Opinion: Make sure girls don't miss out on rough and tumble play

Rachna Joshi, Reception teacher and Carla Jones, EYFS lead, Hargrave Park Primary school
Thursday, March 11, 2021

Rough and tumble play is important for developing social and communication skills in young children. While it is more typically associated with boys, it’s important to ensure that girls have equal opportunities to enjoy the benefits of being boisterous and physical.

Girls like to express themselves through physical play.
Girls like to express themselves through physical play.

Alex Deverill at Harmony Neighbourhood Nursery


Carla Jones, EYFS lead

Rachna Joshi, Reception teacher

Physical play and wrestling can often be something where we can feel that girls are less interested. It can seem that boys are desperate to engage in rough and tumble to express themselves, and girls prefer to verbalise their feelings.

Research shows that rough and tumble play supports children’s development around communication, managing conflict and encouraging better communication. How can we ensure girls don’t miss out?

Gender imbalance
In 2018 we led a rough and tumble research project linked to the EYFS at our Islington primary school. The project looked at the children’s ability to manage their feelings and behaviour through physical play. The project included 12 children who were finding it difficult to manage physical games. Of these, 11 were boys and there was just one girl.

This disparity led us to consider the gender imbalance in relation to rough and tumble play, (you can hear us talking more about our research on the Tapestry/Foundation Stage Forum podcast).

When considering the gendered aspect of rough and tumble play it is important to clarify what we mean by gender. Are we defining girls as children who identify as female? Gender is not an either or option. For too long the world has looked to categorise children by their gendered play types through nursery rhymes, games, toys and labels  such as ‘tom boys’.

We also need to consider the impact of the media and our culturally accepted gender norms on children’s understanding of gender. This can still be seen by any visit to a children’s clothes shop.

As practitioners, we have a responsibility to consider the gendered perspective we bring to our practice. In a profession dominated by women we need to consider our role as female educators. How do we react to rough and tumble play? Do we discourage, redirect or engage alongside? During our research we observed that children interact differently when male educators are present.

There are a range of ways girls engage in rough and tumble play activities. The evidence shows it is closely linked to role-play and relationships, and can also include chasing games. The rough and tumble play that we were familiar with included fighting and wrestling, this led us to question whether we were narrowing our definition, and we have now begun to include role-play and chasing games when playing rough and tumble.

Through our small-scale, school-based work we have seen the positive impact offering rough and tumble play can have on the girls who are interested in taking part.

The children are more likely to assert themselves in different social situations and show more awareness of their physical abilities.

Interestingly, we’ve found girls are more ready to engage once they reach six or seven years. Overall our research has influenced how our setting views rough and tumble play and it is now a more acceptable way of playing and relating to each other for all children. 

Running and chasing
We need to consider the needs of the individual child and focus less on boys versus girls – all children benefit from engaging in exuberant, physical play. This can be observed in running and chasing games, superhero play or animal role play.

What’s vital is an understanding of each child and how, and when, they choose to play in these ways. This takes us back to one of the founding principles of the EYFS and the theme of the Unique Child. Our reaction as educators is crucial to our children’s exploration and enjoyment of rough and tumble play.

It’s vital we encourage reflective practice in our settings and that children who choose to play in this way are met with support. By doing so the educator sends a message to all children that they are in an environment where they can develop their own play without gendered constraints[1].

To find out more, listen to Rachna Joshi and Carla Jones discuss their research on the Tapestry/Foundation Stage Forum podcast here

Things to consider in encouraging girls to get involved in rough and tumble play

  • Observe any rough and tumble play girls are currently undertaking, such as chasing games or role-play
  • Teach about boundaries in rough and tumble play and encourage girls to talk and discuss rules like: 'When someone says ouch everybody stops to check they're okay’
  • Support girls to find an appropriate space and surface to safely try out rough and tumble play
  • Model additional movements and ideas, such as what is involved in rolling or tangling
  • Get involved in rough and tumble play where this seems appropriate and can encourage girls

To find out more, listen to Rachna Joshi and Carla Jones discuss their research on the Tapestry/Foundation Stage Forum podcast here

[1] Vasileva, 2018 - Educators role in supporting non-gendered play



Keep up to date with Early Years!

Sign up for our newsletter and keep up to date with Early Years education, process and events! We promise we won't spam you!