Why Rough-and-Tumble Play is Essential

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As a child I remember playing actively in a lot of ways—cartwheels, spinning contests, games of tag, and a slue of acrobatic tricks on the swing set and monkey bars. My husband, Andy, had a slightly more active childhood than me.

He and his brother had a game where they would chase each other around the house with a squirt gun and a towel. The goal was to shoot the other person in the eye with a squirt gun and then whip him with the towel and leave a welt on his back. They would use the towels to dry their faces, which would get the towels wet and make them more effective at giving welts.

They used to have daily wrestling matches on the bed in the basement to see who could knock the other person off, king-of-the-hill style. One person would stand on the bed while the other used any means necessary to knock him off—pillows, wet towels as whips, pushing and shoving.

Once during this game, Andy fell off the bed and gashed his head on an old-school cabinet-style speaker. His brother abruptly stopped playing at that point, and said, “Whoa.” But Andy got back up, ready to go, talking smack, “What? You can’t handle me?” Then his brother said, “I’m going to show you something. We’re going to go look in the mirror. You’re just fine, though.” They walked to the mirror where Andy saw his face was covered in blood. He burst into tears at the sight, but was fine in the end (heads do bleed a lot), and it certainly didn’t stop them from resuming the game at the next opportunity.

In his book, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, author Stuart Brown, M.D., makes the point that adults often can’t tell the difference between play-fighting and real fighting, but kids always know. Not only that, research suggests this kind of rough-and-tumble play is actually a critical part of early development.

(MORE: Has Playground Safety Gone Too Far?)

 Tip: Rough-and-tumble play is not the same as aggression. The former offers numerous benefits to kids while the latter does not.

4 Reasons Kid Need to Play Roughly

 

1. It Helps Develop Problem Solving Skills

In Play, Brown cites studies that suggest early active play, such as games of chase, may relate to future problem-solving skills. When your kids are tearing through the house chasing each other, this is probably not what you’re thinking about. It’s easy to get caught up in thinking they’re being too noisy, too aggressive, or too careless. But if you stop and think about it, it really makes sense that this type of play would bolster problem solving skills—just as my husband and his brother had to devise ways to knock each other off the bed.

 

2. It Helps Resolve Dominance and Competitiveness Issues

Brown also cites research that suggests kids who don’t have rough-and-tumble play “hampers the normal give-and-take necessary for social mastery, and has been linked to poor control of violent impulses in later life.” In a study of violent criminals, researchers found an absence of rough-and-tumble play in their early backgrounds compared to control subjects.

 

3. It Helps Develop Physical Abilities

With obesity rates in kids climbing, it’s hard to discount anything that gets kids moving. Supporting cardiovascular health is a benefit to rough-and-tumble play, highlighted in the article “Rough and Tumble Play 101” by Frances Carlson.

 

4. It Helps Kids Get Their Essential Touch Needs Met

For boys in particular, rough-and-tumble play is a way to express affection and intimacy. In an interview for BAM! Radio, education professor Tom Reed says, “When you watch [kids] they’re all over reach other, they’ll walk around with their arms around each other… where they would not do anything like that ever in a public place.”  Carlson’s research supports this idea, as well, that rough-and-tumble play helps kids get their vital touch needs met.

 

Rough Play vs. Aggression

 

What’s the difference between rough-and-tumble play and true aggression? Reed says it’s intent. With aggressive behavior, there’s and intention to hurt, and revenge is paramount. Rough-and-tumble play is different. Play is paramount. If someone gets hurt, the other child will try to help—which is exactly what happened when my husband Andy hit his head on the speaker.

Reed says there’s a misconception that friends who really like each other don’t hit each other. In fact, the opposite is usually true, particularly with boys. The more they like each other, the more they know it’s safe to clobber each other and laugh about it later.

 

How Should Parents Respond?

 

Instead of shutting down rough-and-tumble play, Reed suggests joining in. Use it as an opportunity to teach lessons and set limits.

(MORE: The Art of Saying Yes to Your Kids)

Carlson also advocates giving kids guidelines to know when enough is enough. Depending on the game or situation, the rules might be different. Some examples she gives are “no choking,” “keep hands away from hair and heads,” and when smiles stop, play stops. Additionally, Carlson recommends making sure the play area where kids engage in rough-and-tumble play is as safe as possible. For example, no hard edges (like cabinet speakers!) or tripping hazards.

 

Share your thoughts: What types of rough-and-tumble play do your kids enjoy?

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