Chase Play:
The Structure of a Neglected Type of Physical Activity Play

Stephanie Owens
University of Northern Colorado

Francis Steen
University of California at Santa Barbara

Jennifer Hargrave
University of Northern Colorado

Natasha Flores
University of Northern Colorado

Paulette Hall
University of Northern Colorado


Revision of 06 September 2000


Chase play is a spontaneous and highly enjoyable type of physical activity play engaged in by preschool children. This study focused on the chase play of 2.5- to 5.5-year-olds. It was an observational study performed in the naturalistic setting of a laboratory school day care playground. The ethological and grounded theory methodologies informed both data collection and analysis. The results of analysis indicated chase play to be a more complex form of physical activity play than previously described in the literature. The fleer usually initiates chase games by a speech act, such as "chase me." A cue-based system of nonverbal communication between chaser and fleer functions to maintain games. The results cast doubt on the consensus view that chase play is a form of aggressive play.



Children commonly engage in physical activity play during their unstructured time, yet this behavior has received little attention from researchers. Pellegrini and Smith (1998) suggest it constitutes a neglected but important aspect of play and call for further research. This observational study is focused on physical activity play among preschoolers in a naturalistic setting. We suggest chase play can usefully be treated as a distinct type of physical activity play. In this article, our emphasis is on the structure rather than the function of chase play. Our results indicate that it has a complexity not previously described, including a broad set of defining characteristics. Specifically, we propose chase play is typically a collaborative mode of physical activity play.

The existing literature on chase play is informative but sparse. It was not documented as a distinct human play behavior until Smith and Connolly (1972). They helpfully if summarily described it as a form of "non-contact play in which a child pursues or is pursued by another, accompanied by an open-mouth smile and laughter" (1972:72). It was found to co-occur with rough-and-tumble play (R&T) and was thus characterized as a component of R&T. This view is retained in much of the subsequent literature1. This categorization relies on the close temporal proximity of chasing with R&T play (Smith & Connolly 1972; Blurton Jones 1972).

Chase play does not, however, invariably co-occur with R&T play and recent work has returned to the alternative view that it is a general form of exercise play. Smith and Connolly (1972) included chase play in a composite measure of physical activity play with run, hop, jump, wrestle, fall over, climb, dance, and slide. Finding that chase can occur without R&T play, Pellegrini and Smith (1998) made the case it should be classified as physical activity play with other exercise behaviors such as jumping rope, climbing on equipment, bicycling, etc. They provide three reasons for this categorization. Firstly, R&T is most frequent in later childhood, whereas exercise play peaks between ages four and five years. Chase play appears to follow the same inverted U-shaped distribution of exercise play in early childhood and also to peak between four and five years of age. Secondly, boys engage in more R&T play but chase play and exercise play occur fairly equally in both boys and girls (Pellegrini & Smith 1998). A final rationale underlying this categorization was Pellegrini's (1993) finding that R&T with chasing and "rough (playfighting) R&T" in adolescence are statistically independent. In other words, the behaviors appear to serve different functions.

Most of the work on chase play lacks a rich description of the phenomenon. The work by William Corsaro (1985/1997) on peer culture and a recent monograph by Loretta Clarke (1999) goes some way to remedy this. Approach-avoidance rountines (i.e., games) within or comprising an interactive episode between peers is the label Corsaro gives to play chasing. These games are spontaneous, even within a fantasy theme there is not direct assignment of roles, details on when to start or end. With wild animal games, there is no apparent gender difference. Games are loosely structured or may appear unstructured. In these play routines, "children often spontaneously label or define other children as monsters, wild animals, or other threatening agents who are then approached and avoided (Corsaro 1985:70)." The basic theme of the game is to approach and avoid an enemy.

