'Rough and tumble' play with fathers helps children to learn how to control their feelings

Annette Rawstrone
Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Children whose fathers make time to play with them from a very young age may find it easier to control their behaviour and emotions as they grow up, research suggests.

Fathers tend to engage in more physical play with their children, such as giving piggy-backs
Fathers tend to engage in more physical play with their children, such as giving piggy-backs

The study carried out by Cambridge University’s faculty of education and the LEGO Foundation looked at how fathers and mothers play with their children from birth- to three-years-old to see whether it had an impact on children’s development. Academics reviewed data from 78 studies, carried out mainly in Europe or the US between 1977 and 2017, to understand more about how fathers play with their children from birth to three-years-old.

While there were similarities in the way both genders play with their child, it found that fathers tend to engage in more physical play – tickling, chasing games and piggy-back rides. Researchers claim this form of play is ‘particularly well-suited’ for developing skills that help children control their feelings.

Children who benefited from ‘high-quality playtime’ with their fathers were better able to manage their aggression and less likely to display hyperactivity, emotional or behavioural difficulties.

Key findings:

  • Fathers spend a significant proportion of their time with their children engaging in playful interactions, often in the form of physical play such as rough and tumble.
  • While findings are mixed, on balance the evidence suggests that fathers’ play frequency increases from infancy to pre-school age with a subsequent decline in play as children reach early- middle childhood.
  • Studies investigating links between fathers’ play and child outcomes suggest that fathers’ play in the early years can positively contribute to children’s social, emotional and cognitive outcomes.

‘Physical play creates fun, exciting situations in which children have to apply self-regulation,’ Professor of Play in Education, Development and Learning at the University of Cambridge Paul Ramchandani said. ‘You might have to control your strength, learn when things have gone too far – or maybe your father steps on your toe by accident and you feel cross!

‘It’s a safe environment in which children can practise how to respond. If they react the wrong way, they might get told off, but it’s not the end of the world – and next time they might remember to behave differently.’

Despite the benefits of father-child play, the authors stress that children who only live with their mother need not be at a disadvantage.

‘One of the things that our research points to time and again is the need to vary the types of play children have access to, and mothers can, of course, support physical play with young children as well,’ added Prof Ramchandani.

‘Different parents may have slightly different inclinations when it comes to playing with children, but part of being a parent is stepping outside your comfort zone. Children are likely to benefit most if they are given different ways to play and interact.’

Dr Ciara Laverty from the LEGO Foundation said, ‘At a policy level, this suggests we need structures that give fathers, as well as mothers, time and space to play with their children during those critical early years. Even today, it’s not unusual for fathers who take their child to a parent-toddler group, for example, to find that they are the only father there. A culture shift is beginning to happen, but it needs to happen more.’

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