It is a topic that we address each year, and each year is so important to address. Rough play, horseplay, roughhousing – it’s something all little animals do as a part of their development and human children are no exception. Children learn physical skills from this play including controlling muscle movements, they learn social and emotional skills including consent, and they learn language skills through verbal and non-verbal communication. We want to foster this play but we had also noticed we’d been intervening a lot with big-body play over the past month that was not consensual. We sometimes see children invite someone in to their game by ‘trapping’ them, roaring at them, or pointing a stick at them. This can feel quite threatening to the children being summoned to the game they weren’t already playing and may not want to. We have been having many conversations about how to invite a friend to play, how to get someone’s attention, and making sure you have consent. We want to help nurture this rough play by helping the children find how to do this in a healthy way.
Outside the children run and chase, climb and jump, and roar their loudest roars. This big body play has it’s space and time, and at Tulip Tree we like to give a lot of space and time to honor this kind of play. But when we are inside our cozy classroom, big body movements can be trickier to honor. So what’s a school to do? Well at our school we have a designated safe space for this kind of play- the wrestling mat.
We started to get out our wrestling mat this week to help the children create boundaries and consent in their rough play. We have agreements to use this space including: Only 1 or 2 children at a time, stay on the mat and everyone else stay back, and listen to your partner. The children also help create their own agreements. Some children do not want to wrestle and would like to use that space for tumbling, and some others might want to try to knock each other over. A teacher sets a timer (as there are always others waiting for a turn), and stays to supervise and also intervene when necessary.
One 2005 study suggested that “In appropriate rough play, children’s faces are free and easy, their muscle tone is relaxed, and they are usually smiling and laughing. In real fighting, the facial movements are rigid, controlled, stressed, and the jaw is usually clenched.” (Fry, 2005) We look for these non-verbal cues and help the children put words to this play to stop anything that is not enjoyable (or perhaps no longer enjoyable). We of course want them to be safe with one another while still taking healthy risks. Being able to say “stop!”, and being able to control yourself to stop when a person asks this of you is a big lesson of this age. The children are putting some big social skills, language skills, listening skills, and of course physical skills to the test on the wrestling mat!
Fry, D. 2005. “Rough and Tumble Social Play in Humans.” In The Nature of Play: Great Apes and Humans, eds A.D. Pellegrini & P.K. Smith