So, what constitutes roughhousing? You know it when you see it: Play fighting, chasing, tumbling, pillow fighting and jumping on the bed. It often includes body contact between kids or the adults they’re playing with.
If you worry about your kids playing rough, take comfort in these reasons physical play is good for children, and follow the suggestions for keeping it safe and meaningful.
The benefits of physical play
“When children wrestle, they’re displaying their inner power, not power over others,” he says. “Accessing that feeling of inner power is essential for children. It teaches them that they have the power to control their impulses, speak their mind and set healthy boundaries.”
Girls often get the message not to be aggressive or angry, but when they roughhouse, they can access a forcefulness they’re usually told not to have. “That sense of power is healthy,” Cohen says. “It’s not male or female. It’s human.”
Similarly, when adults wrestle with kids and let the children win, they learn a central, moral principle of life: that we protect those who are smaller and weaker.
It gives kids the healthy touch they crave. Without being affectionately touched, children cannot thrive. “Virtually every measure of life success, mental health and physical health is improved by physical touch in childhood and damaged by the lack of it,” says Cohen.
Positive touch nurtures children, decreases stress hormones and boosts the immune system. It’s important to the development of language, physicality, and social and emotional skills. “Children must have healthy touch,” says Frances Carlson, associate dean and a former professor of early-childhood education at Chattahoochee Technical College in Marietta, Ga., and the author of “Big Body Play.” She points out that once children are potty-trained, the amount of touch they get takes a nosedive. When kids scuffle, they’re meeting their needs for physical contact.
Boys, especially, can benefit. “From an early age, boys get messages that there are two types of touch: aggressive and sexual,” Cohen says. “Wrestling shows them that there’s a world of healthy touch in between.”
What’s more, rowdy play fosters connections between kids and adults. I used to bristle when my dad would energetically ask my boys, “Who wants to beat up Papa?!” afraid they’d mimic their wrestling moves at school. But now, I see why my kids love to play with their grandfather. He gets on his knees, makes eye contact with them and gives horsey-rides on his back. He’s bonding with them through shared fun and physical touch.
“Reciprocity, the act of giving and getting in equal amounts, fosters connection,” Carlson says. “When you’re wrestling, piggyback riding or bouncing a baby on your leg, that give-and-take builds trust.”
It teaches kids how to interact with others. There is concern that the pandemic has harmed children’s socialization. Many have been missing close-contact play because of virtual learning or physical distancing requirements. They’re also missing out on interactions that can bolster their ability to understand social cues. “Roughhousing is where children learn nonverbal communication — the way a person tilts their body, leans in, pulls away or glances at them,” Carlson says.
A 2020 University of Cambridge study suggests that children who engage in rowdy activities with their fathers are better able to control their emotions and less likely to have behavioral problems. The researchers hypothesize that roughhousing with a parent acts as a training ground for managing conflicts. “Physical play creates fun, exciting situations in which children have to apply self-regulation,” Paul Ramchandani, professor of play in education, development and learning at the University of Cambridge, told Science Daily. “You might have to control your strength, learn when things have gone too far.”
It teaches important lessons about consent. My kids can quickly go from laughing to whimpering. I use those opportunities to remind them that they always have to ensure the other person is still having fun. “It’s important to have very strong, established boundaries. At the first ‘I’m done’ or ‘stop,’ the game needs to be over,” Pearlman says.
Cohen suggests discussing how to know when someone no longer wants to wrestle. Tickling is a great example. Even though a person may reflexively laugh while being tickled, if they say “stop,” the game should end. The same is true of nonverbal cues like frowning, scowling or clenching one’s body or fists.
It’s also important to help children know how to tell when someone wants to play. Parents can model this: Instead of beginning a wrestling match with a child, ask if they’d like to wrestle. And if a child jumps on a parent for a piggyback ride, remind them that they need to ask first.
How parents can optimize physical play
Keep it safe. Knowing rough-and-tumble play is good for kids doesn’t mean your home needs to become a WWE cage match. A good rule of thumb to prevent boisterous play from getting out of hand is to limit arm and hand actions (grabbing, pushing, squeezing and hugging) to between the shoulders and hips of the other person. It’s never acceptable to grab the face or neck, or to kick someone.
All the experts I spoke with agree that parents should get in on the action — or at least be close enough to see or hear what’s going on. Work with kids to create ground rules. I started by announcing that grabbing each other’s necks and kicking was off-limits. My 5-year-old added, “Don’t sit on your brother’s head.”
If kids forget the rules in the heat of the moment, don’t fret. “Any strong emotion disengages the cortex, which is where all the rules live,” Cohen says. “Just say in a calm voice, ‘Let’s pause and go over those rules again.’ ”
He also suggests creating signals that put a meaningful beginning and end to rough play, known as a “container of connection.” Encourage children to high-five, shake hands or bow to one another before and after.
Allow enough time. Most parents tend to stop roughhousing preemptively. But if we permit children to go through the full progression, they’ll tire out, and their game will come to an exhausted, natural conclusion. When we force kids to stop wrestling before they’re ready, they learn that they should get to all the action within the first 10 minutes.
Cohen recommends encouraging frequent stops and starts. Shout “freeze” or “ding, ding, ding, back in your corners!” and then let the kids go at it again. This allows them to rev up and cool down repeatedly, which helps children learn to control their impulses.
Ultimately, embracing horseplay is about giving your kids the space and trust to fulfill their needs for connection and joy. Now instead of panicking when my living room turns into a scene from WrestleMania, I take a deep breath and remind myself that my boys are internalizing important life lessons. And, more often than before, I join in.