Play Fighting and Real Fighting

Perspectives on Their Relationship
  • Peter K. Smith


Rough-and-tumble play (R&T) is a distinctive form of behaviour, prominent in children. It has been studied by a variety of methods which complement each other in interesting ways.

Although superficially similar to real fighting, play fighting is distinct from it, and there are recognised cues which can be used in telling these two behaviours apart. These have been discerned by observational studies, and children too can verbalise many of these cues.

Play fighting is much more frequent than real fighting, in playgrounds. A proportion of play fighting can, however, turn into real fighting. The most usual reason, at least in middle childhood, appears to relate to ‘honest mistakes’ or accidental injury. However in some children, and more frequently by early adolescence, R&T may be used more deliberately as a social tool, consistent with a ‘cheating’ hypothesis.

Teachers make somewhat biased judgments about the relative frequency of play fighting and real fighting, and how often play fighting becomes real; possibly basing their perceptions on the small number of more aggressive children they may come into contact with in a disciplinary way.

Views on the functions of R&T may need modification. Social bonding and social skills may be incidental benefits of R&T, but fail to explain its distinctive features or the sex differences. Practice in fighting/hunting skills is a functional hypothesis consistent with design features and sex differences, but lacks direct support. The age changes and existence of ‘cheating’ suggest that, at least for some children and many adolescents, R&T can be used as a social tool in establishing or maintaining dominance in peer groups. The technique of interviewing participants in play fighting appears to have promise for further work in this area.


Social Skill Middle Childhood Primary School Teacher Aggressive Child Accidental Injury 
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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Peter K. Smith
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Psychology Goldsmiths CollegeUniversity of LondonLondonEngland

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