Approach-avoidance routines have three phases: identify, approach, and avoid. Identification sometimes occurs after an initail avoidance but is usually the first behavior, thus serving as an interpretive frame for the activity. The initiation of these games through identification is usually spontaneous with infrequent verbal negotiation. They begin with the use of children's "interpretive abilities," capacities that facilitatie the interpretation of cues through shared knowledge of the chaser role. In these games, children depend on interpretive procedures and childhood beliefs to create the play scenario (Corsaro 1985).

The second phase of the routines, approaching the enemy, is with caution; and chasers pretend not to notice the approach and then suddenly emit a "growl, evil laugh, diabolical threat" and would "beat at" but not actually touch the fleers. Sometimes the chaser would capture a fleer and a short R&T session would occur. This behavior would end game or would initiate another approach (Corsaro 1985).

Corasaro (1985) noted that fleers have more control of the game than chasers, although fleers feign fear, which is evident in fleeing, screeching, screaming, and attempting to hide. Children would ask Corsaro for protection and he and other teachers would instruct them not to scare each other. He would soon see the same children in a game but with roles reversed; for a while he did not realize that the kids were not really afraid.

Clarke (1999) writes that between ages two and three, children engage in chase that is characterized by random behaviors in pursuit and flight; and, by this age, chase play is reciprocal, as is play generally, in that roles reverse during games. She also notes that games among young children are frequently initiated by the chaser and "clear intentions of chasing for the fun of it" (1999:79) are evident. Between four and five years of age, play usually ends with a capture or tag and R & T becomes a co-occurring feature of chase play. The fleer now begins to initiate the game. A fantasy theme and clear locomotive strategies also become major features of chase play. Although these descriptions improve on previous studies, they raise many questions. How do players in either role initiate games? How are roles reversed? What are the behavioral cues to maintain games? Is the behavior in early games random? These are some of the questions providing motivation for the present study. In order to make valid predictions from inferences about chase play for future studies, a more detailed account of the behavior is necessary.

Teachers and parents discourage playchasing as it appears to be an act of aggression (Brown 2000). However, researchers assert that play chasing differs from aggressive chasing as indicated by facial expressions, smile and playface, and vocalizations, laughter and giggling. In chases marked by aggression, the participants frown and fixate (Blurton Jones 1972). Aldis (1975) considers another criteria for differentiating these types of chasing by considering outcomes. Play chasing ends with continued joint activities between participants.

During the preliminary observation phase of this project, we realized the game is more complex than we imagined and has three distinct parts. Thus, based on the complete database of games, we will first describe the locomotive strategies then the three basic segments of the game: initiation, maintenance, and termination. The discussion will conclude with a presentation of the features of chase games indicating that it is a collaborative endeavor.


Observational Context

Observations were recorded over a six month time span during the fall and winter seasons on the playground of a local preschool. Daily observations were made on weekdays, at various times of the day. Participants ranged in age from 2.5 to 5.5 years and were from two classes at the day care center. At this preschool, enrollment varies slightly with each semester of school; therefore the cumulative number of children observed was 42 (20 boys, 22 girls). This age group was chosen for investigation due to a consideration of the peak in chase play occurring at this time in development. Both boys and girls were observed in order to analyze potential gender differences in type of frequency of play chasing.

The observers were the principal investigator and three undergraduate psychology students recruited in exchange for training in observational methods and in observational data analysis. Assistants also received course credit. They were trained in the field by conducting observations in collaboration with the principal investigator. These observations were then transcribed and discussed. They were instructed to play with children if asked and record any observations during play in journals. An additional request was to record every behavior occurring during games by all participants. As often as schedules allowed, two observers were present on the playground.

Children typically enjoyed two outdoor play periods of at least an hour in length every day, with the exception of days with inclement weather such as extreme cold, wind, snow, or rain. Chase games are a frequent activity for young children; but we soon discovered that this frequency varies with weather. On relatively warm days keeping track of every chase game was impossible. On many occasions, three or four games would be in progress simultaneously - too much action for two observers to record! On colder days, entire play periods might pass without a chase. Soon we decided to limit the observations recorded to only those games in which we witnessed the initiation of play and could follow it to the end.

