Kids have always loved roughhousing.
Boisterous, physical play is ingrained in their DNA, and when you get two or more kids around each other for long enough, horseplay’s bound to ensue.
“Children have been wrestling each other since the dawn of time,” says Jeremy Frisch, long-term athletic development expert and owner of Achieve Performance in Clinton, Massachusetts. “You put children together, they seek out sensory experiences. And that’s one of them It taps into every type of system—proprioceptive, vestibular, auditory, visual. It develops all those systems simultaneously, and when that happens, you get a child who’s more coordinated, athletic, resilient, smart, and socially-adept.”
Kids benefit from roughhousing (researchers often prefer the term ‘rough-and-tumble play’) for many of the same reasons they benefit from general free play. A 2018 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics confirms that play enhances creativity, imagination, dexterity, boldness, teamwork skills, stress-management skills, confidence, conflict resolution skills, decision-making skills, problem-solving skills and learning behavior.
Yet roughhousing seems to possess some special qualities that makes it a particularly rich form of play.
Several decades ago, psychologist and play expert Anthony Pellegrini discovered that how much and how well a child roughhoused on the playground was a better predictor of their first-grade achievement than their own kindergarten test scores. In the book The Art of Roughhousing, authors Anthony T. DeBenedet and Lawrence J. Cohen detail how physical play releases brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which stimulates new neuron growth in the cortex and hippocampus.
“The only analogy I can give in the adult world is if you were running a marathon, and you were at the same time, getting a hug and reading a book. All at the same time,” DeBenedet said on the Art of Manliness Podcast. “That’s kind of the analogy for the adult world, but that’s really what roughhousing is doing for kids’ brains.”
Modern kids are afforded few opportunities to congregate away from the prying eyes and “knock-it-off” pleas of adults. Many schools have done away with recess all together, and for those who do have it, children are frequently forbidden from making physical contact with one another. Society as a whole has become too overprotective in the way we restrict our children’s movement and interaction, and the result is kids who’re roughhousing less than ever.
“I think in the last 20 years, (opportunities for roughhousing) have been taken away, whether it’s over-bearing parents or school administrators being nervous about someone getting hurt. But it’s totally natural. People think it shows aggressive behavior. In fact, it shows the exact opposite,” says Frisch.
“It shows their affection for each other. They’re friends, they’re playing a game, and they’re cooperating together. Children learn through that type of play, (learn) how to have empathy. You can’t just hurt this person all the time. If you want to have any type of relationship with them, there’s a little bit of give and take here…It shows the ultimate in cooperation and friendship. They’re not trying to hurt each other. They’re trying to have fun…It’s the ultimate learning experience.”
Frisch makes an important distinction in that roughhousing must involve willing participants. Kids obviously should not be getting physical with another child who is uninterested in doing so. But when all participants are on the same page, rough-and-tumble play allows children to discover crucial life skills in a fun, engaging context. The key distinction between roughhousing and genuine fighting is that only the latter features people genuinely trying to hurt one another. That difference is at the heart of many of the social benefits of rough-and-tumble play.
The agreement not to harm one another is often unspoken, and all participants must engage in a give-and-take to make the experience mutually rewarding. That’s why roughhousing is a phenomenal developer of emotional intelligence, which refers to one’s ability to assess and regulate their own emotions as well as respond to the emotions of those around them. Smiles and laughter are classic signs of roughhousing done right. But when a kid goes too far during roughhousing and elicits negative reactions, that’s a key learning experience, as well.
“Every form of play has rules, it has structures. What looks like a wild, rough-and-tumble play fight among a couple boys has rules. The rules may not be stated, but if anybody violates the rules, the other will be sure to state it,” says Dr. Peter Gray, a research professor of psychology at Boston College and the author of the book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.
While rough-and-tumble play is most often associated with boys, girls can receive plenty of benefit, too. Researchers have found girls who roughhouse with their fathers are more confident than those who do not, and that roughhousing can also help them be more direct about their feelings.
