As children grow and develop, they use their bodies to explore the world around them and discover what they are capable of. Different types of play and the structure of the environment facilitate development across physical, cognitive, language, and social and emotional domains. 

One of these play types is big body play, which engages children in boisterous, unstructured physical activity like running, kicking, climbing, chasing, and play-fighting. Children crave this kind of play, and by learning about its benefits and how to mitigate any risks or hesitations facilitating adults may have, we can grant children the opportunity to grow through uninhibited movement and action. 

Benefits of Big Body Play

Physical Fitness and Motor Skills Development 

Engaging in active movement strengthens muscles, improves coordination, and enhances overall physical fitness as children navigate their surroundings and master physical skills. Children become more aware of their own physical abilities and learn how to control their movements and make contact in ways that do not cause injury to themselves or peers.

Social and Emotional Development 

Rowdy, unstructured play often involves cooperation and encourages children to interact and collaborate with their peers. These interactions foster important social skills like sharing, taking turns, problem solving, and recognition of nonverbal cues. Younger children develop their self-concept, while older children learn self-restraint and assertiveness. A research study on children’s rough-and-tumble play in a supportive environment 

Cognitive and Brain Development 

When children engage in physical activity, they make quick decisions and adapt their movements, enhancing executive functioning skills like attention, problem solving, and memory. Big body play has also been linked to better attention and concentration in school.

Risks and Myths

Oftentimes, facilitating adults doubt the validity and appropriateness of big body play for fear of fighting, escalation, agitation, and injury. Adults may misinterpret big body play as aggression, when the reality is that about one percent of play-fighting leads to real fighting. 

To enable big body play, facilitating adults must be able to distinguish between rough-and-tumble play and inappropriate, real fighting. Frances Carlson, author of Big Body Play, outlines three main distinctions between the two:

  1. Facial expressions: Big body play is appropriate when children are exhibiting relaxed facial features. The Cambridge Handbook of Play calls this a “play face,” and cites it as one of the most reliable indicators differentiating rough play from serious aggression. The activity may be out of hand if there is an aggressor, clenched jaws, or crying. 
  2. Willingness to participate:  Big body play is the result of an invitation where children are willing participants. Coercion, force, and control are results of real fighting.
  3. Willingness to return and extend the play: Children enjoying big body play return to it and think of ways to extend it.

Supporting Big Body Play

Adults who want to facilitate big body play should identify an appropriate level of risk, establish policies for safe, effective big body play through supervision, scheduling, and training, and ensure a safe environment. Getting active alongside children encourages participation, and establishing rules together leads to more productive and manageable play. 

Preschool Powered by Play at Hoyt Early Learning Center

There are lots of ways to encourage big body play in the classroom or at home, from relying on classics like tug-of-war and ring around the rosie, to creating your own games for racing, climbing, or play-fighting. Some iterations include superhero play, protect and rescue games, and attack and defense roles. What’s most important is that every child is safe, has fun, and is given every opportunity to learn, grow, and play.