The playground is a relatively large area of land (approximately half an acre). It includes a climbing structure surrounded by sand, a sandbox under a large shed to provide shade, and a cement path on which to ride bicycles. Two rows of eight large tractor tires have been planted in the ground in an upright position to form tunnels in which to hide. Smaller tires have been connected in a ring and suspended from five wooden poles to create a large swing that is also used for climbing.

The current setting for observations had a unique social feature that certainly influenced the nature of play. This day care has a very low adult-child ratio, sometimes as low as 1:2. The preschool teachers remain a constant in this context but the classrooms are supplemented with college students. These college students are from the local university enrolled in human development and early childhood education classes. As part of the class requirements, students must be aides in the day care two hours each week. The children are accustomed to the presence of new adults each hour and each day and take advantage of adult interaction during play. These students are more available and willing to interact with children during time spent in play than the regular staff.

Data Collection and Analysis

This description marks the termination of the first cycle from a larger project using the grounded theory framework of Strauss and Glaser (Strauss & Corbin, 1998). We entered the field guided by the ethological method to collect preliminary data, as the games seemed chaotic in the beginning of data collection. Event sampling was the method used to collect observational recordings. Event sampling is a technique that entails the careful observation and description of chase games when they occur (Yarrow, 1960). As much detail of the chase game, including facial expressions, vocalizations, strategies of the game, etc. were included in the narratives. From this initial exposure to and reflection on chase games, stereotypical behavioral features began to emerge from the observations. These features included characteristic means to initiate games through the use of speech acts, cues given by the players to maintain the game, specified strategies for capture and evasion, detailed descriptions of locomotive strategies, etc. Eventually, from the observations, we developed an ethogram. Pellegrini and Bjorkland (1998) defined an ethogram as a type of glossary containing behavioral descriptions functioning to guide observations and develop a common vocabulary in reference to particular features of a complex behavior. The ethogram also functioned as a guide to developing the coding scheme for data analysis (See Appendix A).

We soon realized the method was restrictive because we could not assign mental states to children while maintaining an objective vantage point. We then adopted the grounded theory method to guide data collection and analysis and larger patterns of behavior began to emerge. The ethogram categories and behaviors were further differentiated.

After 50 games had been recorded and coded, we left the field to analyze data. We then began to utilize theoretical sampling, observational sampling to further delineate the dimensional range of concepts, for more detailed descriptions of each phase of the game and to search for disconfirmation of hypotheses: fleer generally initiates the games, speech acts are the most frequent initiating behavior, the relationship of maintenance cues, etc. We also theoretically sampled for clear termination behaviors, as this phase of the game seemed quite ambiguous.

Thus far, we have a total of 116 chase games in a database stored in the ATLAS.ti qualitative data management program. Games vary in duration from 10 seconds to 7 minutes 20 seconds (mean = 2 minutes 42 seconds, standard deviation = 3 minutes, median = 1 minute). Games were also coded in ATLAS.ti. The vignettes presented in this paper were chosen by virtue of their clarity as examples of the prototypical features and interactions during games.

Basic Strategies of the Game

Attempt to Capture

The most basic intentional strategy when in the role of chaser is to make believable attempts to capture the fleer. Capture involves physical constraint; the chaser gains control of the fleer by force, although non-threatening in a game. When an adult captures a child, the child is often lifted off the ground restrained (gently) by the arms - similar to a hug. Children capture each other by holding the other person with both hands to still them or by using an object to restrain the fleer, such as a hula-hoop. Most often, these attempts are not serious endeavors and may only be symbolic gestures of capture. Forms of symbolic capture include the following:

Grab = Clawing in the air, as if trying to grasp or capture someone.
Grasp = To physically contact someone with the hand and hold firmly without restraining movement.
Tag = To touch lightly with a flat, open hand.
Trap = There is no physical contact between chaser and fleer but fleer is unable to escape because the path is blocked on all sides.

