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The Science of Roughhousing

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My son’s preschool has an activity choice that might seem a little odd: wrestling. During wrestling time, the teachers pull out mats, and the kids sit around the edges and watch as two little ones get in the center and repeatedly try to pull each other down to the ground.

At an age when most parents are trying to keep a lid on physical aggression, it sounds counterintuitive to encourage it at school. While I was watching it one day before picking up my son, my heart thumped to see him struggle, arms locked with a friend, and collapse in a tussle on the floor.

The school sanctions this with a purpose, though: it gives the kids a safe space to practice physical play. The kids talk to each other about the rules before they start, and they learn to communicate about personal boundaries while they’re pushing and pulling — what feels okay, and how to tell when your friend has had enough. It’s not just for designated wrestling time, either; the teachers allow the little three- and four-year-olds to practice physical play (highly supervised) on the yard during any of their free time. There’s no tsk tsk-ing the kids for tugging each other or rolling around in the sand, as long as it’s part of an agreed-upon game that both friends are enjoying.

Our school isn’t alone in thinking that wrestling and roughhousing is good practice for kids, and it’s not just a “boys need to ‘get it out’” mentality. In fact, many psychologists and researchers see roughhousing as healthy, not just for physical development, but social and cognitive development too. When you think about it, what looks like a big mess of flailing arms and legs is actually a complex set of skills and behaviors. Roughhousing engages many areas of the brain at once — those involved in motivation, coordination, reading social cues and body language, and quick decision-making.

The preschool parent-teacher conference always feels like a game of serial killer or not serial killer?

Rough-and-tumble play is very common for kids from age 3 on — across cultures and species. For humans and nonhuman animals, play fighting is thought to be a normal, innate set of behaviors that are not necessarily aggressive, but that actually promote social competence and emotional regulation. It could be seen as a way to practice physical and mental skills, but also to make contact and build relationships. Animal studies also point to the need for physical play. For example, rats who are reared with the ability to see, hear, smell, and touch each other (but not play fight as they normally would), show deficits in cognition compared to their play-fighting peers.

Now that my son is in kindergarten — where recess has more of a Lord of the Flies quality — I really see the value of all that supervised physical play from preschool. My son is sensitive by nature, but when I watch him on the yard with his new buddies, he looks confident and resilient. That’s partly his age, but there’s no doubt that physical play in a safe, closely watched environment has helped. With his new kindergarten friends, he seems to know when and how to get involved in physical games, but also how to say “no thanks” and walk away if it’s too much.

It’s not that kids should be left alone to duke it out. In fact, just the opposite: they need coaching in how to play physically, how to communicate what they don’t like, and how to read their friends’ signals. If adults aren’t involved, the most aggressive or dominant child will just rise to the top, and that doesn’t really help everyone involved with developing their skill sets.

I hope my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter gets some of the same practice that my son did. In preschool, the girls seemed more drawn to talking, running, and playing “family” on the yard than tackling each other (of course all that social play has huge value too). You could argue that’s an innate tendency, but it is also nurture and social influence. Dads are the ones most likely to wrestle with their kids, and very often do so with their boys more than their girls. Studies show that parents can underestimate girls’ physical capabilities, even as babies. One test of crawling ability, in which researchers asked moms to set an incline ramp for their infants, revealed that moms of boys set steeper ramps, even though the girl babies were just as physically skilled; the moms of boys tended to overestimate their motor abilities, while moms of girls tended to underestimate it.

In our house, it’s true that mom doesn’t roughhouse as much as dad does. My husband learned this growing up, when putting his brother in a chokehold was a regular activity. I’m working on it, though. For me, roughhousing with my kids is a way to shift the energy or make both physical and emotional contact. If someone is grumpy, talking it out sometimes works, but hanging them upside-down works too. Yesterday my daughter was a bit whiny, and instead of trying to talk her out of her mood, I picked her up in a big hug, fell on the bed, and started steamrolling her. Within 30 seconds we were both laughing. She may not choose the wrestling mats when it comes time for preschool, but I’ll still try to give both of my kids plenty of practice at home.

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