Around the age of four your sweet child can transform into a miniature commando, arms and legs flying as they challenge anyone and everyone wandering into their territory. It's as predictable as puberty.
What are children learning?
Rough and tumble play allows children to take some risks, as far as physical activity. We should not always construe the rough play as aggression and conflict. Many adults have forgotten how to play. Rough and tumble play is different from agression. Children aren't always smiling during rough and tumble play - sometimes they're working hard to demonstrate their ability to be competent in the spirit of play. Agression has a spirit of dominating and intimidation. Often times they are imitating how adults play with them at home. For boys, it gives them an opportunity to touch each other in an acceptable way that society agrees with.
If we believe that children are always learning something about themselves and their world through their play, then what can we conclude about the concepts learned in power play?
Typically, children at the age of four begin testing their independence, as they did when they were two. They are still quite "black and white" in their thinking and tend to categorize people in simple, one-dimensional ways (for example, how can my teacher also be a mother?).
They are becoming aware of the effect of their own actions on others and the need for social rules of behavior. It is still difficult for them to see things from another person's perspective. They are beginning to form an understanding of right and wrong. The line between real and pretend is still fuzzy, particularly when it comes to threats to be feared. Power play is a means for young children to grapple with these concepts. Within a safe environment they can take on adult or super-human roles and experience a feeling of control. They can feel the satisfaction of good winning over evil and of knowing that they had the ability to overcome the bad guys. The very fear of evil is brought down to a controllable size. In the end, the children have the ultimate power to stop the whole game, knowing it is only pretend making the good vs. evil and power much more manageable.
Whenever power play is allowed children understand one rule: Everyone must be safe. If play will hurt anyone physically or make them feel unsafe, the play must stop. Another rule is that no one's feelings should be hurt during play. If power play begins children are asked to explain to us the plot and the characters. We oberve the power play closely- both the children involved and the children close by.
The keys are to: understand the developmental aspect of power play, recognize what children are learning and establish reasonable, understandable limits.