Ninety people across three generations were interviewed about their memories of rough play in childhood. All the generations in the survey had memories of rough play and believed that these experiences provided important life experience. Photo: NTB/Shutterstock

Children need rough and tumble play

Children engage in rough play today, just like they did in the past. What’s the same and what has changed? Researchers have taken a closer look and have a clear recommendation for today’s parents and kindergarten and school staff.

Children like to engage in rough play and get into mischief. Survey participants who were young in the post-World War II era and in the 2000s relate stories about snowball fights, play fighting and scrumping for apples.

However, the content of the rough play has changed in line with societal developments.

“Before, very few children went to kindergarten, and the youngest children attended school only every other day. Most of the children had a lot of time to play without the adults monitoring their every movement,” says Ragnhild Røe Norderhus, assistant professor at NTNU’s Department of Teacher Education.

Rough play then and now

Norderhus and Gunilla Eide Isaksen, NTNU assistant professor, and Maria Øksnes, professor at NTNU, have investigated which elements of rough play have stayed the same and which have changed through three generations.

Ragnhild Røe Norderhus, NTNU

The survey is based on 90 individual interviews with three generations about their childhood memories in Norway. The sample consisted of women and men who were in their 20s, 50s and 70s.

The researchers hope that their findings will encourage parents and staff of kindergarten and school-age children to reflect more before they stop what they perceive as roughhousing.

The hunt for excitement

All the participants in the survey – both women and men – describe memories of rough play. Rough play is often associated with dangerous play, but the researchers noticed that what the three generations described as rough play was different.

These variations can be studied in more detail as either dangerous play, scary play or mischief. A common driver for these three types of play is the pursuit of excitement and fun.

The two older generations share stories about play that they themselves experienced as dangerous while it was going on, including play that led to injuries and deaths. The activities included playing in traffic, in the mountains and on mountain slopes, by rivers, on the shore and by water.

One of the older informants, Tore (72), tells about sledding with a steerable sled:

“Another kid and I came down the street at full speed and across the tram track and there came the tram, probably only a metre from hitting us. All I saw was black. We flew by. If it had been a tenth, maybe a hundredth of a second later, I wouldn’t be here today.”

The two older generations also said that it was easy to find dangerous materials and things. Both girls and boys tell of stone wars in which playmates were badly injured or died.

In the post-war years, it was also possible to find explosives and grenades that became part of their games.

Parental rules broken or forgotten

The participants said they found it exciting to visit dangerous places and play with dangerous things, and that they deliberately visited areas that were not supervised by adults.

Norderhus points out that all the generations they interviewed told stories of adults who had rules on where children were and weren’t allowed to play. Children were not free to play anywhere they wanted, as we might believe today when we hear about playing in the “olden days.”

“The children might have been instructed to be careful, but they quickly forgot that. We received a number of descriptions of relatively young children playing both on the street and by the water, which is probably unthinkable today. But as they themselves say, they learned the limits of their skills and how to look after each other,” says Norderhus.

Scary games forbidden

The participants in the study distinguished between dangerous and scary play based on whether they felt they had control or not. When the 20-year-olds describe their memories of rough play, they talk about scary games. They don’t report anyone dying. One of the most dangerous episodes highlighted by the youngest generation is playing with fire and dry straw.

A phenomenon that appears in the stories of the 20-year-olds is that scary games like snowball fights, king of the mountain and play fighting were banned in the school yard.

Societal changes have led to more traffic on the roads, and the play environment has changed due to increased safety requirements.

“The ban was probably instituted to protect the children because we’re afraid of the game getting too violent or that the children will get hurt. Ironically, this often makes the game more exciting,” says Norderhus.

“I just read about a story where the police were called, but which was actually just play fighting between some teenagers. It may not be easy to discern, but perhaps we should just ask the young people or the kids: ‘What’s happening? Is this for real or make believe?’ says Norderhus.

Mischief at the expense of adults

Mischief making is present in all the generations that took part in the survey. In contrast to scary and dangerous play, the tales of mischief are not influenced as much by changes in society. All the generations tell of scrumping for apples, ringing doorbells and running away, throwing apples, plums or snowballs at windows and cars, and tricking passers-by with a wallet attached to fishing line.

The mischief making differed from other play, since the aim was to get reactions from the adults. It wasn’t fun if the adults didn’t get angry or if they were allowed to pick apples.

“The mischief tended to be a bit scary, but not dangerous. The children weren’t trying to be mean or destructive,” says Norderhus.

Children’s play radius

Societal changes have led to more traffic on the roads, and the play environment has changed due to increased safety needs. Children’s playing radius has shrunk, and parents have to be in closer proximity to the children and make sure that they comply with the rules.

All the generations in the survey had memories of rough play and believed that these were activities that provided important life experience.

Media developments have contributed to more play being moved indoors, and institutionalization means that children now tend to meet up with each other at after-school programmes and leisure activities. Children’s free time is more organized and has moved to safe arenas.

“The adults tend to be more present for children’s activities now and can follow up if the play becomes dangerous. And that’s good. But it’s possible that relatively harmless play – which could help children develop their own judgment for what’s dangerous and when they should stop playing – is also being stopped,” says Norderhus.

Researchers’ advice to parents and teachers

All the generations in the survey had memories of rough play and believed that these were activities that provided important life experience. They also shared a concern and an impression that children today are overcontrolled, and that too much of today’s play is organized and educational.

“The survey participants believe that today’s children would probably benefit from the rougher play, and that children are robbed of opportunities for play that they value because the adults think it’s dangerous, without that necessarily being the case,” says Norderhus.

For parents and staff in schools and kindergartens who observe rough play, the researcher hopes that they take a moment to think twice before stopping roughhousing, and reflect on whether the play is dangerous or just scary.

“If you’re unsure, you can just keep a close eye on the children and help them if the game gets out of hand and they become unable to sort things out for themselves,” says Norderhus.

Generations of rough play

Norderhus, Isaksen and Øksnes have investigated how 90 people describe their memories of rough play in childhood.

The findings are the result of individual interviews. The criteria for participation in the survey were age, voluntary participation and interest in sharing childhood memories.

Watch a video that summarizes the article:

Source: Norderhus, R., Isaksen, G. E. & Øksnes, M. Det var egentlig ikke lov, men det var artig! (It wasn’t really allowed, but it was fun!), 2022. Barn, Vol. 40 (2).