Even the act of pursuit is not a seriously undertaken endeavor, particularly with adults in the role of chaser. If the fleer is jogging, the chaser walks; if the fleer sprints, the chaser runs, etc. However, these attempts to pursue and capture must be believable to maintain a sense of challenge, and hence thrill and excitement, for the fleer.

Evade Capture

Obviously, the primary intentional strategy of the fleer is to evade capture. The basic locomotive strategies are to walk, jog, run, or sprint faster than the chaser. A locomotive strategy rare in two- and three-year-olds children, but gaining in frequency with four- and five-year-olds, is the use of dodging movements. In dodging, the fleer moves rapidly from side to side in an irregular course or the fleer suddenly changes direction, which is the most common form of dodging used by children in this age range.

Another common strategy to evade capture is climbing. When climbing, the hands are placed on a support, grip firmly, then both feet (or just one foot) are placed on a support below, the hands pull the body up, and the legs push (Leach, 1972). Hiding is also a frequent evasion strategy. In hiding, the goal is to conceal the self from the view of others in an attempt to deceive others as to one's whereabouts.

Other playground objects become environmental affordances during the chase game that allow for the variation of locomotive strategies by running around them, running through them, weaving around them, or using them as obstacles. These strategies may function to lengthen the path of the chaser, possibly in an attempt to induce fatigue.

Initiation Strategies

Verbal Strategies

At any age, games are most often initiated by the person assuming the fleer role and are initiated with a speech act. Initiatory speech acts include statements such as "Want to chase?," "Chase me!," "He's gonna chase us!" and "Nanananabooboo!" We have heard and recorded only two instances of the word 'play' in a request to engage in a chase game ("We want to play chase." and "Want to play chase?") The person requesting the game is usually smiling and also has an expression of anticipation, with the eyebrows raised and a mischievous gleam in the eyes (i.e., a playface).

A request for a game is illustrated in the following vignette. A short chase had occurred between two girls and ended with joint play in a tunnel. A boy classmate is standing about 10 feet away, near the playset, surveying the playground, possibly looking for someone or something to play with.

The girls leave the tunnel and approach J. (M, 5.5) from behind. B. (F, 4.7) taps him on the shoulder; he turns on his heels to face her. B. demurely, with her head bowed slightly and cocked to one side and her hands clasped together at her waist, asks, "Would you chase us?" A. (F, 5.0) is standing a couple of feet behind her. J. responds immediately by drawing himself up tall with his arms slightly extended to the sides and puffing his chest out; then he growls. As he adopts the chaser role, indicated by these cues, the girls smile and run in the direction of the tunnels. J. pauses after the growl and then runs after them (Observation, 1999-10-12).

When games begin with a speech act from the fleer, the response from the chaser is most frequently nonverbal, in the form of behavioral cues indicative of assuming the role, as J. does in the above example.

Nonverbal Strategies

Rarely, the chaser initiates the game. When this situation does arise, the initiation takes the form of cues usually seen in the maintenance of the game, such as growling, rearing, looming, or some combination of these actions. Most often these gestures are accompanied by a playface. The following excerpt from a chase game provides an example of a chaser initiating a game. Outdoor time had just begun. As the girls ran out of the classroom to the playground they decided to play "Cheetah," a chase game invented by the 4-year-olds in which they play a family of cheetahs chased by a generic "monster." N. had other ideas for a chase game with himself as a T-Rex and the girls readily joined in his game.

N. (M, 4.11) walks up to T. (F, 4.8), L. (F, 5.0), and A. (F, 4.6) and initiates the game with a growl, while rearing. A. and T. squeal and run toward the covered sandbox. L. stands her ground facing N., feet shoulder-width apart and firmly planted. She is scowling. Her arms are stretched straight out in front of her, hands clenched. She jabs at N. in a brief, non-contact playfight then turns and runs in the path of the other girls. N. waits a few seconds and watches them, before running after them around the sandbox, around the sheds, to the other side of the playground; he is continually at least 5 feet behind L. (Observation: 2000-02-04).