Many children enter Frisch’s facility having been taught roughhousing is synonymous with bad behavior. Yet the urge for this type of play is so genetically ingrained, they often can’t help themselves. When Frisch actually allows and encourages rough-and-tumble play, they’re amazed.
“They’ll sort of start doing it, and they’ll look over their shoulder waiting for someone to tell them to stop. And what happens here is we don’t tell them to stop. We encourage it or come up with activities that are similar to it that maybe make it a little safer,” Frisch says. “The rest of their lives, they probably don’t have that opportunity.”
In addition to games like Knee Football and Tug-of-War, one staple in Frisch’s facility is Kings and Pawns. Two teams line up on the opposite side of a space lined with wrestling matts. Each team has one “King,” who’s allowed to stand, while the rest of the players (the “Pawns”) are forced to stay on their knees. The goal of the Pawns is to escort their own King to the opposite side of the matts without them being taken down, while they also must prevent the opposing King from accomplishing the same:
“Kids go freaking crazy for that game,” says Frisch.
“They’ll get tackled, you got guys pushing each other, pulling each other. Wrestling. We play that a lot, it’s a great game. We’ve done that game all the way up through our eighth graders.”
In terms of physical benefits, this type of rough-and-tumble play is highly vigorous and is a tremendous way to build functional strength. Grappling with another human builds concentric and eccentric pushing and pulling strength, core strength, body awareness, balance—you name it.
“I think wrestling/grappling is the ultimate balance activity, because you’re constantly pushing and pulling in different directions and you constantly have to find your equilibrium,” Frisch says. “Get your kid involved in a rough-and-tumble play, and they’ll be able to handle their body and be a lot more resilient.”
Frisch also heavily programs activities like tumbling, tackling inanimate objects, falling, diving and trampolining, which tap into many of the same physical benefits of play-wrestling. However, in terms of developmental bang-for-your-buck, it’s hard to beat the experience of grappling with another human. While doing it with a fellow kid is phenomenal, don’t discount the power of roughhousing with a parent.
“I’ll have parents come in whose kids may have learning disabilities—ADD, ADHD, having trouble in school. The thing I tell parents to do the most is to have their kids wrestle with their dad,” Frisch says.
“So many kids that are ADD or ADHD, they have muscle-tone issues. They don’t get enough proprioceptive feedback, their nervous system isn’t developed enough yet. So they have these kind of soft, weak muscles, they’re clumsy…They wrestle with a parent, the parent can kind of manipulate (and) coordinate how much pressure and force, and allow the kid to develop…I always tell parents, don’t only take your kid to the playground, but wrestle with them. Pushing and pulling and flipping and turning, that’s going to tap into all those sensory systems, and that will help the kid develop.”
“It’s amazing to think—how does wrestling make a kid read better? But you’re tapping into his vestibular system, you’re tapping into his visual system, you’re tapping into his body awareness system. If all those things are better, you’re going to be able to process information better.”
In addition to unstructured roughhousing with friends and/or family members, Frisch also highly recommends martial arts like Judo, Tae Kwon Do and Jiu Jitsu. For parents who struggle with concerns over their child’s safety, exposure to roughhousing in this type of coach-led, supervised environment is often easier to swallow. Just remember, the same rules apply to rough-and-tumble play as any form of play—the child must want to do the activity to reap many of the benefits.
Should kids be allowed to roughhouse everywhere, all the time? Of course not. But the reality is most modern children could benefit from more rough-and-tumble play. When we deprive them of it, we not only take away amazing modes of physical exercise, but also some of the child’s most powerful opportunities for human connection and emotional development. If you ask me, that’s well worth a few bumps and bruises.
One of the most backwards aspects of the crackdown on roughhousing is that after years of being told to keep their hands off their siblings, friends, etc., we then send kids off to play organized sports that require and reward contact and physicality. We’ll take a closer look at that issue in an upcoming STACK article.
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