Introducing rough and tumble play into Reception

Written by: Rachna Joshi & Carla Jones | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Tug of war, tangling, tickling, leapfrog – rough and tumble play is a normal feature of childhood and part of child development – and yet there are understandable reservations about introducing it as part of Reception provision. Teacher Rachna Joshi and EYFS lead Carla Jones advise

“I love this idea but I’d never be allowed to do this in my setting.”

This has been a common reaction when we have shared our work on rough and tumble play with teachers in other schools. Rough and tumble play is a very normal part of everyday home life, but there is often a perception that it can encourage aggression or violence.

Hughes (2002) defines rough and tumble play as: “Close encounter play which is less to do with fighting and more to do with gauging relative strength.”

A variety of research discusses the difference between aggression and rough and tumble play, maintaining that the intent of the children engaging in this play is crucial.

In 2017, we took part in a research project with Early Excellence. The brief was to design an action research question for the children in our setting. We recognised the need for a re-evaluation of rough and tumble play in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). We wanted to ascertain whether rough and tumble play had a positive impact on children’s ability to manage their feelings and behaviour. The children were engaging in this type of play and we were keen to understand what it meant and why they needed it.

Our context

Hargrave Park is a 1.5-form entry primary school in Islington, north London. Our experience working in Reception and early years was that children wanted to interact using body movements as a way of communicating with their peers. However, this often resulted in disagreements and fights because children were struggling with the nuance of negotiating these social situations.

The children needed adult support to solve the problems they were experiencing. This signalled to us that this was an area where supportive teaching was needed. We also noted that it became more challenging for children learning English as an additional language, or for less confident verbal communicators.

Our research project

We identified 12 children from our Nursery and Reception classes who were finding it difficult to manage physical games. We were concerned that an inability to regulate these feelings and behaviours would prevent these children from developing positive relationships.

Our next step was to seek consent from families. We were apprehensive about this but the parents and carers recognised this behaviour in their children and were very supportive.

The children selected were predominantly boys with just one girl. This caused us to consider the media influence on boys’ play and the impact of gendered television and characters, as well as our own gender views and implicit bias.

We had also noted how male teachers would regularly engage in physical play with the children. As female teachers we were keen to model being involved in rough and tumble play, too.

Undertaking the research

The research intervention took place in the school day outside the classroom over seven weeks with three 10-minute sessions each week. We shared the responsibility for the sessions between three members of staff which helped with resourcing and finding available space for the sessions to run.

We kept a clear communication channel, by email thread, detailing what had worked and what should be continued, and reinforced, in the next sessions. This helped all staff to maintain a consistent approach.

We worked hard to be flexible and tried to time sessions to pre-empt behaviour at challenging times, for example, when children are most tired at the end of the day or week.

We established clear expectations for rough and tumble play with all the children, which was “look, listen, think and talk”. We shared this with the children before each session.

The project gave children the opportunity to experiment and express these behaviours and allowed us to explicitly teach the boundaries to rough and tumble play. The intervention reinforced and reminded children that this type of play is fun and enjoyable.

We used a range of activities in the intervention. These came from Helen Tovey’s research (2007) and included:

  • Tangling.
  • Playing leapfrog.
  • Tickling.
  • Playing “row, row your boat”.
  • Tug of war.
  • Pencil rolls (with arms outstretched above head).
  • Chasing each other up the stairs.
  • Jam sandwich (when one child lies on the bottom and up to two other children slowly pile on top).

The aim of the intervention was to practise the movements and exercises without aggression. One of the most important things we wanted to teach the children was how to stop straight away when anyone vocalised unhappiness or expressed pain. If someone said “ouch” or signalled pain, the activity stopped.

The children really improved their social understanding, using facial expressions and language that was taught to help them navigate the physical play.

The children were always asked if they wanted to take part in the rough and tumble play, and there was no obligation for them to do so. This has led us to consider consent more widely and the opportunities we offer children in our setting to give their consent.

As a result of the research intervention, we observed the children playing independently without aggression or difficulty and managing their social situation. The children showed improvement in their assessment for managing feelings and behaviour, and their levels of wellbeing and involvement improved (using the Leuven Scale).

Rolling out

Sharing the results of the research with the EYFS team was crucial to its success. Empowering all staff to reflect on the behaviour and play of the children in their care was very important and vital to our early years practice.

Interestingly, without the research intervention, rough and tumble behaviour could easily have been quashed in our setting, instead the research gave everyone the opportunity to reconsider its role.

Since the original intervention in 2017 we have incorporated these activities into our PE lessons and actively teach the skills needed for rough and tumble play to all children. We have seen a significant development in children playing physically, utilising gross motor skills and managing social interactions without the need for adult intervention.

Carla is now working in key stage 1 and has seen the impact of continuing this practice where it is being worked on as “Big Body Play”.

Introducing rough and tumble play

We would encourage you to have a go at introducing rough and tumble play into your Reception class. You can hear us talking more about our research on the recent Tapestry/Foundation Stage Forum podcast (see further information), where we gave some useful tips. Here are some of the things you should consider:

Get staff on board

  • Share the vision with all staff and explain what you want to do and why it is important.
  • Establish when rough and tumble would work well within the timetable.
  • Ensure all staff are trained.

Undertake careful planning

  • Plan where sessions will take place.
  • Have a back-up plan in case the space is occupied.
  • Talk to parents and carers and ensure they are on board.
  • Think about the “what ifs” and have plans in place to deal with unexpected things.

Running the sessions

  • Take turns and share responsibility with other staff to run sessions.
  • Explain the purpose of each session clearly so that those involved have a good understanding.
  • Think about your strategy for children who are unable to manage the session and are disrupting other children (e.g. a two-minute break).
  • Communicate with staff after their sessions, in conversation or by email, and create a dialogue to reflect on learnings and observations.

Working with the children

  • Establish clear ground rules before beginning your first session and recap these at the beginning of every session.
  • Establish clear boundaries and do not forget to include physical boundaries.
  • Ensure the activities are posing the right level of challenge and managed risk.
  • Ensure the behaviours you want to see are encouraged and reinforced.
  • Make it a fun and positive experience.


One of the most important factors in this reflection of play and practice was the support of the senior leadership team. Consider how this is “pitched” and what value and impact you think it will have on your cohort. You may also want to consider how this fits with the school’s vision and goals as well as in behaviour policies and what might need adapting.

Since completing our research we are really pleased to see the conversation regarding rough and tumble play develop so positively. It has even been added to the types of play listed in the second draft of Birth to Five Matters.

The response it has received shows that professionals recognise its importance and we feel strongly that more children would benefit from a reconsideration of rough and tumble play.

  • Rachna Joshi is a Reception teacher and Carla Jones the EYFS lead at Hargrave Park Primary School in London. Listen to Rachna Joshi and Carla Jones discuss their research on the Tapestry/Foundation Stage Forum podcast. Listen here:

Further information & resources

  • Birth to Five Matters:
  • Hughes: A Playworkers Taxonomy of Play Types, Playlink, 2002.
  • Tovey: Playing Outdoors, McGraw Hill, 2007.

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