R & T Play Session

This Rough-and-Tumble Play Session takes place in December 2017, at the Conservatory of Amsterdam.  Four boys (all thirteen-year old) are invited for a spontaneous play session. 

In this play session I am mainly  interested in the spontaneous, physical play activities that pop up in the three-hour session. I ask myself the following question:  How and in what ways can the spontaneous play activities of the four boys be considered as participatory sense-making activities?

Physical play in this case refers to Rough-and-Tumble Play:

R&T play refers to ‘vigorous behaviours, such as wrestling, grappling, kicking, and tumbling, that appear to be aggressive except for the playful context’ (Pellegrini and Smith, 2005, p. 79), and that are almost always performed without hurting each other).  R&T play is mostly initiated by boys across a variety of cultures. Physical play activity seems to have different functions: the refinement of social skills, the training for the unexpected which subsequently leads to the improvement of self-regulation and a more accurate encoding/decoding of emotions. In addition, physical play also increases strength, endurance and movement skills. The boys play with dominance relationships through the exertion of corporeal power (Pelligrini and Smith 1998; Di Pietro 1981).

In the spontaneous play session I observe the following things:

  1. R & T play is more than just a physical encounter. Imagery, symbols and make-believe form a fundamental part of the play event. The blue mat becomes a war zone, a battle field, a ship, an island. These images are not only implicitly present but also explicitly referred to. The boy in the blue sweatshirt for example calls himself a king. At other moments the boys introduce images such as (ninja) turtle, mole, crab and giraffe – many of them borrowed from the animal world. They also use verbs such as killing, quartering and wiping away. Here we see that meaning making becomes a fluid and ambiguous process, that is mediated by the environment and the embodied interaction between the four boys.

One boy puts a blue mat over his shoulders and announces that from now on he is the king. 

2. The four boys organize their physical play through rhythm and coordination. Movemenst are performed with a shared sense of timing. Movements are synchronized: not only in timing and rhythm but also in movement form. This is not so much the result of a conscious decision: the synchronization happens in the interaction and is the result of the way they subconsciously adapt their bodies to each other.

Synchronization of action: notice how the two boys in black trousers synchronize their movement in time as well as in shape. 

3. In order to coordinate their movements, the boy have to attune to each other. This requires kinaesthetic sensitivity and shared attention. According to Gallagher (2010) shared attention is vital for (1) our ability to understand others, what they intend and what their actions mean and (2) our ability to co-constitute meaning.

Notice the shared attention of the three boys who are squeezing the fourth boy with the blue mat.

4. Another, final aspect becomes visible in the play session, something which can best be described as ‘serious attention to having fun’. The studio is filled with tremendous fun, excitement and enjoyment. At the same time the four boys display a serious attitude. They are dedicated and absorbed into the play. Rules are treated seriously. Rules set and define what should, can, shouldn’t and can’t be done. Even more, rules are made up during the play. Fun and serious attention are thus intertwined within play. Fun is the ‘exploration of the limits thus imposed on bodily activity and social interaction’ (Di Paolo, Rohde and De Jaeghe, 2010, p. 78). Fun is needed in order to change and revise the rules in such a way that it becomes a self-structuring process. However without a serious attitude, the fun will soon loose its grip.

Serious attention to having fun.

Thanks to: Teun van der Grinten, Michel van der Linden, Luuk Scheers, Maas Theuwkens


Di Paolo, Ezequiel, Rohde, Marieke, and  De Jaegher, Hanne (2010), ‘Horizons for the Enactive Mind: Values, Social Interaction, and Play’, in J. Stewart, O. Gapenne and E. A. Di Paolo (Eds), Enaction: Towards a New Paradigm for Cognitive Science,Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 33 – 87.

Di Pietro, Janet (1981), ‘Rough and Tumble Play: A Function of Gender’, Developmental Psychology, 17:1, pp. 50-58.

Gallagher, Shaun (2010). ‘Joint Attention, Joint Action, and Participatory Sensemaking’, Alter: Revue de Phénoménologie, 18, pp. 111-124.

Pellegrini, Anthony, and Smith, Peter (1998),Physical Activity Play: The Nature and Function of a Neglected Aspect of Play’, Child Development, 69:3, pp. 577-598.

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