This segment of a game has a few interesting features to note. It is an instantiation of an initiation by the chaser using stereotypical chaser cues. The cues to fleers are given in gesture and vocalization, and the girls readily understand their role in the game and flee with a squeal of excitement. Also, a fleer engages in non-contact playfight with the chaser in an attempt to evade capture.

Playfighting is a co-occurring behavior in chase, although relatively infrequent. Finally, the chaser waits for the fleers to gain quite a head start before running after them. Later in the game he grabs at the girls when he is in close enough proximity to make actual captures, but he refrains from doing so. Occasionally, games are initiated when the fleer merely begins to run and turns to look over the shoulder with an expression of anticipation, the playface, at the person assigned the role of chaser. Figure 1 illustrates the relationships of the behaviors utilized to initiate chase play sequences.

Maintenance Strategies

An intricate dance of cues between fleer and chaser maintains the chase game, once initiated. As the fleer runs away from the pursuer, the child cannot know the chaser's movements or distance because the head is turned in the opposite direction. To assess the state of affairs along this dimension, the fleer will frequently turn the head, while still moving forward and without losing speed, and look over the shoulder at the chaser. This behavior is usually accompanied by a smile.

Upon eye contact with the fleer, the chaser will typically deliver a cue indicating the game is still on. These cues are as follows:

Stalk = A slow walk characterized by pulling the legs up from the hips, producing a deep bend in the knees, and stomping the feet as they are placed on the ground. This act sometimes co-occurs with rearing.

Rear = A behavior characterized by raising the arms, palms face front, fingers spread and curved.

Loom = Occurs if the chaser is in close enough proximity to the fleer. The action of looming creating the perceptual effect of filling the visual field of another by approaching him/her. This behavior creates an illusion of large size that may function to intimidate another. The chaser, when looming, is close enough to the fleer to capture, yet actual capture is deferred.

Lunge = A full-body gesture characterized by a long step, terminating in a frozen position of the body, the forward leg slightly bent, the torso leaning forward, and the arms reaching out with open hands and fingers spread as if ready to grasp and capture. Usually, the chaser does not actually capture the fleer when lunging.

Growl = A deep, guttural, inarticulate sound, in apparent imitation of an animal.

Maintenance cues from the chaser also include the aforementioned capture, grab, grasp, trap and tag. As soon as the cue is presented, the fleer generally smiles and/or emits a vocalization. The vocalization is one of the following:

Scream =A sudden harsh, loud cry from an open throat.

Squeal = A glissando scream with a piercing quality, ending on a high pitch (Leach, 1972), a shrill cry.

Laugh = A variable sound of series of short, repeated expirations and a long inspiration of breath, accompanied by a characteristic noise (Leach, 1972) that originates from the diaphragm.

Giggle = A rapid, high-pitch laughter characterized by repeated short catches of breath. The sound originates more in the throat than the laugh.

The excerpt of a game presented next effectively portrays this nonverbal communication of cues that function to maintain games. Two girls have been hiding in one of the tire tunnels for most of the time outdoors this morning, their favorite hang-out the past few days. The playground has two tire tunnels; each consists of eight large and upright tractor tires placed adjacent to each other and anchored in the sand. The floor of the tunnel is sandy; the tires leave enough room for these two to stand upright. I am sitting on the ground a few feet away from and facing the east entrance of the tunnel, with a clear view of the girls and sharing their perspective of the west end of the tunnel. At the beginning of the game, their teacher is standing on the south side of the tunnel, supervising the playground.

