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On the Child’s Right to Play Fight

Publié le 1 septembre, 2008 | Pas de commentaires

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Play fighting is very common in young children and research suggests there might even be benefits to play fighting for early child development. Even though play fighting resembles real fighting and its roughness is often perceived by adults as problematic, recent findings have us to reconsider whether it is really as bad as it may seem.

Happy Child
Tristram Brelstaff, Happy Child, 2006
Certains droits réservés.

When we were young, we spent significant amount of time playing whenever and whatever we could. However, why do we need teachers’ and ancillary staff’s supervision while playing in the school playground? Is playing becoming dangerous? Or, is it that adults perceive child’s play differently ?

Play fighting is a dimension of social play that resembles real fighting, but differs in its intensity and tenor. It has been widely studied both in human and animal species (1, 2). The most common form of play in animals is play fighting (3). Even in humans, young children spend 5% to 10% of their total play time engaging in such an activity (4). It appears as early as toddlerhood, then ceases during adolescence (2).

Play fighting behaviours in children generally involve pouncing, pushing, swatting, kicking, holding, pulling, wrestling, pinning, tripping, tackling and chasing (2). Dr. Owen F. Aldis, a behavioural psychologist, identified the two most prevalent forms of play fighting in children: wrestling for superior position and fragmentary wrestling (5). During wrestling for superior position, one child makes strenuous effort to get on top or hold down another child. During fragmentary wrestling, pushing, pulling and grapping predominate, but there is no attempt by either child to achieve superior position. Though play fighting in children resembles aggression, it lacks the intensity of earnest fighting.

During the play episodes, the attacking child might put himself or herself in a vulnerable position leading to a role reversal that allows the initial defending child to commence a counterattack. This is called self-handicapping. Throughout the bouts of play, the roles of attacker and defender alternate frequently. However, role reversal and self-handicapping are rarely seen during real fighting. Another observable distinction between play and real fighting in children is the positive affect (e.g., smiling and laughing) exhibited by players during the former.

Functions of Play FightingMany possible functions of play fighting in children have been discussed in the literature (2). Some researchers propose that play fighting in children might be beneficial for motor skill training (2, 5). Other researchers suggest its important function is in children’s socialization with peers. Thomas Power is a leading expert on children’s and animals’ play behaviours, and in his review on functions of play fighting, he points out that it could establish and reaffirm social relationships with peers (2). He also indicates that play fighting could facilitate social communication and develop negotiation and conflict resolution skills because of the constant episodes of role reversal and self handicapping during the ritual. Furthermore, Pelligrini’s study on this subject also suggests that children’s play fighting behaviours are positively associated with their social problem solving skills (6). Thus, accompanied with smiling and laughing, this ritual provides opportunities for children not only to improve their motor skills, but also to develop much needed communication skills with peers.

Perceptions of Play Fighting Behaviours
In the eyes of scientists, the above findings reveal that play fighting could benefit the development of children in their everyday interactions with peers. In various qualitative studies, positive affect and fun are the key descriptors rated by children (7). While children consider play fighting to be a fun and beneficial activity, teachers have a very different view on the matter. In a study that interviewed both teachers and students about their perceptions of play fighting, many teachers viewed it in a negative way (8). More than one-third of the teachers saw no benefit at all in it and only 19% considered it might provide a useful experience. Nearly half of the teachers reported that they had difficulties in distinguishing play from real serious fighting.

Conceivably, it is the confusion between the two, and their potential costs of (e.g., injuries) that lead to teachers’ difficulties in recognizing the potential benefits of play fighting. However, teachers’ concern for the safety issues is not supported by observational studies. Thomas Reed conducted a field study on seven boys’ play fighting behaviours over a five-day period (7). He found that the concern from teachers about the roughness and potential injuries in play fighting was not supported by his data. In the 119 episodes identified, only one real injury occurred and this injury was not caused by the roughness of the play or by the aggressiveness of the players. The child accidentally twisted his ankle while running, and interestingly, “false injuries” such as this were often followed by caring expressions among players. For example, if one player fell down accidentally during the play, the other players would show immediate care (e.g., helped the player to get up) toward the “falsely injured” player. In reality, play fighting seems to be a low risk activity and the caring expressions exhibited among players during “false injury” incidents could in fact promote positive interactions among them.A more recent study by Pam Jarvis provides another possible explanation for teachers’ misconception on children’s rough and tumble play (9). Teachers reported during interviews that they were preoccupied by various problematic situations on the playground. They barely had time to notice what exactly children were playing. Their focus was on solving and preventing problems. Hence, the roughness of play is perceived by teachers and playground supervisors as potential problems. However, the potential benefits, such as conflict resolution training and motor skills training, are overlooked by many teachers.

It appears that play fighting could be beneficial for fine tuning motor skills and for facilitating communication and problem solving skills among peers. However, the misperceptions of play fighting from teachers’ reports should be taken into serious consideration in policy making. Mere suppression of play fighting in schools will not yield favourable outcomes. Being overly concerned with any signs of physical play in the playground will not help teachers and supervisors to prevent playground aggression and victimization. Basic trainings on play fighting behaviours for teachers should improve their ability to distinguish real fighting from play in order to properly and efficiently prevent aggression. Moreover, most of the research on the matter has been conducted in school playgrounds. Limited research was done examining play fighting between parents and children or among siblings. Future research should also investigate the perception of play fighting from the view point of parents and siblings.


(1) Pellis, Sergio M., and Vivien C. Pellis. « Play and the Development of Social Engagement: A Comparative Perspective. » The Development of Social Engagement: Neurobiological Perspectives. Ed. Peter J. Marshall and Nathan A. Fox. New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press, 2006. 247-274.
(2) Power, Thomas G. Play and Exploration in Children and Animals. Mahwah, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, 2000.
(3) Pellis, Sergio M., and Vivien C. Pellis. « Play Fighting of Rats in Comparative Perspective: A Schema for Neurobehavioral Analyses. » Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 23.1 (1998): 87-101.
(4) Bjorklund, David F., and Anthony D. Pellegrini. « Evolutionary Developmental Psychology. » The Origins of Human Nature: Evolutionary Developmental Psychology. Ed. David F. Bjorklund and Anthony D. Pellegrini. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association, 2002. 3-10.
(5) Aldis, Owen F. Play Fighting. New York: Academic Press, 1975.
(6) Pellegrini, A. D. « Elementary-School Children’s Rough-and-Tumble Play and Social Competence. » Developmental psychology 24.6 (1988): 802-6.
(7) Reed, Thomas L. « A Qualitative Approach to Boys’ Rough and Tumble Play: There is More than what Meets the Eye. » Play: An Interdisciplinary Synthesis. Ed. F. F. McMahon, Donald E. Lytle, and Brian Sutton-Smith. Lanham, MD, US: University Press of America, 2005. 53-71.
(8) Smith, Peter K., et al. « Comparing Pupil and Teacher Perceptions for Playful Fighting, Serious Fighting, and Positive Peer Interaction. » Conceptual, Social-Cognitive, and Contextual Issues in the Fields of Play. Ed. Jaipaul L. Roopnarine. Westport, CT, US: Ablex Publishing, 2002. 235-245.
(9) Jarvis, Pam. « Dangerous Activities within an Invisible Playground: A Study of Emergent Male Football Play and Teachers’ Perspectives of Outdoor Free Play in the Early Years of Primary School. » International Journal of Early Years Education 15.3 (2007): 245-59.

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