My children have ridiculous amounts of energy. Sometimes that is used to prolong games of the imagination or participate in sporting events or long bike rides. But they are also really great at channeling the lives of feral animals and play a game I call, “Someone is going to get hurt!”
The game has many variations, but they all involve physical touch. Sometimes the game involves throwing blankets over their heads and navigating tight spaces together. Sometimes they take pillows, hold them in front of their chests and run head-on into each other. Other times they kick and swing at each other as if they are knives attacking the fruit they imagine their siblings to be. It’s like a 3-D version of Fruit Ninja—don’t ask who is playing what role because it doesn’t matter; the goal is to touch, hit, trip, or knock someone over. This rough-and-tumble play drives me nutty. However, experts say it’s good for them.
Rough-and-tumble play is not aggression or real fighting—my kids are good at those things too, though; roughhousing is fun for all involved, not meant to hurt, and done with a mutual goal of playing for as long as possible. Examples of rough-and-tumble play are wrestling, tag, play fighting, climbing and jumping, tickling, and spinning. I’m pretty sure my kids do all of these things in just the 15 minutes leading up to bedtime and it makes me anxious each time. I anticipate someone getting hurt or breaking something, so I usually give them warnings; I probably need to just shut up in most cases and let natural consequences run their course.
Roughhousing helps kids learn body control, balance, and body awareness. In order to not hurt the friend or sibling they are playing with, a child needs to be present and mindful of how their body is moving. They need to learn how to harness their speed and quickness in a way that keeps the game fun and not dangerous. The physicality of rough-and-tumble play builds gross motor skills. Wrestling and tug-of-war engage muscles in the hands and arms that help flex those fine motor skills too.
Rough-and-tumble play encourages language and social-emotional growth too. When kids are play fighting, they are able to learn the difference between kind and nurturing touch vs. aggressive and dominating touch. Kids are more likely to use their words in order to keep the game going because they are having fun and are both willing participants. They are learning how to deal with conflict in a prosocial way. Physical play does not mean violent play.
Rough-and-tumble play isn’t necessarily a free for all. When put into practice, some rules need to be put into place. This is the piece that I need to improve on so that my head doesn’t explode when my kids turn dance parties into mosh pits. First of all, take a look at the surroundings. If play is happening inside, are there loose rugs? Sharp corners? Toys to trip over and fall on? If the game is outside, are there rocks, sticks, holes or piles of dog poop that need to be avoided and removed before activity begins? A designated space, sometimes with a soft mat or coned-off area will help keep games safe.
It’s important to talk to kids about consent too—no, not in a way that is sexual. Consent is about permission. Rough-and-tumble play allows kids to practice reading other people. They can learn to check in with their friends. Is everyone still having fun? Are you okay? Want to keep playing? Setting and abiding by a “safe” word that can stop play will also keep the game fun for everyone.
I still can’t stop my fear of the situation escalating, though. There are definitely occasions when I white-knuckle my way through their physical play. But research shows that rough play only turns into actual fighting about 1% of the time. And other studies show that aggressive play reduces aggressive behavior, especially later in adolescence and into adulthood. Children who are allowed to learn cooperation and how to navigate competition in guided and monitored ways will continue to improve those skills as they get older. Rough-and-tumble play is a safe way to work out aggression and fine-tune competitive play that honors the game and the competitors.
It can be hard to step back from the noise and chaos that our kids can create. My brain goes to all of the negative “what ifs” of their pillow fights and games of Cheese Touch (thanks, Diary of a Wimpy Kid). Those negative scenarios may happen and I will always long for a padded room, but there are more positives that can, and do, come out of rough-and-tumble play.