Daddy’s Funny Father’s playfulness with young children

Children’s play with fathers can be raucous, vigorous and stimulating.

Jennifer St George 
Senior Research Academic, Faculty of Health and Medicine, The University of Newcastle, Australia

Richard Fletcher 
Senior Lecturer, Family Action Centre, Faculty of Health and Medicine, The University of Newcastle, Australia


Children’s play with fathers can be raucous, vigorous and stimulating. Decades of research show that of all parent-child activities that fathers undertake, vigorous physical play is the one thing they do more than mothers (Bronstein, 1984; John et al., 2013). In this brief paper, we tease out the specificities of fathers’ play with infants and young children and suggest some developmental benefits for children. An understanding of how fathers’ playfulness facilitates children’s attachment and development may help parent educators find more opportunities to include fathers in their practice.


Although it is relatively easy to identify play, it is harder to define. In its most simple iteration it can be described as behaviours that elevate arousal (Ellis, 1973:107).  For humans, play that occurs in relationships has the most profound influence on their development.  Beginning in infancy, stimulating, playful interactions with adult carers play a key role in children’s development of identity and of the ability to regulate their emotions and behaviours (Nagy, 2011). It is this link between what was previously thought of as ‘just play’ and the development of neural pathways essential to mental and physical wellbeing that has brought the study of play to researchers’ attention. 
Play by definition is exploratory, so that an important condition for children’s play is that he or she feels safe. Infants and children need to be sure that any uncertainty or anxiety they experience will elicit protection from harm and soothing when in distress. As the attachment system described by Bowlby (1988) posits, a child will explore only to the extent that they have a sense of security. When this is in place, then children’s innate curiosity primes them to explore their world; increasing amounts of research shows that fathers’ play with children is absolutely key to encouraging and scaffolding this basic human need for exploratory play (Paquette, 2004).

Children will explore only to the extent that they have a sense of security.
Fathers’ play varies widely. For play with toddlers and children, activities such as tickling, wrestling, hugging and other big body contact are typical (MacDonald & Parke, 1986). However, much of this vigorous physical play has important emotional characteristics. Fathers laugh and tussle with the child at the same time as encouraging them to be strong and to persevere (Kazura, 2000). An exemplar of this type of play is rough and tumble. In high quality rough and tumble, the father is attentive and playful, encouraging effortful, competitive play, and children respond with joy and motivation. The father succeeds in keeping a good balance between actively challenging the child on the one hand and ‘letting the child win’ on the other. The father actively focuses on what the child is doing, watching him or her carefully and being ready to follow the child’s lead. The interaction shows that they are used to playing with each other in a way that initiates and maintains trust and affection (Fletcher et al., 2012). 
However, there is more to fathers’ playfulness than physical, tactile stimulation. While both mothers and fathers play conventional games and use toys with their children, it seems that when fathers are involved in interactions, their play can be more stimulating than mothers’ (Labrell, 1996; Roggman et al., 2004). While mothers’ interactions with infants tend to be smooth and regulated, fathers’ play often involves bursts of high energy that increase as playtime extends (Feldman, 2003). Fathers’ energy, expressed as teasing, humour, or incongruity, brings novelty, surprise and complexity to the child. Under the wing of a warm connection with the father, these cognitive stimulations are highly arousing and engaging (Zaouche-Gaudron et al., 1998). This sort of stimulating, contradictory and challenging behaviour between fathers and their children has been documented in numerous studies (Keltner, 2001; Yogman, 1981).When fathers sing to their infants, for example, they are likely to choose unconventional songs, or make up their own rather than sing traditional nursery songs (Trehub et al., 1997), their exuberant singing being highly engaging (O’Neill & Trainor, 2001). Similarly, they use longer and more abstract words than mothers (Pancsofar & Vernon-Feagans, 2010). Teasing is another example of fathers’ playfulness. When men tease their child, the smooth flow of cooperative play is interrupted by ambiguity or uncertainty because the father deliberately provokes a reaction from the child in one way or another. Blocking play moves, sudden changes of routine to provoke surprise or pretending to fight are all examples of this type of teasing (Labrell, 1994). Importantly, these actions are not antagonistic, they are ‘pretend’, just as rough and tumble is ‘play’-fighting.

Fathers use longer and more abstract words with their children than mothers.

Evidence now suggests that the effects of fathers’ contribution to their child’s development are different from mothers’ and that some of this may even be unique (Dumont & Paquette, 2013; Majdandžiç et al., 2014). Over time, 
myriad playful moments generate joy and mutual warmth, intensifying the bond between father and child. As this attachment grows stronger, the child gains confidence to explore. At the same time, the father’s play and interaction style can improve the child’s emotional regulation (Hagman, 2014), mastery motivation, (Lang et al., 2014) and nascent academic skills, such as language, reading and numeracy (Cook et al., 2011). Rough and 
tumble play, for example, is linked to children’ social competence, such as positive peer relationships (Fletcher et al., 2013), regulation of aggression (Peterson & Flanders, 2005), and social anxiety (Bogels & Perotti, 2011). Fathers’ impact can be lasting – one longitudinal study showed that sensitive and challenging father-child play at two years predicted teenagers who were more comfortable with uncertainties and complexities, were less likely to seek reassurance from others and less likely to withdraw in the face of frustration and adversity (Grossmann et al., 2002). It is important to note, however, that individual differences in fathers have an effect on quality of play. Fathers’ parenting style may not be optimal - less warmth, more negativity (Davis et al., 2011)  - and other factors such as depression, role identity and parenting-efficacy can impact upon play style (Harvey et al., 2011; Zaouche-Gaudron et al., 1998). 
Fathers’ play and interaction style can improve the child’s emotional regulation.

Given the importance of playfulness to child attachment and developmental trajectory therefore, infants and young children need interaction with someone who is willing to extend, reach out, and have fun (Nakano et al., 2007). And it seems that some children prefer the type of play father brings (Clarke-Stewart, 1978). Security and parent responsiveness remain the a priori conditions for play, and when this is in place, stimulation and arousal through fathers’ sensitive and challenging play will help shape children’s brain structures and processes, and ultimately, their intellectual and emotional capacities (Collins et al., 2000).
 The impact of the father-child and mother-child relationships on long-term outcomes is leverage for clinicians, and birth and parenting educators. Practitioners’ beliefs in fathers’ capacity to contribute to children’s development will be an important resource for families. Interactions with families that demonstrate a value for fathers, and support them in developing positive-father child relationships, will help men to activate their own knowledge and strengths.

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