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Cops and Robbers Redux

By Michael Weiner

The activity has many names: “rough and tumble,” “boy,” “physical,” “aggressive.” We see it everywhere, on playgrounds, in homes, at schools. With early childhood education literature rife with new research, we recognize that this type of play activity is developmentally essential for children. It aids in motor development, empathy building, healthy social interaction, enhancing self-esteem and more. So why are so many of us uncomfortable with it? If so many children are doing it, could it be improper and inappropriate?

In the teacher development workshops I run, the topic of “aggressive play” on the playground comes up. Preschool teachers bring anecdotes, we examine them, and we try to understand what is happening and develop strategies for addressing the difficulties. Teachers (and their administrators) raise logical concerns about injuries, liability and negative parental reaction.

The word aggressive has a negative connotation, especially when applied to children: belligerent, hostile, and implying some level of intent to do harm. The use of a word like aggressive to describe developmentally sound physical play indicates that these teachers have a predisposition to see these interactions as something to be avoided.

“What types of play do you see as aggressive?”: swords, super heroes, guns, pushing, ninjas, wrestling, and so on. Many teachers see this play as inevitably dangerous. The pace, physicality and fluidity of playground play create the perception that they lack control over the environment. The teachers run around acting like police officers: “Stop.” “Don’t do that.” “Hand to yourselves.” “Get off.” “Timeout.” They are exhausted. “What should we do?” they ask, “How can we stop it?”

My solution is… “Don’t.”

An educational arrangement for the playground can be established; it just needs to be defined differently. The current structure of monitoring and policing is neither effective nor grounded in any sort of developmental perspective and repeatedly telling kids to stop rough-housing is simply fruitless. Many schools have resorted to penalty or consequence system. Sadly, some schools have even taken to just barring any type of physical play altogether. What could happen if they allow rough and tumble on the playground?


Rose Coffield decided to take me up on my suggestion and allows the physical play to take place unencumbered one day. There were some scrapes, a few bruises, and a couple of curious parents. She asks the class about the difference between yesterday and today and the injuries. The students answer, “Today it was rough!” “How did you feel about it?” she follows up. Smiles. “We liked it.” And an idea is born.

Ms. Rose and I begin to develop a strategy for working with physical play. We call it The Empowered Playground. We capture play situations on camera, show the videos to the preschool students, and then engage them in multi-layered discussions including play planning, rule creation, behavior modification, increasing self-awareness, and empathy building. Ms. Rose talks to the students and asks them questions: How did that feel? Did you like that? Why was your facial expression different from your actions? Were you following the rules that the class set up?

One situation we examined involves three children playing “rough” (the student’s chosen label for physical play). David and Steven are wrestling with Beth, holding her down on the ground. She struggles in their arms until she breaks free. They back away and she charges after them. Ms. Rose pauses the video.

Steven (excitedly): We were battling her. She was bad.
Ms. Rose: (to Beth) How were you feeling when you were being battled?
Beth: Not so good. I felt I was being rough-handed.
David: But Beth said she wanted to play rough!
Ms. Rose: Well, maybe she felt it got too rough…Beth, did you tell David and Steven that you did not like what they were doing?
Beth: No.
Ms. Rose: In the future, if things get too rough, what can you say to them?
Beth: I can say stop.
The Class (speaking over Beth): She can say stop!!
Ms. Rose: Yes. David and Steven, how would you know by looking at Beth’s face in the video that Beth might feel that she is being rough-handed?
David: She looks sad. I forgot she looked sad.

In the classroom, away from the noise and tumult of the playground, Ms. Rose uses teaching to manage “aggressive” play. The video creates an emotional separation from the actual incident that allows these four-year-olds to learn from honest and non-defensive discussions about their behaviors and their feelings. It also creates a time capsule impervious to distortions of memory. The children are reminded of what happened and Ms. Rose does not have to catch every incident. One event provides the instructive experience to everyone, not just to those involved.

The Empowered Playground demonstrates the growth possibilities for young children asked to challenge their role in physical and emotional human exchanges. We shape the experience by focusing on the relational aspects of physical play: mutuality, self-awareness, self-advocacy and empathy. Let’s not underestimate them. We know that children integrate new information efficiently at an early age. So why not help them develop the skills to take charge of these interactions as early as possible?

There will be bumps, bruises, anger, tension, consternation, and frustration. You may ask, because they are so young, is it not our responsibility to shield children from these possible hazards? I say why squander our resources. Allow educators to educate. Include of all types of play, especially ones that involve navigating power differences. Encourage the opportunity for students to take ownership over the structure of playground time and their behavior on the playground. Utilize technology to generate a learning experience. For Ms. Rose, it has worked to dramatically alter her students’ behavior on the playground. They learn from each other; they listen to each other; they understand each other; and they feel responsible for each other. And they are only four. Think about the possibilities.

Michael Weiner, LCSW is a psychotherapist with a private practice in New York City. His specialty is work with traumatized children, adolescents and their parents. He is an adjunct professor at LaGuardia Community College in the Human Services program. He also is an early childhood education consultant providing teacher development workshops focused on increasing knowledge of the psychological theories at work in the classroom. He recently participated in the “Oxford Talk with Social Workers” video series, created in conjunction with NASW Press and Oxford University Press’s upcoming release of the Encyclopedia of Social Work and has a possible forthcoming title about the child psychotherapy process under review at OUP.

The Encyclopedia of Social Work is the first continuously updated online collaboration between the National Association of Social Workers (NASW Press) and Oxford University Press (OUP). Building off the classic reference work, a valuable tool for social workers for over 85 years, the online resource of the same name offers the reliability of print with the accessibility of a digital platform. Over 400 overview articles, on key topics ranging from international issues to ethical standards, offer students, scholars, and practitioners a trusted foundation for a lifetime of work and research, with new articles and revisions to existing articles added regularly.

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