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Sticks and Stones: The Pros and Cons of Rough Play


The beginning of this year brought with it an intense love affair between boy and stick. Our little bamboo forest is an abundant source of thin, strong sticks perfect for combat play. A flurry of “sword fighting” ensued, entrancing some and irritating others. A parent’s concern for the physical safety of her son brought that particular type of rough play to an end. When it comes to safety issues, we default to parental preferences because parents are trusting us with their children and their wishes must be respected. This does not mean I always agree, but we definitely enforce rules parents feel strongly about. I personally am torn between my hyper-vigilance concerning physical and emotional safety and my knowledge of the benefits of physical or combative play. This opens up a fascinating can of worms about this sensitive and important subject.

Our sense of safety is at the core of our most basic human needs. The bottom line at Talking Stick, more important than having fun and building relationships, is that participants feel a strong sense of emotional and physical safety. We believe that this feeling of security is integral to the learning process. Facilitators stop participants from hitting one another, calling people names, and jumping from a nine-foot perch in a tree. In the aftermath of an unsafe event we address the incident with the attention it deserves. We make sure that no one is physically injured and stay close to offer support during emotional discharge. We model for and encourage the people involved to communicate about their feelings and how they would like to be treated. We tell anyone committing a harmful act against another that we simply don’t do that at Talking Stick and we address the underlying reasons for the transgression in the first place.

Some activities are inherently dangerous. For example, throwing rocks or sticks can lead to serious injury. We do not allow such behavior at Talking Stick. The safety level of other risks is less clear, such as in the case of the combat play using bamboo sticks. The rules of stick play included never hitting anyone’s body with a stick and only playing with people who want to play that way. Despite these rules, people can get hurt, but the benefits of the activity make the risk worth it for some. Combat play offers a chance to develop body awareness, hand-eye coordination, spatial perception, social relations, and balance. People get hurt through such play in two ways: by accident and on purpose. “On purpose” can happen at any time not just during combat play. Anyone can pick up a stick and poke the person they are mad at. Not that this happens terribly often at Talking Stick but it is not unknown to us. “By accident” hurts include getting hit in the hand holding the stick or scratched on the arm. In my opinion, this is a small price to pay to experience the benefits of combat play. However, there is always the chance of a more serious injury so it made more sense to curb the combat than to let it play itself out.

What’s behind these aggressive tendencies in our boys? Why did my then two-year-old son bite his toast into the shape of a gun and point it at me? Why are the K-nex at Talking Stick inevitably constructed into weapons and what is this obsession with sticks about? Aggressive play can be considered distinct from actual violence because the parties involved do not want to intentionally hurt anyone. Play often mimics adult behaviors and aggressiveness in boys may have a biological basis. Perhaps males evolved to be more physically aggressive through time in order to compete for females. In the past, males seeking desirable mates found it necessary to compete with other males. Another theory asserts that males became inherently aggressive to compete with other males for resources or territory. Whether it is learned or genetic, combat play seems to be an integral part of maleness in many, but not all, boys.

William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies comes to mind when I think of where some combat play situations could go if adults did not intervene. Lord of the Flies told a story about violence but it was also about power dynamics and I think that is what combat play is about. Identity, leadership, followership, risk, and group dynamics all play a part in the process. Factions form, real feelings emerge, the line between play and reality becomes blurred. This is serious play. Leaders call out orders to those acting as minions. Minions feel their own sense of power as they switch allegiance from one side to another. Participants unconsciously and consciously explore the idea of power: power over, power with, power within.

The stick games may be over but participants find ways to get their needs met in other ways. At some point I witnessed two people tapping sticks together in the air and I reminded than that there was no longer any fighting with sticks. One of them explained that their sticks were actually “high-fiving” each other. Mostly these days though, there is peace on the plains of Talking Stick’s Day Program. Partially because we banned stick fighting and partially because roles have settled down for now and people have less to prove to one another. Enemies have become cohorts and minions are asserting their own needs and wants. In other words, participants have grown from the experience of combat play as well as having limits set on their activities.