The chase game is initiated when Z., the teacher (F, 40's), peers into the tunnel at the girls, possibly with the intention of locating the girls. Her body remains hidden behind the tires; she is bending slightly to the left side from the waist to see into the tunnel; the girls can only see her face in the entrance, with her hair hanging down. The instant the girls spot her they emit a high-pitched squeal. As they do so, they quickly raise their lower arms in a protective gesture, their hands clenched in a fist near the shoulder joint. Z. is smiling and observing their response to her possibly unintentional initiation of a game. A split second later, they each squeeze their bodies into the hollow area of two adjacent tires in the middle section of the tunnel, facing the inside of the tire. They are concealed from my view and from Z.'s. A few seconds later, they lean slightly back, look at each other and giggle. Only their shoulders, A.'s (F, 2.11) face, and the back of L.'s (F, 3.2) head are visible from my entrance. Z. is no longer viewing the action in the tunnel. She is, at this point, walking along the outside of the tunnel, possibly to reach the east entrance, but stops midway and sticks her arm through a crack between two tires, in one of which A. is hiding. She forms a claw with her hand and claws at the air inside the tunnel, but would be unable to grasp or touch A. if she tried. The girls are squealing again, and Z. has an amused, half-smile facial expression. Inside the tunnel, the girls are still leaning slightly back from their hiding places and turn to the west entrance to see Z.'s arm; A. turns towards L. and they look at each other and squeal - a mixture of giggles and terror, eyes and mouth wide open. Clambering as fast as they can out of their tires, they scurry backwards across the tunnel into new hiding places, this time with their backs in the hollow of the tire (Observation: 2000-02-03).

Interestingly, the adult unintentionally initiates this game. However, the adult readily continues her actions to entertain the girls. Also, this description of part of a chase game nicely illustrates the dance of cues from eye contact to maintenance cue, grabbing inside the tunnel without the intention to capture, to the response to the cue, squealing and hiding. Figure 2 illustrates the behaviors that function to maintain chase games.

Termination of the Game

Games generally degrade in three ways: the fleer ceases his activity, the chaser no longer delivers a cue to maintain the game in response to eye contact, or the chaser delivers a well-timed capture. Whereas the beginning of a game generally has a clear starting point and behavior, the ending is more like a wave receding from the shore. The game seems to suddenly dissolve. Children typically move on to other play activities.

Games rarely terminate in a well-timed capture. When a capture is appropriate, the child smiles, laughs, and often hugs the chaser. The chaser must time a capture with sensitivity to the fleer's desires. When a capture is delivered before the fleer is ready to end the game, the child becomes angry and may make statements such as "No! You're not supposed to catch me!"

The Paradoxical Nature of Chase Play

Affective and behavioral features of chase games point to a paradoxical nature of this form of physical activity play. Chasers behave as if they intend to capture and eat the fleer and deliver cues such as growling, stalking, looming, and rearing that overtly signal this intent. While delivering these menacing cues in the initiation and/or maintenance phase of games, chasers have a playface, a facial expression characterized by a wide open mouth with the corners moving up and out, as in a smile, the eyebrows are raised, and the eyes are open wide. Fleers respond as if they were afraid and desperate to get away; they run, hide, and climb to evade the chaser, and squeal as if in terror in response to these cues. However, fleers smile as they run away and in the middle of a terrified squeal, they giggle. When asked why they are running away from the person pursuing them, they say, "I'm afraid!" with broad smiles. Yet, immediately following a chase, the fleer will contentedly play some other game with the chaser.

Speech acts within a game are characterized by a rising intonation with a singsong quality, similar to the tone used by a parent speaking to his or her infant. The content of these speech acts must also be interpreted as a paradoxical feature of chase games. When a child says, "Chase me!," she certainly does not mean a "real" chase with the harm that would accompany capture. These requests are made with a smile or possibly a playface. A chaser, especially an adult, makes statements such as "I'm going to get you!" The threats are said with a playface and without the intention of even physically contacting the child. The child usually giggles, laughs, or squeals in response, all the while smiling broadly. An adult was even overheard saying, when she captured a girl and lifted her in the air, "What am I going to do with you? Eat you?" The girl giggled! Certainly she knew her teacher would not eat her "for real."

