It is common knowledge that play is children,s work and play is part of every child’s healthy development. Aggressive play can also be a part of a child’s healthy development and something to be encouraged by parents and caregivers. Vanessa Lapointe Registered Psychologist spoke in Castlegar last October on ‘Understanding aggressively themed play to support healthy outcomes for children’. Ms. Lapointe compared the sociopolitical (traditional) view and the developmental view of aggressive play.

A sociopolitical view believes that children cannot differentiate between real and pretend, and that violence is related to aggressive play. The developmental perspective allows children to express anger and other big feelings symbolically in play. In a developmental model we see children become empowered by mastering good and evil, and learn to regulate emotions during all kinds of play, particularly aggressive play.

Where does aggressive play come from? Aggression is a manifestation of strong feelings that children face as part of growing and learning. Frustrations, anger, fear, loneliness, confusion and any problematic emotion that arises and isn’t heard or fully expressed can turn into aggression. These unresolved problems may be small or large. Small feelings that are not recognized or heard can grow into big feelings. Big feelings not expressed over long periods of time can become stuck in a child’s body and even interfere with growth and development. Big feelings that are stuck or not expressed lead to chronic stress in children, teens and adults.

Landy & Manna found mothers of non-aggressive children more likely to show acceptance of the aggressive play and to join in the play. By joining in the play the parent used their relationship with the child to expand the play until it became more pro-social. By joining in the play and demonstrating acceptance of aggressive themes or aggressive energy, children learned that it’s OK to be with these feelings in the safe environment with their mother. Mothers also had the chance to gently expand the play towards a ‘safer’ outcome. Perhaps the bad guy is still present but the good guy is also OK. Perhaps the child’s crisis is still present but a solution has been introduced. Parents who didn’t accept the aggressive play and stopped or disallowed the play gave their children the message that those feelings were not welcome, not OK, and the child had to find another solution. A child who’s aggressive play is stopped is going to bring the aggression out again later.

A very fun way for parents, grandparents and children to learn to be physically active in close proximity is through wrestling or tussling/tumbling on the floor. Most children enjoy wrestling and love the physical proximity combined with movement. Parents set ground rules for wrestling such as no biting, punching, pinching etc… If a child breaks a rule simply call a ‘pause’. Give the child a moment to remember the rule and then resume. This offers another wonderful opportunity to model and develop more self-regulation for children. Have fun and play hard!

Article by: Julia Stockhausen
Infant Development Program Manager
Kootenay Family Place

Julia Stockhausen is an Infant Development Consultant with Kootenay Family Place and a big fan of rough and tumble play.


Landy & Menna. “Play between aggressive young children and their mothers in Clinical Child”: Psychology and Psychiatry, April 2001 # 2 223-239