Monday, April 15, 2024

Play Fighting

Like many modern parents, I'd not spent a lot of time around young children, as an adult, until our daughter was born. When she was two, we enrolled in a cooperative preschool, which for those who don't know, is a model in which parents attend alongside their children and serve as assistant teachers. This was my introduction, or re-introduction, to early childhood.

Of course, I had memories of my own childhood, but precious few, if any, from before I was four or five. So, when I remembered childhood, it was from the perspective of an older child, and many of those memories involved rough housing, or what we professionally call rough-and-tumble play.

My brother is only 20 months younger than me. Many of my childhood memories involve the two of us engaged in some version of play fighting. There was some real fighting too, but most of it was of the mutually agreed upon sort in which our physical competition was balanced over a fulcrum of cooperation.

For instance, since I was bigger and older, I tended to dominate when it came to traditional wrestling, so we came up with a version we called "kicky fight," in which we would lie on our backs and wildly kick at one another's legs. Often, when I would begin to overwhelm my younger brother, he would fall back into kicky fight mode, while I self-handicapped by trying to fight through his whirlwind of legs with my arms. One time he kicked out one of my teeth. But that was an accident, one that ended the play instantly. Hitting, or kicking, anything other than appendages, wasn't part of play fighting because the goal was not to hurt one another, but rather to, well, have fun.

Mom didn't intervene in our play fighting, other than to occasionally tell us to "keep it down." She insisted that if either of us got hurt we were to leave her out of it, although on those rare occasions when one of us did suffer pain, she was there to attend to us with minimal scolding. She had grown up with older brothers, so I imagine that's why she understood about play fighting.

There was very little play fighting at our cooperative preschool, or rather, whenever it erupted, the moment it erupted, an adult would step in to scuttle it. "No wrestling," we would say, or, "No fighting." It didn't strike me as particularly odd at the time. Of course, we don't want the kids fighting -- even play fighting. When, a few years later, I found myself as teacher of my own preschool class, I automatically carried on with "no fighting," although I'd learned to say it without the language of command, by making what I considered at the time to be a statement of fact, "Now is not the time for wrestling."

Whenever children began rolling around together, I'd say, "Now is not the time for wrestling," until one day a boy asked me in all eagerness, "When is wrestling time?" That's when it finally dawned on me that for some of these kids, especially those without siblings, it was never time for wrestling. 

Among the animals that play, and that includes all the mammals, birds, and reptiles ever studied and even some fish and insects, play fighting is the most common form of play. This should tell us something important about play fighting. There is no way that this particular behavior would be so universal if it wasn't an important adaptive trait. Indeed, play fighting's prevalence tells us that it has been evolutionarily selected as a behavior that supports survival and reproduction, yet here we are as early childhood educators systematically telling our young: "No fighting."

In his book Kingdom of Play, science journalist David Toomey writes: "Researchers have given little attention to a specific kind of rough-and-tumble play: play fighting . . . many recent textbooks on child development neglect the behavior, despite that it may represent nearly 20 percent of spontaneous play in school playgrounds, it seems remarkably similar across cultures, and so far as anyone can judge, it has changed little throughout history."

Cognitive psychologist Jaak Panksepp once conducted an experiment in which he showed adults video of rats engaged in play fighting. The adults all identified what they saw as real fighting. He then showed the video to four to seven-year-olds. They all accurately identified what they were looking at as "play." In other words, for whatever reason, adults in our society seem to be ill-equipped to understand and identify this sort of evolutionarily essential behavior for what it is. When I think back to my mother's attitude toward my own play fighting, I think I see an adult who was better able to see it. 

Where did we lose our ability to identify this kind of play? Is it because we've become so anti-violence that we see it even where it doesn't exist? Are we so worried about injury that we quash what appears to be a foundational behavior? Is it liability? Or are we just so concerned with controlling children that we simply cannot allow this rowdy, seemingly chaotic, behavior to exist?

I say "seemingly chaotic" because, as Toomey points out, those who have researched play fighting in animals find that there are indeed rules, often well-defined and ordered, "yet any play fighting may have moments during which one or both participants are uncertain of the other's intentions. These moments give both animals opportunities to practice theory of mind, to negotiate and to develop skills in general social competence and social assessment, skills necessary to forestall the escalation of actual fights and to avoid them to begin with." We've not done the requisite research into human play fighting, and we need to, but I think it's safe to say that what goes for our animal cousins, likewise goes for us. 

Toomey writes, "Although rough-and-tumble play can cause injury, it may endow the brain with a means to keep emotions in check. Play fighting in particular may provide training for the unexpected, and necessary practice in social skills. Children denied the opportunity to engage in play fighting may become adults deficient in the ability to emphasize, with little skill in negotiation and no notion of ambiguity. One can't help but wonder, Is it possible that some members of this generation of adults, politically polarized, with no ability to listen, let alone compromise, are this way because they did not play fight as children?"

Most importantly, however, is that those who have studied play fighting find that while animals are certainly competing, they are also cooperating. As Toomey puts it, "Play employs both competition and cooperation and holds them in a dynamic equilibrium." In this way, he says, play is like natural selection itself. "While natural selection certainly selects for better competitors . . . it also select for better cooperators." It's not a stretch to conclude that this is why play fighting is the most common, and therefore adaptive, type of play there is.

When I realized that for many of the children in my care it was never time to wrestle, I didn't have the benefit of knowing the research. I'd not thought of evolution or adaptive traits or the universality of play fighting. I only knew that play fighting was something good from my own childhood and I knew that it would be good for these kids. So I introduced "wrestling time" to our curriculum, which I've written about several times on this blog, including here.

Whenever we throw down the gym mats to wrestle, there is always a moment when I worry that it will all go wrong. That this time it will turn into violence or someone will be seriously injured or it will all spin out of control. But aside from the occasional bump or bruise, it never does because, as when my brother and I play fought, competition is always, beautifully, balanced over a fulcrum of cooperation, which is, at the end of the day, evolution at work.


Hi, I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast! If you're an early childhood educator, parent of preschoolers, or otherwise have young children in your life, I think you'll find my conversations with early childhood experts and thought-leaders useful, inspiring, and eye-opening. You might even come away transformed by the ideas and perspectives we share. Please give us a listen. You can find Teacher Tom's Podcast on the Mirasee FM Podcast Network or anywhere you download your podcasts.

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