The study, published in the journal Developmental Review, pulled together fragmentary evidence from the past 40 years to understand more about how fathers play with their children when they are very young (aged 0 to 3). The researchers wanted to find out whether father-child play differs from the way children play with their mothers, and its impact on children’s development.
The findings suggest that fathers engage in more physical play even with the youngest children, opting for activities such as tickling, chasing, and piggy-back rides.
This seems to help children learn to control their feelings. It may also make them better at regulating their own behaviour later on, as they enter settings where those skills are important, especially schools.
“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,” said study researcher Paul Ramchandani from the University of Cambridge in the UK.
The Cambridge review used data from 78 studies, undertaken between 1977 and 2017, most of them in Europe or North America.
The researchers analysed the combined information for patterns about how often fathers and children play together, the nature of that play, and any possible links with children’s development.On average, they found that most fathers play with their child every day. Even with the smallest children, however, father-child play tends to be more physical.
With babies, that may simply mean picking them up or helping them to gently raise their limbs and exert their strength; with toddlers, fathers typically opt for boisterous, rough-and-tumble play, like chasing games.
In almost all the studies surveyed, there was a consistent correlation between father-child play and children’s subsequent ability to control their feelings. Children who enjoyed high-quality playtime with their fathers were less likely to exhibit hyperactivity or emotional and behavioural problems.
They also appeared to be better at controlling their aggression, and less prone to lash out at other children during disagreements at school.The reason for this may be that the physical play fathers prefer is particularly well-suited for developing these skills.
The study also found some evidence that father-child play gradually increases through early childhood, then decreases during ‘middle childhood’ (ages 6 to 12).