Wednesday Wisdom

November 29, 2023

Family Games

By Dr Kathy Weston

Family Games


If, like me, you have ever witnessed your children engaged in ‘rough and tumble’ play with siblings, cousins, friends or relatives, it can feel alarming. In our house, after about five minutes, it used to lead to tears and accusations that ‘he hit me too hard’; one parent would then intercede with sage advice on when to stop! ‘Roughhousing’ sounds and looks chaotic and can engender feelings of alarm in onlookers.

But, guess what? Research suggests that rough and tumble play can have substantial, holistic benefits for children’s emotional, social and physical wellbeing and development. Last week, I interviewed two eminent researchers in this field, Emeritus Professor Peter Smith and Dr Jennifer St George, and learned more about the wealth of research into this type of play. This interview was prompted by a question by a headteacher who enquired about the extent to which playground staff should intervene (or not) when it all gets a bit too boisterous.

So how is it defined? Rough and tumble play is a common form of play that involves fighting or chasing. In the playground, children engage in rough and tumble play about 10% of the time. It includes behaviours such as wrestling, grappling and tumbling. A number of key characteristics distinguish it from bullying or aggressive play. Both Peter and Jennifer pointed out that children engaging in this kind of play are likely to have positive facial and vocal expressions (they’ll laugh and smile) and be happy to continue the game (rather than one child attempting to get away or stop). Unlike a ‘real’ fight, when other children show interest in what is happening, onlookers tend to be disinterested during rough and tumble play. When the game ends, the participants don’t separate with hostility. They are still friends and there is a sense of togetherness. Children also ‘self-handicap’ to ensure that no one gets hurt, and engage in role-reversal, where they swap around who is chasing and who is being chased.

I am sure you are reading this and thinking, ‘Wait a minute, I have seen that behaviour in animals too’. Yes, you are correct. As anyone who has ever watched a David Attenborough nature documentary knows, rough and tumble play is common in many mammals. Indeed,  there is a large body of work on play fighting in non-human species. The characteristics of rough and tumble play are similar in both animals and humans with both exhibiting self-handicapping when playing with a younger, smaller creature. Moreover, both tend to switch roles during play. Clearly, this type of play serves an important role in development. Why would we ever want to inhibit or stop it? As parents, the key is managing our own anxiety when observing it and knowing the boundary between rough and tumble and when it tips into bullying, which is altogether different.

When you reflect on your own childhood, weren’t the best games the physical ones with loved ones? When you were tossed in the air? Or, when you were on the floor rolling over and over, grappling, laughing and finding quickfire ways to exit from the wrestle? It was fun but you were also learning at the same time; about your strength and physical capability, about how to read another person, about when to stop and start again and about how to regulate your emotions. Childhood play was, and still is, the engine room for learning about ourselves and those around us and an essential bonding tool with our primary carers.


With the upcoming holiday period in a few weeks, have you considered which games to play as a family? Perhaps you are thinking more along the lines of a board game or a family quiz activity? Perhaps you are already getting worried about how one child will react if they lose, and are strongly considering choosing a game where nobody gets hurt or disappointed, but would this be the best approach?

Research tells us that board games can be incredibly useful tools in developing children’s soft skills. They have to take turns, listen, play, consider strategy, confer with team-mates, resist the temptation to cheat (consider their own values) and manage their rage when someone else moves past them on the board and gloats. It’s a veritable emotional swirlpool from which only the strong emerge! Half the joy of board games can be the emotional rollercoaster that accompanies the experience.

Nobody wants to fall out during family get-togethers, so consider these gaming experiences as important and pre-empt them by talking to your children about ‘ground-rules’ before you start. Remind them of the last time it all went ‘pear-shaped’ and talk about expectations around behaviour for both winners and losers. Establish which set of rules are being used for the game so there are fewer squabbles about what is fair or not halfway through. If you see your child responding better than last time to losing, notice and praise them for their response. If a child gets angry and goes to their room (praise them for knowing how to take themselves away rather than lash out at their annoying sibling). In short, pay attention to your children’s emotions, validate how they are feeling in the moment (“I can see your brother has annoyed you”, “I can see you are upset”) and give them time to calm down. These things take practice. We all might hope and want family get-togethers like this to be ‘perfect’ but they are unlikely to go entirely smoothly and that is ok.

