play?
Every community and every child is unique so each plan for allowing rough and tumble play adapts to each community.
Take the first steps: play with them, examine your own feelings when the children engage in this play, experiment with how you support play (providing capes, pool noodles, plenty of space and extended outdoor time, or playing music to support role play or set a relaxed environment).
Sometimes it is about allowing the role-plays to occur naturally and only intervening when safety seems to be an issue or if another child is alarmed by it. Phrases like “I can not let you use the stick as a sword because I am afraid someone will get hurt, what can we use that is softer?” or “Are you OK if he pushes you?” are simple conversation openers to helping children problem solve rough play on their own terms.
I believe there are times around a younger audience that setting boundaries for the children may be necessary, “I see that Timothy looks scared so I am going to ask you to play something different right now” or “I noticed Bailey told you to stop shooting her but you didn’t listen to her words, I am going to ask you to not play guns until you are ready to listen to her”.
Other times it is just about letting the children design the rules and reflect upon their play, giving each child a time to have a voice. Sitting down and discussing or writing the rules together that are child created helps the children set their own guidelines and share what is comfortable or uncomfortable for each person. It also allows teachers to understand the play more deeply. Often when examining how the children navigate this play discoveries of their empathy, creativity, fears, and ability to engage in complex play are revealed.
So tie on your cape and grab your pool noodle!
Today might just be the day to let Superman fly through the classroom.
Some great online resources on rough and tumble/superhero play/war play: