Roughhousing – The benefits of playing rough with your kids

I often close my eyes when my husband & Brooklyn (my most 3-year old daughter) play, scared that someone is going to get hurt, waiting for that hysterical laughter to turn into crying! My mommy instinct I suppose – but I have learned that this rough play is beneficial to kids.

I took Brooklyn to Baby Gym when she was only 7 weeks old. It is here that I was encouraged to allow roughhousing and learned of all the benefits. At this young age it consisted mostly of pulling Brooklyn around in a box supported by pillows. Of course this wild child of mine loved it! We continued with this, in fact we often still pull her around. We started doing this with Blake, my 8 month old daughter as well and she gets just as excited!

When Brooklyn got older, my husband would wrestle with her, put her on his back and tell her to hold on while he does the “rodeo bull”, run around the house with her on his neck, flip her over, throw her in the air, etc. Touch wood, there have been no serious injuries to date! She has the most amazing bond with her dad and that is why I fully agree that roughhousing is definitely something to incorporate in your house.

So what exactly is roughhousing?

As described by Highlights for Children, roughhousing is physically active play that’s joyful but a little risky. The key is that all participants are willing. Motherly further defines it as mutual, aggressive, interactive, high-trust play in which no one is actually getting hurt.

Roughhousing can take many forms. Below are just a few examples:

  • Wrestling
  • Chasing each other around
  • The “rodeo bull” where your child sits on your back while you are on all fours and moving around wildly
  • Running around with your child on your back / neck
  • Flipping your child over / somersaults
  • Throwing your child up in the air and catching them

What are the benefits of roughhousing?

There have been numerous studies on the benefits of roughhousing and it generally suggest that regular roughhousing results in happier and more successful children. Roughhousing also helps children set boundaries, gain a competitive edge and deal with emotions.

1. It builds self-confidence

My husband and Brooklyn would often wrestle and it gives her such a sense of achievement when she defeats him. This aids in building self-confidence. Don’t get me wrong, he doesn’t always “let her win” but when she “loses” we have the opportunity to explain this concept to her as well and help her deal with these emotions. After all, we don’t want her to have the idea that she will always win or must always win.

2. It releases BDNF

Based on research by the Child Mental Health Centre, when kids roughhouse, the brain recognises this as a small stressor. When your child’s heart rate increases, the brain interprets this as them fighting off or fleeing from danger. In order to protect the brain from stress, BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) is released. This aids in repairing and protecting the brain while improving memory and learning capabilities.

According to this research, BDNF is vitally important and responsible for the development of memory, higher learning and advanced behaviour, such as the necessary language and logic–skills required for academic success. Roughhousing therefore stimulates part of the brain that controls emotions, language and logic which will aid your children in school and building relationships.

3. Social skills

Roughhousing offers the opportunity for kids to read body language and expressions. These skills are required in social interactions. Kids learn how to distinguish between play and aggression and when to stop.

Brooklyn has often taken liberty shots and would, in her play state, slap, scratch or kick to an extent that it would hurt her opponent (generally my husband is the lucky recipient). It is in these situations where we would clearly let her know that she is going too far and that someone is hurt. This has taught her to be more aware and to exercise boundaries. Similarly she would clearly indicate when she has had enough, then we stop immediately. This teaches her that she has control over herself which in turn boosts confidence.

4. It encourages risk taking

Roughhousing provides kids with an opportunity to make mistakes without the fear of punishment. They can take risks while at the same time being protected from harm. By taking risks and succeeding, kids are motivated to seek further achievement. By taking risks and failing, kids learn to problem solve. These are crucial skills required throughout life.

There have been times where Brooklyn has taken the leap to jump from 1 couch to another unexpectedly end falling on the floor. From this she has learnt to move the ottoman closer to her couch, first jump on that and then jump onto our couch. It’s fascinating to see how such little brains can problem-solve.

5. Anger management

Children who engage in roughhousing generally learn very quickly that deliberately violent behaviour like biting or kicking is unacceptable. It is also a positive outlet for big feelings and encourages communication.

Brooklyn has taken chances and we use this opportunity to explain to her that it will not be tolerated and that deliberately hurting someone is wrong. As time passed she has learnt that she needs to be vocal about her emotions instead of acting it out by using aggression.

6. It toughens them up

Earlier in my post I mentioned that to date no-one in my household has gotten SERIOUSLY injured from roughhousing, however that doesn’t mean that they didn’t get the occasional bump, bruise or scratch. In fact we have had a bloody nose or 2 (not just Brooklyn’s). Instead of fussing over the “injury”, my husband would generally distract Brooklyn immediately and in seconds she is laughing and ready to play again. This has taught her to deal with minor discomfort, she is generally not phased by a small bump, fall or scratch anymore.

7. It teaches them about boundaries & acting ethically

In the book The Art of Roughhousing by DeBenedet and Cohen, they explain “When we roughhouse with our kids, we model for them how someone bigger and stronger holds back. We teach them self-control, fairness, and empathy. We let them win, which gives them confidence and demonstrates that winning isn’t everything and you don’t need to dominate all the time“. Children learn the importance of showing empathy and compassion as well as when they are stepping over boundaries.

8. Physical development

By roughhousing, children are encouraged to get off the couch and engage in active play, running around and sweating. In today’s day and age this is particularly beneficial where kids are generally distracted be televisions and cellphones. Active play aids in physical muscle development, preventing obesity and several health benefits such as lowering the chances of diabetes and high cholesterol. Brooklyn would drop whatever she is doing in a heartbeat the moment my husband initiates roughhousing.

9. It strengthens the bond

Roughhousing is not just for fathers and their children, in fact I often join in the fun with both my girls. I must admit though that my husband is generally the one that engages in this activity more often, particularly because he is much bigger and stronger – my back breaks just thinking about running around with Brooklyn on my neck.

My bond with my girls is on a more emotional and comforting level whereas my husband’s bond with our girls has been strengthened significantly by roughhousing. His love is expressed physically through playing and laughing. Through roughhousing the girls have learned that they can trust their dad to protect them from harm.

10. It encourages quick thinking

Roughhousing is unpredictable – one minute you are on the floor, the next you are thrown up in the air. Kids learn to think on their feet, to problem-solve on the go. Brooklyn would be running one minute and when she realises she is not quick enough, she runs to her little scooter, jumps on it and rides away as fast as she can go.

A few tips:

  • Ensure that your surroundings are not cluttered by dangerous objects and steer clear of furniture corners;
  • Be mindful of your children’s bones & joints and play in a way where they are protected from serious harm;
  • Stop immediately when you notice that your child has had enough – encourage them to tell you when they want to stop or incorporate a safe word like “mercy”;
  • Make them struggle a bit – don’t make winning easy. Yes you can “let them win” at times but let them work for it – this challenges them physically and mentally;
  • Roughhouse during the day and ensure that children are given an opportunity to calm down at night before bedtime.

Engaging in roughhousing is not always a walk in the park – I have laughed as a spectator watching my little toddler bring my husband to his knees. However much we as adults know how to exercise boundaries, kids are still learning so my husband has on numerous occasions been on the receiving end of an unexpected WrestleMania body slam, a kick in the jaw, a punch to the throat and a full on slap in the face.

Roughhousing is definitely not always easy to watch, especially for most mothers whose protective instinct kicks in but knowledge of the benefits definitely aids in helping us understand why, despite the bumps and bruises, this should be encouraged.