Rough And Tumble Play – Why Parents Should Encourage It

Rough And Tumble Play – Why Parents Should Encourage It

The squeals fill the house as Dad walks in and scoops her up, throwing her over his shoulder. He runs through the house with his arms firmly wrapped around her legs, her body hanging down his back, and then he throws her onto the lounge. She giggles and yells, “Again, again!”

Sound familiar?

As a general rule of thumb, kids love rough and tumble play.

They seek it out and instigate it, with parents and with peers.

They wrestle, they roll, they push, and they jump.

Many parents worry about this type of play, often expressing concerns about injury and about social development.

Rough And Tumble Play – Why Parents Should Encourage It

Mum might chide Dad for throwing the kids upside down, wrestling and rolling on the grass, or swinging them around by their feet.

Schools and early childhood services often discourage this type of ‘hands on’ play.

But there is plenty of research to suggest children not only enjoy rough and tumble play, they also need it and benefit from it.

What Are The Physical Benefits?

Any type of physical activity is a win! In an era where children (and adults) spend more and more time on screens and in sedentary activities, any opportunity for physical play that gets the heart rate up and the muscles working is a great thing for overall health and wellbeing.

With alarming statistics suggesting 1 in 4 Australian children are overweight or obese, physical activity needs to become a priority for Australian families.

Paediatric Occupational Therapist, Angela Hanscom, also suggests this sort of ‘big body play’ helps to develop and fine-tune the senses in the joints and muscles.

What are the intellectual benefits?

In their book The Art of Roughhousing: Good Old Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It, authors Anthony T. DeBenedet and Lawrence J. Cohen explain when children engage in this type of play their brains release a certain chemical.

This chemical stimulates neuron growth in the areas of the brain that are responsible for memory, learning, language and logic. It’s possibly surprising to learn that a little wrestling and rolling would have such a positive effect on intellectual wellbeing.

What Are The Social Benefits?

Rough and tumble play is often incorrectly characterised as violent behaviour. Generally speaking, children who want to wrestle and roll and tackle their peers don’t usually seek to hurt them; they are seeking body contact and sensory stimulation.

Far from being a negative social experience, rough and tumble play, when engaged in by consenting parties, can be a great way to develop relationships.

Physical contact and closeness are important for connection. In addition, children learn to read body language and social cues during this sort of play.

What About Safety?

Nobody wants to see a child hurt. One of our biggest jobs as parents is ‘keeping the tiny humans alive’

So allowing them to participate in play which appears rough or aggressive, or could lead to a bumped head or a squashed belly, might feel counterintuitive. This is where boundaries come into play.

#1: Select A Space

Children (and adults) need to agree on a place where rough and tumble play is okay. There is a time and place for everything, and wrestling on the concrete beside the pool, or in the middle of the shopping centre, is probably not ideal.

The space you choose might vary, depending on who is playing. If you have siblings or friends who love to wrestle, the best space might be the grassed area in the backyard. If it is Mum or Dad who enjoys to roughhouse, then it might be the bed or the lounge room floor.

By having a designated space for rough and tumble play, we control the environmental hazards, such as bunk beds,  sharp corners and mirrors (ouch)

#2: Get The Timing Right

As previously mentioned: time and place. Before bed is maybe not the ideal time

First, it might fire the little ones up, at a time they are supposed to be winding down. Their responsiveness and reflexes might also be impaired if they are tired, leaving them more susceptible to injury.

#3: Beware Of The Elbow

In children under the age of five, there is a common problem known as pulled elbow. This can occur when a child is lifted or pulled by the lower arm or wrist and the lower arm (radius bone) slips out of its normal position at the elbow joint.

Swinging children around by their hands might seem like fun, but a trip to the hospital – not so much. Children with a pulled elbow will cry immediately and avoid using the injured arm.

Rough And Tumble Play is Not Just For Boys

Typically, many little boys are drawn to this type of play, and they actively seek it. At the age of about four or five, children want to play all the time, but are expected to sit and follow rules at kindergarten and school instead.

As we have seen, however, the benefits of this type of play are for all children – not just boys. And while girls might not typically seek out the same type of play as actively as boys do, they will often enjoy it and benefit from it.

It also helps to remember each child is different and an affinity for this type of big body, physical contact play will more than likely come down to a child’s individual temperament and personality, rather than gender.

Likewise, roughhousing isn’t just for dads, even though they often appear to be more comfortable engaging in this type of play with their kids.

During several projects, the University of Newcastle found rough and tumble play to be a great way for dads to connect with their children. However, there is no reason mums can’t roughhouse with the kids too.

Embracing Rough and Tumble Play

When we encourage children to engage in rough and tumble play, we give them the gifts of physical activity, intellectual and social wellbeing, and perhaps one of the most important things of all – fun.

And we might just find that we have a lot of fun too.

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Nicole Halton CONTRIBUTOR

Nicole is an early childhood consultant who spends her days talking and writing about play and the importance of childhood, while avoiding stepping on Lego, playing tea parties with her toddler and looking for her keys. Nicole loves to read, is a keen photographer and is at her happiest when she is outdoors with her husband and three children.


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