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The difference between rough and tumble play and bullying: guidance for teachers, residential staff, and foster carers

Play is a fundamental aspect of a child’s development, encompassing physical, social, cognitive, and emotional growth. Rough-and-tumble play and bullying are two types of play that often raise concerns among educators and parents. Although both involve physical interactions, it is crucial to discern their distinctions. This article explores the differences between rough-and-tumble play and bullying, emphasizing their characteristics and impacts on children. Additionally, guidance will be provided for teachers to effectively support and manage these types of play in educational settings.

The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct – Carl Jung

Rough and Tumble Play

Rough and tumble play is a form of physical play involving active engagement, typically among peers of similar age and size. It is spontaneous, voluntary, and usually occurs in a friendly and non-threatening manner. This form of play enables children to develop various skills, including physical coordination, self-regulation, emotional awareness, and social competence.

Rough and Tumble Play Characteristics

Rough and tumble play exhibits certain key features:

  • Firstly, it involves voluntary participation, with all participants willingly engaging in the play. It is typically initiated through mutual agreement, ensuring all children involved are willing participants.
  • Secondly, there is reciprocity in this type of play. Children take turns being the “aggressor, villain, hero with more powers,” and the “victim” in a playful situation where neither child is being harmed or ‘dominated.’ This play helps develop and understand boundaries, empathy, and negotiation skills.
  • Thirdly, rough-and-tumble play is characterized by playful intent. Children involved in this type of play usually display positive emotions, laughter, and smiles (note there will be no signs of distress during this type of play).
  • Lastly, it enhances physical skills, allowing children to develop physical coordination, balance, spatial awareness, and motor skills. It enables them to explore their physical boundaries in a safe and controlled environment.

Positive Effects of Rough and Tumble Play

Rough and tumble play has several positive effects on children’s development. Firstly, it fosters social development by promoting cooperation, turn-taking, negotiation, and empathy. Through this type of play, children understand and respect the boundaries of others while learning to assert their own. Secondly, rough-and-tumble play contributes to emotional regulation by allowing children to appropriately release pent-up energy and emotions without any harm being caused to either child.

Rough and tumble play can, as highlighted, can be very enjoyable for children. In their early years, we will see them often re-enacting scenes from TV shows or their favourite superheroes. There is, though usually, a lot of confusion over how best to handle play fighting and whether or not it should be allowed within the early years.

This type of play can often start with friendly games and interactions; however, it can often lead to children getting too carried away in their play and hurting one another, sometimes accidentally, sometimes on purpose.

Play cannot be ‘fighting’. To state the obvious; in supporting children, we must provide children with clear rules and boundaries for their play, such as they must have ‘kind hands and feet’ and there is nothing hurtful to happen. Play activities of children must be closely monitored, and prompt intervention and reinforcement when things begin to shift (we will see this in the non-verbal behaviour of the children, laughter disappears, and seriousness prevails).


Bullying, in contrast, involves repetitive aggressive behaviour intended to harm or intimidate others. It is characterized by an imbalance of power, where one or more individuals exert control over another person. Bullying can manifest in various forms, including physical, verbal, social, and cyberbullying.

Bullying Characteristics

Bullying exhibits distinct characteristics that set it apart from rough-and-tumble play:

  • Firstly, bullying involves an imbalance of power. The aggressor(s) intentionally and repeatedly target a victim who cannot defend themselves adequately.
  • Secondly, there is an intention to harm in bullying situations. Unlike rough-and-tumble play, bullying can be driven by the desire to cause the victim distress, harm, or humiliation. Helping the child who may bully is equally important in terms of understanding the need this fulfills; many children I have supported have not wanted to be back in the position of the victim again and have sadly identified with the aggressor. The good thing is such dynamics are identified; it leads to helping the child and working towards a cessation of such behaviour, which can lead to challenges and difficulties throughout childhood and adolescence. Such play is not consensual and often involves an element of fear or intimidation.
  • Thirdly, bullying lacks reciprocity. It is one-sided, with the aggressor(s) dominating and controlling the victim. There is no mutual agreement or shared enjoyment.
  • Lastly, bullying has negative emotional impacts on victims, including anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and academic difficulties. It can have long-lasting effects on their overall well-being. Negative effects of bullying Bullying has detrimental effects on children’s well-being and development. Victims of bullying often experience long-term emotional and psychological distress. It can lead to feelings of fear, anxiety, depression, and a diminished sense of self-worth. Bullying can also impact academic performance, as the stress and emotional turmoil caused by bullying can make it challenging for victims to concentrate, leading to decreased motivation, lower grades, and even school avoidance.
  • Additionally, bullying can have physical health implications, such as sleep disturbances, loss of appetite, headaches, stomach-aches, and other stress-related symptoms.

Guidance for teachers, foster carers, and residential staff

  1. Differentiate between Rough and Tumble Play and Bullying: We can clearly understand the characteristics and distinctions between rough-and-tumble play and bullying. By observing the interactions and dynamics among children, we can identify whether the play is consensual, reciprocal, and friendly or if it involves an imbalance of power and intentional harm.
  2. Create a Safe and Inclusive Environment: Whether in the classroom or home environment, we maintain a culture that promotes respect, empathy, and positive social interactions—fostering a culture of inclusivity where children feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and emotions and where bullying is not tolerated. Encourage open communication and create opportunities for children to share their feelings and experiences.
  3. Teach Conflict Resolution and Social Skills: Provide explicit instruction on conflict resolution strategies, problem-solving, and effective communication. Teach children to appropriately express their needs and emotions, negotiate boundaries, and seek adult support when needed. Encourage empathy and perspective-taking, helping students understand the impact of their actions on others.
  4. Establish Clear Rules and Consequences: Set clear expectations regarding behaviour in the classroom and during play within the home. Ensure that children understand the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Consistently enforce consequences for bullying, reinforcing the message that such behaviour will not be tolerated. Make sure consequences are fair, consistent, and proportionate to the behaviour.
  5. Educate about Bullying: Conduct age-appropriate lessons and caregiving discussions on bullying, its consequences, and the importance of empathy and kindness. Help children and young people understand the different forms of bullying and their roles in preventing and addressing it, e.g., to speak up if they witness bullying and provide them with strategies for intervening safely and seeking help.
  6. Foster Positive Relationships: Create opportunities for positive peer relationships through cooperative group activities, teamwork, and inclusive play. Encourage children and young people to support and include their peers, fostering a sense of belonging and reducing the likelihood of bullying. Model positive conflict resolution skills, helping to resolve conflicts peacefully and respectfully.
  7. Effective Supervision: Provide adequate supervision during playtime to ensure a safe environment. Observe children’s interactions and intervene to prevent bullying behaviours and promptly address conflicts. Be proactive in identifying signs of bullying, such as changes in behaviour or social withdrawal.
  8. Collaboration: Maintain open lines of communication between carers, teachers, staff, and parents, sharing concerns and observations related to rough and tumble play and bullying and establishing partnership and collaborative working to address any issues and implement consistent strategies at home and in school.


Understanding the difference between rough-and-tumble play and bullying is essential for teachers, staff, and carers to guide and support children and young people effectively. By creating a safe and inclusive environment, teaching conflict resolution skills, promoting empathy, and maintaining a collaborating culture, everyone can contribute to preventing and addressing bullying.


– By Richard Cross, Head of Assessment and Therapy

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