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The science of piggybacks: Cambridge’s professor of play suggests playtime with dad helps children control emotions

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Cambridge’s professor of play has said that children who get playtime with their father from a very young age may find it easier to control their behaviour and emotions when they grow up.

A study found dads engage in more physical play even with the youngest children, opting for activities such as tickling, chasing, and piggyback rides.

A father gives his child a piggyback (38859941)
A father gives his child a piggyback (38859941)

This appears to help children learn to control their feelings and could even make them better at regulating their own behaviour later on - such as in school.

Paul Ramchandani, professor of play in education, development and learning at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, said: “It’s important not to overstate the impact of father-child play as there are limits to what the research can tell us, but it does seem that children who get a reasonable amount of playtime with their father benefit as a group.

“At a policy level, this suggests we need structures that give fathers, as well as mothers, time and space to play with their children during those critical early years. Even today, it’s not unusual for fathers who take their child to a parent-toddler group, for example, to find that they are the only father there. A culture shift is beginning to happen, but it needs to happen more.”

The faculty’s study, with the LEGO Foundation, explored data from 78 studies between 1977 and 2017, mostly from Europe or North America.

The researchers found most fathers play with their child every day and that even with the smallest children, father-child play tends to be more physical.

With babies, this could mean picking them up or helping them to raise their limbs gently and exert their strength. With toddlers, it could rough-and-tumble games, like chasing.

Fathers typically opt for more physical games with children, studies suggest (38859864)
Fathers typically opt for more physical games with children, studies suggest (38859864)

They found children who enjoyed high-quality playtime with their dads were less likely to exhibit hyperactivity, or emotional and behavioural problems, appeared better at controlling their aggression and less prone to lash out at other children at school.

“Physical play creates fun, exciting situations in which children have to apply self-regulation,” Prof Ramchandani said. “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 practise 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.”

There was some evidence that father-child play gradually increases through early childhood, but decreases during ages six to 12.

But the authors stressed that children who only live with their mother need not be disadvantaged.

Prof Ramchandani said: “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, and mothers can, of course, support physical play with young children as well.

“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. Children are likely to benefit most if they are given different ways to play and interact.”

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