Keeping Active Play Peaceful

Part 4 of Navigating Sibling Rivalry

Spoiler alert! Active play can be hard to watch.


We began our navigating sibling rivalry series by taking a closer look at the types of property within our homes. (If you are new to the conversation, you may want to start here.) Today we will be spending time looking at how active play fits into our "property dictates behavior" schema.


Active play can be dramatic in nature (playing house), experiential in nature (building a magnet tower together), sport based (shooting hoops), or rough and tumble play.


Active play is incredibly sophisticated! The participants work together in a sort of interpersonal dance. Let's set the stage and take a look at the three rules that keep active play peaceful.



The Interpersonal Dance-The setting.

When two people dance, they create something bigger than their individual efforts combined. We could steal the expression "The sum of the parts is greater than the whole." We could also say that dance and play are forms of dynamic ownership.


Picture a child attempting to build a fort. It is fairly difficult to drape a queen sized blanket over 7 kitchen chairs, the couch and the coffee table if you are only 3 feet tall. But if you have three other 3 ft. tall friends, you stand a chance at success. With the help of friends, your physical creation can be greater than your individual creation, AND because it was worked on together, the progress and final form are a product of dynamic ownership.



We are always building something!



It just so happens that there were three different forts being played with in my home simultaneously today. Two were at war with each other. They were stealing food and weapons, chasing each other around the kitchen, and taking turns placing "bad guys" from the other team in jail. (the rocking chair)


In the back of the house the children designated one corner of their fort as the kitchen, one corner was the baby's bedroom, and another corner was the front porch. Almost immediately after building the bones of their fort, they began referring to it as their home.


Because these groups of children have successfully learned the expected behaviors for personal and community space, the "war" group and the "home" group left each other alone entirely. It was quite the sight to see!! The warring forts understood that they may snatch food from each other because they are playing the same game, but they did not wander into the "home" fort to find food (even when one side played at "starving" for a while) because in this communal play space, the "home" fort has already claimed that food as their own. Each play group takes on the status of the individual. Each play group acts as ONE CHILD.


This is important! When we begin the interpersonal dance, we do not throw out our social playbook for individual and communal interactions!! What happens is a sophisticated extension of the rules. We act together as one. We participate in dynamic ownership.



The Interpersonal Dance- Rule #1

Let's spend some time magnifying each of the fort groups to see if we can glean the active play rules.


In the home fort, one child announced "This side is the baby room." Every player agreed. It seems that was the perfect baby room location! A second child then announced "My baby sleeps here too."


IF we were operating on typical communal space rules, the fact that the first child claimed the room already would settle things. (Here is a typical communal property example: If you park your car at Target, another car can not demand you move. You claimed that part of the communal space first. When you are done, they may have a turn.)


BUT these children were not playing separately within a communal space. They were playing together. In our home we refer to it as "being a team".


So when these two children came to me looking for some resolution I asked the first child, "are you playing house by yourself or are you part of a team? If you would like to play dolls by yourself, you may do so, but you need your own space. If you would like to play with the team, the team has to agree."


This is really quite difficult!


The first child insisted the room belonged to her baby. The second child insisted it was to be shared. What were they to do?! The children had a few options:

  • Share the room.

  • Create a second room for the second baby.

  • Rethink where the baby room should be so that both babies fit.

  • Stop the game and play independently for a while.


It is VERY important to note that you as the onlooking adult can not make this choice for the players. They have options and they must come to a solution. What you CAN do to help is verbalize the choices so that each child has a clear understanding of the problem at hand.



An infographic explains the first rule of active play; When playing together, every child must agree with the game's progress. It explains that adults may help brainstorm choices and help clarify choices, but they may not decide for the players. The players may either find a solution or end the game.

As often happens, once the ladies had a think over the options, they chose to move the babies' bedroom to a different corner of the fort and make the original baby room the kitchen instead. The resolution did not favor either girl's original choice, but instead was a third option that was better for everyone. I know a few adults who could learn this lesson.



The Interpersonal Dance- Rule #2

While the ladies were hashing out the floor plan of their home, the boys were dealing with their own pressing concern... What was acceptable to steal from the enemy fort?


It seems fort A snatched bananas from fort B.


Fort B raised their swords high, rallied behind a war cry, and descended upon fort A with the clear intention of taking everything they owned in retribution. Fort A was demolished in the process.


I had just turned back to my book when a horde of young, sweaty men all began yelling in my direction at once. "HE DID." "NO HE DID." "HE NEVER PLAYS FAIR!"


After requesting each listen to the other's concern (easier said than done), we tried to narrow the struggle down to the real problems. What are we allowed to steal during our game? -and- What are we "allowed to do back?"


Here are the questions I asked my young men.

  • Do we want to have to keep rebuilding the forts as part of the game?

  • Do we want to keep stealing food during the game? Is it okay if our food is stolen?

  • What else are we allowed to steal?

  • What should we be allowed to do when people steal during the game?

Together, everyone agreed that building forts is hard work, and the game wouldn't be much fun if everyone had to spend the entire game rebuilding their structures.


Together, everyone agreed that food and other supplies could be taken. It seems snatching was the fun part of the game.


Together, everyone agreed that if you catch someone taking food, they become a bad guy and can be put into jail. (My poor rocking chair.)


Can you find the active play rule hidden in the above interaction?


