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The science behind play-fighting—and why it’s not all bad

Commence bear cub-wrestling!

The science behind play-fighting—and why it’s not all bad

It’s understandable why some parents are eschewing all forms of play-fighting—toys guns, swords or even wrestling—in today’s world. The news out there can be scary (and a little depressing) and we want to ensure our kids are safe.


As a mom of two young boys, I deal with these issues on a daily basis. We have so many Nerf darts in our house that I’m tempted to make them part of the decorating scheme. My boys can wrestle, sword fight and play cops-and-robbers with the best of them. I admit, at times, I cringe a little when they start these games.

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However, will banning all forms of play aggression really make our world a safer place in the future? Is there any link between kids’ play and real-life aggression?

What the research tells us

Luckily, we have quite a bit of research to pull from to shed light on the function of play-fighting in children’s development.

Play-fighting is one type of play categorized under socio-dramatic play, in which kids act out roles or ideas that exist in the adult world. We see this commonly as pretend play in which kids act as “mommy,” “daddy,” “baby,” or “teacher.”

This type of play is crucial to young kids as it helps them understand their place in the world, boundaries and social interactions.

Play-fighting, then, is simply an extension of this type of socio-dramatic play. Even with no exposure to TV shows, guns or any real-life violence, most kids will participate in play-fighting at some point. This gives us one indication that this type of play must serve some function, since it is almost universally seen in kids worldwide.

Lab research on animals illustrates that this type of play fills a crucial function in helping youngsters learn social interactions, track body movements and communicate with pack-mates. In humans, the benefits are similar.

By engaging in play-fighting or rough-and-tumble play, children gain valuable skills in social negotiation, boundaries, language skills and reading facial expressions.

Equally importantly, play-fighting provides kids with a way to act out their fears. Although we might not think of it much as adults, kids have very little control over many aspects of their lives.

Setting clear boundaries in playtime about who is the “bad guy” and the “good guy” helps kids work out these roles and ideas in real life. Playing with pretend guns or superhero play may help them garner a sense of control that they do not have in the real world.

If you watch kids play closely, you will notice that they are regulating themselves and know when the play has gone too far and will stop, many times even without the intervention of an adult. This is key because what they are doing is actually building the skills and brain structure needed to empathize with others.

It takes practice for kids to learn how to read complex facial expressions, to put themselves in ‘another person’s shoes’ and know when to keep playing or when to pull back.

When play-fighting goes too far

We have all seen instances where kids’ play fighting goes too far—someone gets an elbow to the face or hurt feelings. As kids are learning to assess boundaries with others, some real injury may occasionally occur. Child development experts report that this only occurs in about 1% of play-fighting interactions.

However, there are a few key distinctions that should be made as we watch our kids play-fighting with others. One is the important difference between play-fighting and real aggression.

Researchers point out that the key difference here is that play-fighting is always cooperative role-playing that involves make-believe themes of aggression, but there is no real intention to harm (either emotionally or physically).

As with most any play, kids still need supervision from adults. If parents see real aggression start to emerge, then hands-on guidance is necessary. Additionally, clear rules might need to be set in advance to prevent real-life injury.

With older kids, however, they might be able to negotiate rules themselves—and this, after all, is part of the skill-building part of play-fighting.

A world without play

Even with all this research, some of us may wonder why play-fighting is really necessary. Can’t kids learn these skills in another, less aggressive way? Well, this is a complex question, but we do have some insight into this from leading play researcher Stuart Brown.

After studying the childhoods and psychological profiles of hundreds of criminals (primarily those convicted of murder), the one theme his team consistently saw was a lack of free play in childhood—particularly rough-and-tumble play.

None of the criminals he studied had a childhood that included normal rough-and-tumble play. This could be for a variety of reasons, including overbearing parents or some form of neglect, but the pattern still remains:

Although this play-fighting may seem unnecessary to adults, it’s really an important testing ground for kids still learning empathy and the ins and outs of social interaction.

So the next time your kids start to tackle each other or pull out the toy swords, you might feel a little better knowing that they are really just doing what kids do best—learning about their world by playing and testing out roles.

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