When The Tumbling Starts, Do You Stop It?

Usually my teaching partner, Paula, and I spread out around the classroom and outside working with groups of kids. Sometimes though we stand back, watch, and talk together. Our conversations are always about kids and pedagogy. These discussions that take place in the midst of students — with children all around us, but immersed in their own play — are sometimes some of our best ones. They are often the discussions where we pose questions and become engaged in those uncomfortable conversations that have us thinking. We had one of these conversations this week as we stood on top of the hill outside, and watched almost our entire class involved in rough and tumble play. It was this discussion that has me wondering, even days later. 

The play outside seemed very different today than it usually does. Maybe it was because the weather changed, and it was wet and cold. The kids couldn’t climb trees out in the forest, and they were looking for gross motor options to explore and to keep them warm. We watched a group of boys roll down a hill again and again, and pile on top of each other. While we tried to interrupt this play with a Rock, Paper, Scissors Tag Game that we taught them the day before, they still wanted to tackle each other as they played.

As this group of boys engaged in this way, we watched and wondered, should we stop the tumbling? Is this what they need? While we decided to stand back and observe, it wasn’t long before more and more children joined in. This play no longer involved tag, but was all about the “dog piling.” Initially, Paula and I were ready to go down and break up the play, but then we looked more closely. It wasn’t just the boys involved in this play. It was boys AND girls. This made us pause. 

  • All of the children were smiling.
  • They were laughing and squealing with joy.
  • Children were respectful of each other, and taking safe risks as they played.
  • Students that usually engage in parallel play were starting to socialize with each other. 
  • Different students interacted with each other through this play.
  • Kids moved freely in and out of this play: feeling as though they were welcome, but knowing that they were also respected if they chose to leave.

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It was really interesting to watch this today. @paulacrockett and I noticed a large group of kids interested in this rough and tumble play. It was both boys and girls: different than usual. Usually students settle in the forest, but some of these rough and tumble players would usually be climbing trees. @paulacrockett told them to watch their height in trees today because of the recent snow and ice, and slippery branches. Mrs. Crockett wondered if their play was disrupted because of the cold. Did this different play option meet their same need in a different way? Brooke did mention to Mrs. Crockett that she did this “because I was cold.” This warmed her up! While they were involved in more rough and tumble play, it was in a safer way. They were careful how hard they pushed, and even how they fell on each other. It was done mindfully. @paulacrockett and I struggled with this. How long do we let this happen? If/when do we interfere? Just getting closer to the play actually broke it up. But we think of this “Day of the Girl” Ted Talk that addresses this kind of play. The fact that it involved boys and girls, and equally and respectfully, changed this play for us. What do you do? How do you respond? Even the fact that this got some different kids involved in social play weighed on our decision. Sometimes it’s hard to decide what to do. SWIPE ⬅️ FOR MORE. #teachersofinstagram #ctinquiry #iteachk

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Paula and I stood on the top of the hill completely taken by this respectful rough and tumble play experience. We’ve stopped similar experiences in the past, but it was the diversity of students involved that had us reconsidering this time. We couldn’t help but think about this TED Talk by Caroline Paul.

Outside on this chilly day, were girls excited to engage in the play that we usually see the most in boys. We have a lot of girls that love to climb trees, but this is often where the adventure ends. Jumping in on something that may lead to some scraped knees, falling down, and getting back up again, is so wonderful to see, and it’s not something that we want to stop. Maybe this even gave us a little more appreciation for this same type of play that many of our boys are eager to engage in.

I can’t help but think about this great blog post by Lisa Cranston. Out in the forest on Thursday, we saw our girls participating in this type of risky, physical play, that they often do through their tree climbing (or even some snowball climbing), but were now doing so in another space and way. 

When, how, and why do girls disengage in this type of play? Should we be stopping all risky and/or rough and tumble play or responding differently? A few days ago, Paula and I stood on top of a hill contemplating this last question. Eventually Paula started walking down the hill, and this was all that it took to have the kids spread out. I know — and understand — why schools have “no fighting” rules, but is this play actually “fighting?” By stopping it, are we putting an end to something that benefits kids? We continue to wonder if this rough and tumble play can have a place in schools, and what this place might be. What do you think?


4 thoughts on “When The Tumbling Starts, Do You Stop It?

  1. Many grade 1 & 2 students still seek this type of play! I think they are looking for proprioceptive input, and trying to figure out some spatial things. My students who have the most trouble with knowing where they are in relation to others seem to seek it the most. Alas, in a “hands off” school we must worry about getting hurt. Maybe I should go make a giant snowball for them to climb. Might be a worthwhile Sunday afternoon activity. 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment, Lisa! It sounds like there may be a reason for this kind of play — and a good reason at that. If so, I wonder if there’s a way around it, even with a “hands off” policy at school. Climbing the giant snowball could be a good alternative, but does it provide the same kind of feeling? I think that this play worked where it did because of the space we had for them to play. There was enough room that we didn’t have to worry as much about kids getting hurt. Students can get hurt in a variety of ways, and sometimes it’s also knowing the kids to know how careful they will be as they pile on top of each other. Even as kids seemed to pair off, they really considered their partner and his/her needs. I’m not sure that this same kind of play would have been as effective at a recess time with many more students out there and less room for it. I wonder though if there could be an area for this kind of play at recess, or even just an area for some bigger gross motor play, which might help those kids that we’re constantly saying, “no,” to as they attempt to engage in it anyway. Sometimes there are exceptions to rules. Could this be one of those times? Is this even something feasible to explore considering the number of kids and the area over a recess time? Thankfully our kindergarteners do not go out for recess, so at least for this year, we can explore some other options during instructional time.


  2. Hi Aviva,
    This is quite a post and a very interesting topic. Types of play, channeling energy, exploring boundaries… an opportunity to observe the children as they navigate the complexities of interaction. It’s a pity in many ways that school subtracts some types of play simply because of the numbers of children involved and the potential for injury. However, navigating the range of behaviours that can be enjoyed in different social settings is just another part of growing up. I’m left wondering if this type of play becomes a problem if it was exhibited by slightly older kids, or if more children were added to the group? So how do these children know when this type of play is allowed and when is it not – how do they self regulate, or are they a bit young for that yet? I must admit that when my son was younger and involved in “rough housing”, it too often ended in tears and I became known for “Mucking around is when accidents happen!” …not that I wasn’t completely ignored!
    Deb Hogg (Sydney, Australia)

    • Thanks for your comment, Deb! My teaching partner, Paula, and I continue to explore the questions/wonders that you asked. I don’t know if there are any easy answers, or if part comes down to knowing our learners. We had one child involved that we knew could find this hard. We watched this interaction closely. Our plan was to intervene, if needed, and try to redirect to another activity option before problems arose. We didn’t need to worry though. A child that could interact with this other child well, paired up with him and supported him, so that he could be involved. He kind of co-regulated him.

      Many of our kids are between self-regulation and co-regulation. A few knew when they had enough, and pulled out to go and play elsewhere. Others we co-regulated by going down the hill. That pulled many kids out and onto something else. It was like the direct adult presence changed things. I wonder though if the more that kids get involved in this kind of play, the better they are at figuring out when enough is enough. Is this a “learning by doing” situation?

      It might have been different with older kids. I wonder if the amount of space made an even bigger difference. Then kids could play in smaller groups and with more room. Or does both space and age make a difference? I’m not sure. What do you think?


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