Why rough housing is good for kids

I get a lot of questions from concerned parents about rough housing, wrestling, and other physical play. Dads want to know if it’s OK to wrestle with their kids, and moms are concerned that somebody will inevitably get hurt. Often it seems that physical play of this sort does end with the younger or smaller child in tears. But as I was doing research for my thesis in 2007 I ran across some studies that changed my mind about so called “rough housing.”

One study in particular stands out in my mind. It was conducted on a playground where researchers observed boys playing a tackling game. Researchers thought that they would find the game to be violent and detrimental to kids, but they actually found just the opposite. They observed that in playing this seemingly violent game, rarely did anyone get hurt, and when someone did get hurt, the other boys reacted with caring and compassion toward their fallen playmate.

And, after failing to find what they were looking for, the researchers changed their tack and began to look for behaviors that showed kindness and caring, such as a pat on the back, a hug, or helping one another get up. They quickly realized that the vast majority of the interactions between the kids on the playground were those kind and caring gestures!

In fact, they further realized that it was because of the seemingly violent nature of the tackling game that kids were given more opportunities to offer a helping hand or a hug than they would have otherwise. So that’s when I realized, that with some clear ground rules, wrestling between kids or between kids and adults could actually be a really joyful and beneficial activity for everyone involved.

So the next time your child runs to you crying, “My brother hurt me!” you can see it as an opportunity to nurture and comfort your child (which builds your connection) AND as an opportunity to show an older child how to take even better care of his younger sibling (which will build their connection).

Now, I’m not recommending that you force your older child to offer disingenuous nurturing, rather, that you model for your children how to care for one another. I also think it’s useful to keep in mind that there have likely been lots of other moments when the older sibling did take care of the younger one, that you might not have seen. Of course, the opposite can also be true.

So, if you’re not sure what’s really going on between your kids, take some time to observe them together and keep a tally for yourself. How many times did they touch or hug in a loving way? How many times did they touch in a hurtful way? What was your favorite moment? Why? What kinds of things did they say to each other? Ideally, you would tuck yourself away in a corner and seem to ignore them, so that they can play normally, forgetting that you’re even in the room.

But do be careful not to allow your preconceived notions or biases to show up in your observations. An observation should be completely neutral and without judgment, such as “Carl jumped on the bed and Henrietta fell off,” rather than “Carl viciously knocked Henrietta off the bed.”

I mentioned ground rules earlier and here are the ones I like for wrestling and rough housing at my house:

1) We stop if someone gets hurt and help them

2) We stop when someone says stop

3) We only use our bodies and pillows (no hard objects)

4) We stay on the carpet or bed

I’m so curious, have you found rough housing to be a connecting activity at your house? What are your ground rules? Please share your wisdom with us!

And have a wonderful week, Shelly

6 comments
chirokaren
chirokaren

My daughter seems the happiest when playing "rough" with her Daddy. They have been playing hard since she was old enough to join in. Now she asks for it all the time when he is around. They tackle each other on the couch or carpet, they tickle, pounce, wrestle, jump, bury, smush, chase, you name it. She howls in laughter the whole time unless it's too much and she will say stop and he does. I know this type of play is awesome for her development in so many ways and I see the beautiful bonding that happens in the physical contact and understanding of personal boundaries. I do it too sometimes but differently than her father, which I'm sure she appreciates as well.

Shelly
Shelly

Hey Christee, Giovanna, and Hails, Thanks for your contributions here. I appreciate everything you've shared.

Hails, I hadn't thought about the spatial awareness aspect of rough and tumble play, but I agree entirely. Thanks for adding an important point that I failed to mention. It takes a village, right? :)

Sending hugs to you all, Shelly

Hails
Hails

Rough and Tumble type of play also helps with

. Development of large muscles
. Fitness levels
. Strength
. Balance

It is a very important part of play, which is the childs work. It also helps with aspects of brain development associated with

. Movement and spatial awareness

Spatial awareness is an important skill to develop. This helps with judging space and distance and allows us to think in 3D estimations for example. It is critical skill to have in many maths disciplines and every day life. When we reach out our hand to put a coffee cup on a table, we are using spatial awareness, maps another thing that we use spatial awareness with. Constructing 3D objects... I could go on.

Roughhousing is vital to brain development and children don't play like this in order to hurt one another, they do it because it is inbuilt in them. Just like pups, cubs, chimps, monkeys etc etc. They all roughhouse. They are all learning spatial awareness. Judging distances to pounce, judging branch distances for chimps and monkeys. Spatial awareness, co-ordination, and how much strength to exert. No different from humans needing this crucial element in brain development.

Giovanna
Giovanna

I agree that rough housing is good for kids. It teaches you how to be careful physically with the people you love, and how to both get hurt by someone accidentally and know it's not a big deal, and how to comfort someone you hurt accidentally. It can be quite therapeutic (especially for a younger sibling) to feel a sibling tone down their obviously superior physical abilities in order to make sure you are having fun and aren't hurt. My parents would sometimes join in, when we were kids... those are some great family memories! We even have some of it on home video. It's definitely a great way to get in your laughing fit for the day, and really enjoy all that energy your kids have!

Christee
Christee

I'll take this to be a carryover from rough housing while younger, but getting teased / and played with roughly is definitely what created bonds for my teenaged son. He hung around with older kids with very kind hearts, that were merciless in their kidding and rough housing. That bunch of guys are still friends ten+ years later.