A recent body of research suggests that the type of play associated with a father’s role is critical to whole-child development.

Imagine a child playing with a parent. The parent chases the child and playfully tackles them, and they wrestle on the ground laughing.

Did you imagine a mom or a dad?

Culturally, we tend to link certain parenting roles and behaviors to particular genders. But is there a difference in the way moms and dads play with their kids? What are the effects of this? And will it always be this way?

In contrast to the wealth of research on mothers’ parenting, little research has been conducted on fathers’ parenting. Although, this is changing, as nowadays dads tend to be more involved in the development of their children than they may have been in the past.

A recent review of studies looking at dads, children, and their play has shed some light on what we know so far.

The review, which was conducted by the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education and LEGO Foundation, found that the majority of fathers play with their children every day.

What’s more, when taking their working hours into account, mothers and fathers engaged in roughly the same amount of playtime with their kids.

Generally, the researchers observed that dads played more with their children as they grew from babies to toddlers. Playtime then decreased again when they reached middle childhood — around the ages of 8–13.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the relationship is deteriorating during this time. If you’re a father, this might just be an interesting point of reflection. How has the time you’ve spent with your children changed as they’ve grown? Perhaps the type of activities you do together has evolved.

Do moms and dads partake in different types of play? Interestingly, the current knowledge suggests that there’s not a big difference in frequency when it comes to imaginative play, or play using objects and games.

As the researchers point out, the amount of overlap between the play of different-gendered parents is bigger than their differences. We have more in common than we might think.

However, fathers appear to engage in more physical play overall. With babies, this involves bouncing and tickling. This evolves into chasing and rough-and-tumble play as they become toddlers. Perhaps this contributes to the decline in dads’ time spent playing in middle childhood. Kids heading toward puberty might not be so keen on wrestling with their parents.

There hasn’t been much research on mothers and rough-and-tumble play. As the science expands, it will be interesting to see what differences there may be. Also, if there are differences, might they disappear as we move away from binary roles?

The evidence suggests that rough-and-tumble play helps children with self-regulation, or dealing with difficult emotions. The idea is that this kind of play excites and momentarily destabilizes the child, giving them a chance to practice calming down.

Paul Ramchandani, professor of Play in Education, Development, and Learning (PEDAL) at the University of Cambridge, as well as one of the researchers on the study, explains how this works.

He says, “You might have to control your strength, learn when things have gone too far — or maybe your father steps on your toe by accident and you feel cross! It’s a safe environment in which children can practice how to respond. If they react the wrong way, they might get told off, but it’s not the end of the world, and next time they might remember to behave differently.”

More playtime with their father may support a child’s self-regulation practice, as it’s more likely to occur during physical play.

There’s not yet enough robust evidence to say for sure that children playing with their fathers promotes brain development, but a few studies have suggested a link.

A study in the United Kingdom observed play sessions between 192 children and their dads at 3 and 24 months old and measured the children’s cognitive functioning using the Mental Development Index (MDI) from the Bayley Scales of Infant Development.

It observed that fathers who were more engaged and sensitive with their 3-month-olds had children who scored higher on the MDI at 24 months.

Another longer-term U.S. study in 73 children and their parents from low income, ethnic-minority households observed parents playing with their children at ages 3 and 5.

It noted that mothers and fathers were equally playful and creative in their play ideas, as well as that children with more playful fathers had better vocabularies at the age of 5.

Given that this study involved a very specific demographic, it doesn’t imply that this is the case for all children. It’s also unclear whether the playfulness itself helps vocabulary grow, or whether parental sensitivity, support, or other factors play a role.

However, as early childhood vocabulary has been linked to success at school and beyond, we shouldn’t underestimate the significance of playtime with parents at this age.

While dads are more likely to engage in rough-and-tumble play, this is far from the biggest contribution they make in raising their child.

Much of the research on the way babies form attachments has focused on their relationship with their mothers. Scientists are beginning to try to measure the importance of children’s attachments to dads and other caregivers.

Measuring the security of their attachment to their father, a Canadian study invited children to the lab at 3–5 and 7–11 years old. Those with insecure attachments to their dads as toddlers reported lower self-esteem when they were older.

Therefore, dads must have the opportunity to experience more than just rough play with their child and feel comfortable taking on a more nurturing role. It stands to reason that children will do better with more than one person supporting their emotional development.

Ramchandani says, “One of the things that our research points to time and again is the need to vary the types of play children have access to.”

Like most things in life, the key to healthy child development is variety. Your child needs lots of types of play in different contexts to grow and succeed. It probably doesn’t matter too much whether this is with mom or dad.

Whether your child has a solo parent, two moms, grandparents, or any other configuration at home, they’ll benefit from a variety of loving, engaging play activities.

Ramchandani adds, “Different parents may have slightly different inclinations when it comes to playing with children, but part of being a parent is stepping outside your comfort zone.”

Whatever your gender and natural preferences, make time as a family to get outside and run, or on the floor and wrestle. Have tea parties, care for dolls, and battle imaginary dragons.

In addition to supporting their cognitive, emotional, and social development, you can widen your child’s horizons by showing them that you aren’t limited by traditional gender roles — all while having fun!


Molly Scanlan is a London-based freelance writer. She’s passionate about feminist parenting, education, and mental health. You can connect with her on Twitter or through her website.