Memories of my childhood involve rubber boots, summers at the lake, and a heavy dose of wrestling with my older brother. Physical play is great for kids and adults alike, and has a lot more benefits than just blowing off some steam. It develops strength, movement, and even social skills. Rough play can include anything from pillow fights to sliding down the stairs, and may be the secret play skill that your kids are missing.
In rough and tumble play, children smile and laugh, use relatively gentle contact, and are eager to join. An older or stronger child may even let their opponent ‘win,’ and many children can participate. The key is to keep it playful versus powerful. Children are often better at assessing risk than we give them credit for (Balanced and Barefoot, 2016); the key is teaching roughhousing as a skill and then letting them practice.
Roughhousing activates many different parts of the body and the brain, from the amygdala, which processes emotions, and the cerebellum, which handles complex motor skills, to the prefrontal cortex, which makes high-level judgments (The Art of Roughhousing). It’s a type of play that is spontaneous and involves a lot of improvisation - you have to react to a sudden loss of balance or a pillow that is flying at your head! Roughhousing also provides an opportunity to make mistakes without fear of punishment, and gives LOTS of practice in managing our emotions. When you are tossed unceremoniously off of the couch in an attempt to be ‘Queen of the Castle,’ you have to take a deep breath and get back up, or else the whole game ends. Getting our bodies and brains ramped up and then calming down again is another way to practice those co-regulation skills.
Rough and tumble play also helps with impulse control for kids that are ‘too rough.’ It can build body awareness and give a good opportunity for practicing grading pressure (too light, too hard, just right). Roughhousing helps kids understand their strength and learn about balance and body control. It’s also nice to know that play fighting rarely leads to real fighting, as certain rules and guidelines are in place (Panskepp, 2003).
One of my favourite resources for rough play is The Art of Roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It (DeBenedet & Cohen). It’s a how-to guide for rowdy interactive physical play between an adult and a child, walking you through the basics and leading you to the more complex Wacky Whirling Dervish (page 64). The book is a guide to developing courage, confidence, and trust in one another. Check out this amazing TEDx Talk to hear one of the authors talk about the benefits of roughhousing.
Here are a few tips to help make rough and tumble play a beneficial and safe experience in your home:
Children need to be taught how to rough house; it’s not always a skill that comes
naturally to children. The responsible adult is to monitor the child and keep bruises and
scrapes to a minimum (The Art of Roughhousing).
Do an environmental scan to assess for sharp hard edges, rugs that slip, and breakable
DeBenedit & Cohen talk about the importance of ‘tuning in’ to your kiddos, versus
swooping in and starting to wrestle. Rather than grabbing your calm child off of the
couch for a suplex, wait until the energy level is palpable and they need to let off some
Avoid roughhousing right before bed time. The hour before lying down should include
baths and books, not back-benders and body slams.
Follow the giggles, and be aware of signs of frustration. It is often helpful to have a word
or phrase that freezes the play (bean burrito is a favourite during OT sessions!). Set a
timer if you need to build in ‘breather breaks’ throughout your play session.
Bring it back down - once the breathing slows down and the cheeks are rosy, it’s time to
bring calm back. Try some basic heavy work like wall pushes, followed by a few rounds
of our favourite dragon breathing.