Why rough play is OK

Right now, my three boys (ages 5, 7 and 9) are in our upstairs loft wrestling.

Sitting at my computer at the kitchen table, I can hear a lot of clomping around and the persistent thumping of feet and arms, all punctuated by the occasional scream and the sound of my upstairs furniture shifting.

These are loud and happy wrestling sounds.  

I admit — as a kindergarten teacher and mother of four — my tolerance for this type of play may be a bit higher than the average parent.

But my acceptance is grounded in the belief that roughhousing significantly helps with kids’ growth and development. 

The benefits

Technically speaking, my boys are engaging in rough-and-tumble play. 

This fundamental form of play has been defined as “physically vigorous behaviors” — such as chasing and play fighting — accompanied by positive feelings between the players. 

This type of play is good for kids and has many research-proven benefits: Dr. Richard Fletcher from University of Newcastle (Australia) found that rough-and-tumble play can provide real-world opportunities for children to observe and practice important social skills such as recognizing emotions, suppressing impulses and aggression and sustaining reciprocal play.

Children who engage in roughhousing also can learn self-control, compassion and boundaries.

According to The Play and Playground Encyclopedia, roughhousing often requires intense exertion that helps with kids’ cardiovascular health, motor skills and muscle development. 

These activities give boys especially the opportunity to address their need for power and to physically touch each other while playing. 

They may play King of the Mountain, pretend to be superheroes or engage in mock karate. 

In time, rough-and-tumble games can evolve into more sophisticated games, including organized sports.

Setting limits: 

Create boundaries.

In our family, wrestling and Nerf guns are limited to kids’ bedrooms, the upstairs play loft or outdoors.

Watch for aggressive behavior. 

Be prepared to intervene if necessary. 

“In rough play, kids are smiling and having a good time; in real fights, they’re angry or crying,” said psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore in an article published in Psychology Today. “In rough play, kids take turns ‘attacking’ and being ‘attacked,’ and they’re careful not to push or hit too hard. 

“In real fights, the kids are trying to hurt each other. Real fights usually involve only two kids, and they don’t want to be together afterwards.”

Get involved.  

A common reaction when seeing kids wrestle might be one of resistance or alarm.

I’ve often tried to intervene — when my boys have been piled on top of each other. 

My husband, on the other hand, actually likes to get in on the action. And that’s good: When dads (and moms, too!) get involved roughhousing with young children, it helps them model appropriate rough-and-tumble techniques and build deeper connections with their children.

Yes, rough play can lead to bumps and bruises — and even tears and hurt feelings — but I believe the overall benefits are worth it.

Megan Devine lives in Northeastern Minnesota. Write her at mdevine@mnparent.com.