What of the toys that you are planning to buy children at this time of year? Some of you have written and asked about tips? Firstly, perhaps audit what they already have, check in with relatives about what they are buying them and ensure they aren’t wasting their money. Will your child actually use it? Consider choosing toys that are educational, made from durable materials and avoid gender stereotyped options for younger children. Why does your daughter need a pink kitchen rather than a toolbox?  ‘Let Toys be Toys’ founder and psychologist, Dr Amanda Gummer’s ‘Good Play Guide’, can be incredibly helpful sites to browse ahead of toy purchasing decisions. Rather than even buying board games, can you rent them from libraries, school or perhaps there is a board game cafe near you? (These have become increasingly popular with adults and teens alike).

Try to make more mindful, thoughtful decisions about family consumption in general. Do you need to send physical Christmas cards to everyone in the family? If you send cards, look for non-metallic, glitter free options in cardboard packaging. Alternatively, think about making a donation to charity, or perhaps sending cards to specific relatives. Have discussions with your children about sending cards to their classmates. Get them to think about how many cards will be sent if everyone sends a card to every child in their school, and gently consider what the alternatives might be. Read a previous Wednesday Wisdom on this subject for many more tips relevant for any festive season!


Now, this paragraph is for those who have read the paragraphs above and thought, ‘my children aren’t interested in anything other than gaming over the holidays’! Are there any benefits to this sort of play activity and where are the limits within it?

First of all, some good news. Research shows there are many benefits to gaming activity and we know that playing with peers in the digital world can be exciting and fun. Gaming, in moderation and when age-appropriate, can play a large role in developing children’s critical and strategic thinking skills, empathy and digital resilience. If anything, we need to broaden our view of the rich diet of games available to children and young people. For example, did you know there are digital games that can help develop empathy for refugees on their journey to reach another country of safety? Bury Me My Love highlights the experience of refugees and the often perilous journeys they embark on to reach a safe place. There are also games designed to encourage children to think more critically about decisions that they make. One, called Headliner, turns players into newspaper editors who decide what content goes in front of readers. Can you imagine the conversations that a game like this could spark about how we digest news media and the importance of remaining critical consumers?

Andy Robertson’s fabulous and well-researched site offers a glimpse into the vast array of choice within the world of gaming and inspires parents to think beyond the basics. His carefully curated list of the best games to promote critical thinking is often a source of interest for us as a family and we regularly dip into see what other games are available to us that we could all play.

So, in the run up to the holidays, let’s initiate those chats about game choices and carefully consider how we might spend our time together during any special day (before the kids disappear to their bedrooms to chat to their friends). These precious windows of time together should be opportunities to finally relax, joke around and engage in the kind of family frolicking that our children will remember and talk about with a smile on their face for years to come.

Are you a Tooled Up member?

If you’d like to learn more about rough and tumble play, our new podcast interview with Professor Peter Smith and Dr Jennifer St George is available now. If you want to find out more about play, this video from Dr Weston explains more about what research tells us regarding the benefits of play to children’s development. “Adventurous play” is the kind of play that challenges children and pushes them to the edge of their comfort zone. Find out more in two fascinating podcast interviews with researchers Dr Rachel Nesbit and Professor Helen Dodd.

You can also learn more from gaming expert Andy Robertson by tuning into our podcast interview and find more ideas for cultivating good gaming habits in our top tips.  If you’re concerned about the impact of gaming on your child, check out this thought provoking interview with Dr Simona Skripkauskaite from the University of Oxford.

Calling all ‘Tooled Up’ Tweens!

Our research elves are tired of doing ALL the interviews within our platform by ourselves, so we are seeking a brilliant pupil (aged between 10-12 years) who would like to interview the science writer and broadcaster Alom Saha, in the first half of 2024 for our digital platform. You would be someone who is smart, inquisitive, articulate and have an interest in science, learning and research. If this sounds like you, ask a parent or carer to email us with your explanation as to why you think you are the best person for this important research mission. The winner will also receive a selection of Alom’s books for their school library. We will announce the winner within days by email.