An infographic explains the second rule of active play; when playing together, every child must follow the golden rule. Adults may help the children lay out game rules through a series of questions, but they should avoid dictating game rules. The players either find a working solution or the game is ended.

We must all play by the golden rule. I frequently ask children to tell me exactly what he or she did to another child. Then I ask, "Is it okay for him (or her) to do that to you? Do you want that to be part of the game?"


Notice! I did not tell the boys it was wrong to steal. I did not agree that destroying the other team's fort was going too far. I did not lecture. I simply asked each child if they wanted these behaviors to be part of the game, because sometimes (quite often, actually) the games children play rejoice in such conflict.


The reason active play is such a phenomenal teacher, is precisely because children get to push moral and ethical decisions to their extreme. When children rough and tumble, or play at dramas, they get an opportunity to embody the experiences of right and wrong, just right and "too far". By playing with these moral dilemmas, children learn first hand WHY adult say things like, "don't cheat and don't lie." Children learn that collaborative games can not be played unless everyone agrees to a certain standard of behavior.

The Interpersonal Dance- Rule #3

After my warring tribes returned to their game, I had a chance to get nearly three pages of reading done before the drama started again.


You see, fort A was full of "big kids." Fort B was full of "little kids". Anytime there is a clear cut difference in age and/or skills, it will not be long before this issue arises. The big kids win. They win again. And again. They win until it is no longer fun for the little kids.


In order for a group of children to continue at play, they must engage in what is called "dominance swapping".


Dominance swapping is essentially a subset of the golden rule, but it is common enough and important enough to warrant its own rule-When playing together, every child gets a turn being top dog. Would you like to lose constantly? How long would you play with a friend if they never allowed your idea to be the idea that was pursued? How long would you play with a friend if they never listened to what you had to say? How long would you play with a friend if they won every time?


The third active rule is "when playing together, every child gets a turn being top dog." Adults may ask, "Would you want to keep playing if the roles were reversed?" The players either find a solution or the game is ended.

As with the other rules, this one is best approached with a curious air. Give your child who is winning the option to step into someone else's shoes, and give your younger child the option to leave the game whenever they wish. One day your big child will be the little one in the group, and they will have the experience of loss. It will temper their play. (Another fun trick is to let Dad in on the struggle. If Dad "accidentally" wins too many times in a row during rough and tumble play he can make a point of remarking "I'm sorry. I bet it isn't any fun to loose all the time. I'll remember to let you win some too next time.")




As an aside, did you know we learned about dominance swapping from rats?! Jaak Panksepp wrote a book called Affective Neuroscience, and it is to him we owe the credit of recognizing the play circuitry within the mammalian brain. It is a fascinating, though difficult, read. Here is a much easier to digest overview of the importance of dominance swapping. (skip to 4:10)




Phrases That Help

As with most developing interpersonal skills, there is a handful of phrases that we can explicitly teach our children to help them better navigate play. Here are a few that we find very helpful.


When building play locations together:

  • I do not like that because (teach your child to be specific about what is bothering them).

  • I want to try it this way because (teach your child to be specific about what they think they can accomplish.)

  • We have done it your way many times. It is my turn to decide now.

  • Can we try this now?

  • I don't want to play anymore.

  • Can you help me?

  • I like that idea.

  • Thank you.

  • You are really good at (teach your child to be specific about complimenting friends during play).


When playing rough and tumble games:

  • That is too rough.

  • Time out. I need a break.

  • I think the rule of our game should be that we can not (teach your child to be specific about what is "too far".)

  • You have won times. I need to have turns to win too.


The Best Teacher-Rough and Tumble Play with Dad

Unfortunately you can not do much teaching about dynamic social interactions with words. It is one of those things that is best experienced. There are basic steps to be learned in dance, for sure, but to get really good at dancing, well... you do that by dancing.


A father is pictured rough housing with his two children. The children are being hoisted over the father's arms as he spins around quickly, resulting in the boys' legs flying out from underneath them. The picture shows the joy children have when their father plays "rough and tumble".

So how then are children best taught to self regulate their behavior and emotions during active play? Playing of course... with DAD! (Moms can do this too... don't worry. We just need to be physically prepared to do so.)


The data is VERY clear. Rough and tumble play with Dad regulates the emotional system, teaches empathy and fairness, strengthens children's ability to read the non verbal cues of their playmates and judge when they are going to far, and promotes resilience.


If you find your children are constantly struggling with rough and tumble play, the first place you should turn is to your husband. (or brother, or father, or friend) Playing rough with Dad is priceless.



It Takes Time

Just as it takes babies a year to learn to walk, and it takes toddlers years to learn to respect other people's work, learning the interpersonal dance takes TIME. In fact, I suspect it takes us the entirety of our lives.


The biggest lie in the child development market today is that there is a magic pill, or trick, or phrase that will forever take away the struggles your children have when they play together. Having a peaceful home environment is not a result of constant, easy agreement. Having a peaceful home environment is a result of the family's insistence that EVERY member of the family is a human worthy of kindness and respect.

Even as YOU build experiences with other people it helps to remember the three big rules:

  • All participants must agree with the game's progression.

  • All participants must follow the golden rule.

  • The stronger participant must intentionally practice dominance swapping.


Every time you meet a new person, or work on a project, or plan a family vacation, or share a holiday, you are participating in dynamic ownership, and you are building upon those very skills that you began practicing at the age of four during imaginative play.



I hope our journey inspires your own,

Buckets & Berries