Chase Play as Collaborative Play

On the surface, chase games seem to be competitive. Chaser and fleer appear to have opposing goals in the game: capture and evade capture. However, chasers almost invariably self-handicap. They intentionally refrain from actual capture by pursuing the fleer at a slower pace, by halting all movements to allow the fleer to escape, or by merely grabbing at the fleer with no intention make physically contact. We agree with Corasaro's statement that "children are performing with and for each other (1985:237)."

In the following depiction of a game with self-handicapping, L. (F, 3.2) and A. (F, 3.0) are playing in the sand under the playset. B. (M, 4.11) unintentionally initiates a game by merely crawling a little closer to the girls, he is also playing in the sand.

B. crawls closer to L., smiling. L. stands and runs to the base of the tree. A. watches L.'s movements then also stands and runs. The girls stop at the tree and sit near the trunk. Smiling broadly, they watch B. crawl from under the playset for a few feet then stand and walk, crouched slightly over, toward them. He is also smiling. With every other step he takes in the girls' direction, L. squeals. When N. is only two feet away from them, she stands and runs in a wide arch around the tree. He watches her run away. When on the other side of the tree, she turns and looks over her shoulder at him, still running, makes eye contact and squeals. As soon as she squeals, he begins to walk after her (Observation, 2000-02-08).

Notice that B. stops his advance when L. stands to flee from him and allows time for her to get away. In fact, he waits until the cue she still wants to play, the squeal, is delivered before he pursues her. When he does begin the chase, he walks after her, allowing her to stay far ahead of him.

Self-handicapping can also take the form of a restrained capture. If a capture is premature, the fleer becomes agitated and angry. The fleer appears to have an unusual amount of control of the game. The following game began when A. (F, 5.0) interprets C.'s (F, 3.7) running as a cue to chase and illustrates a restrained capture. At this point, the chase has stalled because A. was no longer delivering cues to maintain the game. C. reinitiates the action by approaching A. and growling and rearing at her.

A. stands and suddenly lunges at C. A. is close enough to C. to capture her; however, she does not even contact her, although her arms are lengthened in front of her and her hands are posed to grasp and restrain C. C. turns away from A., has a playface, and runs to the playset. She climbs the steps and runs out onto the bridge. A. returns to kneeling on the ground beside the playset, watching C.'s movements. C. begins to run back and forth across the bridge in dodging movements. A. is following her, changing direction as she does, only A. is still on the ground. I can only see A.'s eyes and the top of her head peering over the bridge. C. is smiling (Observation, 1999-10-26).

As the observation indicates, A. does not capture the fleer at the first opportunity or at all. Even when C. is dodging A. on the bridge, A. could easily have stood and captured C. through the space between the bridge and the handrail.

Self-handicapping is also witnessed in the role of the fleer when the fleer is more experienced than the chaser in the locomotive strategies of the game. A segment of a game was sampled to illustrate this phenomenon. M. (F, 4.0) is playing chase with a female teacher. The game is slow-paced, as M. has a tendency to become truly afraid when chased. M. sets the pace at a jog and the teacher jogs slowly behind her. The game also involves tagging, which functions to indicate a role reversal. A role reversal just occurred prior to this segment and M. is now in the role of chaser.

The teacher jogs away from M. and M. jogs in pursuit. Both players are smiling. The teacher jogs in a small circle then turns and jogs backward, facing M. M. cannot quite reach the teacher to deliver the tag, so the teacher slows her pace to a walk to allow M. to tag her. M. jogs up to the teacher and tags her lightly on the stomach. She giggles as she turns to flee from the teacher, roles reverse again (Observation, 2000-01-21).

The adult, in the role of fleer, keeps her behavior within the child's level of ability so the game can continue and be entertaining for the child. children appear to prefer adults as chasers, certainly not at the same ability-level. Perhaps the best description of the goal of the chase game is to maintain the game. Also, children appear to prefer adults as chasers, who are certainly not at the same level of ability. We quickly noticed that children prefer playing chase with an adult typically assigned the role of chaser. Fifty-six chase games in the database are games with an adult.

Another interesting feature of games indicative of the collaborative nature of this form of play is the occurrence of role reversals. Even when an actual capture, tag, or grasp does occur in a game, there are no consequences beyond a possible role reversal. Frequently, the game even continues as if nothing happened. The switch of chaser and fleer roles ensures equal opportunity to play both parts. Role reversals appear most often following a capture or symbolic capture signified by the tag or grasp.


When in the world of play, children experience profound feelings of pleasure and enjoyment arising merely from the activity; no extrinsic rewards are necessary (Garvey 1990). The behavior emerges in a spirit of spontaneity and requires neither adult intervention nor prompting to initiate it. Play behavior inherently requires active engagement of the player (Garvey 1990). Chase play fulfills these requirements to be categorized as play and a complex behavior of this form. An amazing multitude and diversity of behaviors mark games - locomotive and expressive. These behaviors unfold in a prototypical pattern beginning with the initiation of play and ending when the game fades away. Interestingly, chase play has a paradoxical nature; both extreme excitement, as indicated by smiles, laughter, and giggles, and seeming terror, evidenced in the shrill, glissando squeals emitted by fleers, are salient features of chase play.

The instances of chase play we have observed adhere to certain criteria established by previous researchers to distinguish collaborative play from acts of aggression. Blurton Jones (1972b) states that smiles and laughter are the most common facial expressions and vocalizations during games and are not present in aggressive interactions. When games end, children continue to play together in other activities; participants in an aggressive encounter avoid each other after confrontation (Aldis, 1975). Other features of cooperation such as role reversals and self-handicapping also mark games. In fact, chase play is devoid of several of the obvious concomitants of a genuine pursuit: pervasive self-handicapping indicates that the chaser does not wish to catch the fleer, the game is sustained only through the constant deferral of capture, and indeed has no reason to catch the fleer, nor does he or she generally attempt to do so. The chaser's primary goal is not to capture the fleer but to maintain the game. And fleers tend to choose chasers of a more advanced skill level, such as an adult. Furthermore, play is typically initiated by the fleer; in fact, children will often beg others to chase them. This clearly indicates that they wish to be chased, presumably because they find it enjoyable rather than intimidating. It also suggests the chaser is often perceived to be doing the fleer a kind of favor; in line with this, we have found that the role of fleer is typically preferred over that of chaser. When given a choice of chasers, fleers typically prefer chasers who can outrun them, even by a large margin, but they expect their chasers to self-handicap, sometimes scolding them if they do not. This indicates that fleers wish the chaser to be able to follow closely behind them in a sustained manner even while they are running as fast as they can. While the chase superficially appears to be threatening to the fleers, since they typically exert themselves with a great deal of energy and utilize a variety of complex strategies to avoid capture, nevertheless, the fleers remain in charge of the game, frequently commanding the chaser to back away if a capture is attempted. At times, the fleer's face and voice expresses fear or even panic; however, the most common expressions and vocalizations during chase games are smiles and laughter. When games end, children peacefully continue to play together in other activities.

Chase play is an extremely complex phenomenon, yet this complexity has been largely overlooked by researchers. The aim of this study was to provide a detailed documentation of this type of physical activity play. We have described several new features of chase play, such as the means of initiation, the cues delivered by chasers to maintain games, and the facial expressions and vocalizations that accompany play. The description of chase play in early childhood presented in this paper accentuates the importance of a renewed consideration of the question regarding the function of this behavior. By giving full attention to the detailed structure of this behavior, we aim to provide researchers with an objective basis for a broader inquiry into its origins and functions.


Figure 1: Taxonomy of Initiation Behaviors

Figure 2: Taxonomy of Maintenance Behaviors



We would like to sincerely thank Dr. Anthony Pellegrini, Dr. Teresa McDevitt, Dr. Jrene Rahm, and Dr. Kathy Cochran for their thoughtful feedback on this manuscript.


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