The importance of rough and tumble play with your kids

Roughhousing. Rough and tumble. Wrestling. Whatever you call it, it’s one of the best things about being a dad. I mean, what’s more fun than throwing your kids in the air, spinning them upside down, turning the living room into a WrestleMania ring or chasing them around the house hollering, “I’m a bear. Hear me roar!”

And kids think it’s fun too because research shows that when given the choice of a play partner, two-thirds of two-year-olds will choose dad over mom.

So, what is rough and tumble play? It‘s exactly what it sounds like: adventurous, outside the box, messy, risky, unstructured, free, and fun. It can include mock fighting, chasing one another, superhero play, and wrestling. It involves the whole body whether running, spinning, falling, or roughhousing and is pretty much the purest form of what it means to be a child.

Of course, there may be some moms out there raising an eyebrow and thinking: “OMG! My child is going to end up in hospital”, or “Kid fights with dad, kid thinks violence is fun, kid turns into a violent sadist who ends up behind bars”.

And while I understand their reservations, research says something different. Rough and tumble play actually has a whole lot of benefits. Really good ones. It can help with:

Making kids smarter

That’s right, roughhousing can make kids smarter. The unpredictable nature of rough and tumble play rewires that part of a child’s brain that contributes to their ability to adapt to change.

Learning how to cope with sudden changes while roughhousing teaches your kiddos to deal with unexpected bumps in the road when they’re out in the real world. It also increases the brain’s levels of a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which assists the parts of the brain responsible for memory, logic, and higher learning skills necessary for academic success.

So, go ahead, toss your kids like a sack of potatoes onto your bed. It may just turn them into the next little Einsteins.

Your kids are working hard when they try to climb on you and knock you over. This builds strength, exercises their muscles, and increases gross motor skills and flexibility.

Bonding

The closeness and physical activity involved in tumbling around with your kids cause the release of everyone’s favourite parenting hormone: oxytocin a.k.a. the cuddle-slash-love hormone.

It’s the chemical that boosts feelings of closeness and bonding. You know, the hormone that causes a mother to think her new-born is the most beautiful baby known to man when everyone else is thinking FLK (funny looking kid).

rough and tumble play

Learning impulse control

Children quickly learn the difference between play and aggression. They learn to hold back because dad won’t play with them if they don’t play nice.

Taking managed risks

Fathers tend to encourage children to take risks while ensuring their safety and security. Think of the jump-daddy-will-catch-you scenario. While roughhousing with dad, children learn to assess danger and understand when to push limits and when to hold back, therefore, gaining a better understanding of their limits and capabilities.

Social and emotional intelligence

Roughhousing requires taking turns and the give and take of negotiation to establish rules upon which everyone needs to agree to have fun. Not only that, but your kids also have to figure out how they’re going to take you down by reading your next move and deciding how to react.

They’re looking at your face and body language for clues. Pretty much a day at the office, right? Needless to say, this is excellent preparation for both professional success and committed relationships.

Ethics

No matter how much you can bench-press, to your kids, you’re a superhero. So, when they see you holding back your full strength while wrestling or playing, they begin to understand what it means to play in an ethical, controlled way instead of just running people over for the fun of it.

Encouraging physical activity

This is my favourite benefit! Your kids are working hard when they try to climb on you and knock you over. This builds strength, exercises their muscles, and increases gross motor skills and flexibility. It also stimulates the vestibular system as well as proprioception.

Um…what’s the vestibular system again?

The vestibular system helps with balance, determining the direction and speed of movement and remaining upright against the pull of gravity

And proprioception?

When you close your eyes, how do you know where your feet are? Your arms? Your hands? Proprioception is the internal sense that tells you where your body parts are without you having to look. This inner body awareness relies on receptors in your muscles, joints, ligaments, and connective tissue. These receptors pick up information when muscles bend and stretch as well as when your body is still.

Fun wild play

Okay, so now that we know what that all is, the next question is, why do we need it?

By receiving vestibular and proprioceptive input, the brain has an enhanced opportunity to learn where the body is in space and therefore accurately control the muscles. This is important for self-regulation, co-ordination, posture, body awareness, concentration, and speech.

Here are 7 sensory games dads can play with their kids to stimulate the vestibular system and proprioception:

  • Daddy Crusher

Dad needs to get his WWF persona on (I like to see myself as The Rock. Without the muscles and Colgate smile). Get kids to push, pull, drag, and hang on you. You can even (gently please!) squash them WWF pin-down style.

  • Chair Tug-Of-War

Get yourself a heavy rope or skipping rope. Position two chairs so that they are facing each other and then have each person take one end of the rope. The goal is to try and pull each other off the chair.

  • Giddy-Up Daddy

Get down on your hands and knees and pretend to be a horse (neighing is essential). Then take your kid around the house for a ride. If your child feels safe, you can always turn it into more of a bucking-buckaroo type of game. And don’t worry, if your back takes a bit of beating, I know a couple of chiropractors who can help you with that.

  • Scaling the Daddy Tower

You and your child stand facing each other with hands firmly interlocked. Then have them walk up your front and flip them over when they get to the top. Always be careful that their arms don’t get twisted.

  • Play Ball

Take out the basketball, kick the soccer ball around, or play catch. Any of these are great for interaction, eye-hand co-ordination, muscle strengthening, and so much more.

  • Pool Noodle Hockey

Get a beach ball or balloon, create a goal, and then use the pool noodle to hit the ball into the goal.

  • Super-Duper Daddy Spin

Hold your child in an aeroplane position making sure you are holding them securely. Then start the engines, take off, and spin around.

Things to remember

  • Make sure the games are age-appropriate.
  • Be aware of your surroundings

Keep your kids away from areas where they can get hurt.

  • Don’t jerk or tug too hard on your child’s hands or arms to avoid dislocation.
  • Watch for and respect cues

Ensure roughhousing hasn’t gone too far and that everyone is still having fun.

  • Don’t roughhouse before bed

Kids need some time right before bed to relax and slow things down so they can get into sleep mode.

  • Remember that roughhousing is for girls too

The takeaway

Roughhousing is good for your kids! So, the next time your wife gets on your case for riling up the kids you can tell her, “I’m helping our children become smart, emotionally intelligent, lovable and likeable, ethical, physically fit, and just altogether awesome.” Then go ahead and perform that baby anaconda vice on your youngster.

An article you might like: The importance of free play for babies and toddlers 

About Tony Karpelowsky

Tony is a chiropractor who has treated babies and children for close to 20 years, He is passionate about his work and about paediatric spinal health. Tony completed a masters dissertation on chiropractic in the treatment of infantile colic. He is one of the founding members of Paediatric Chiropractic South Africa where he continues to function as an executive member. He has been invited to speak at various schools, conferences, antenatal courses, expo’s, and mom’s groups.

Tony is also the founder of Dudes to Dads, a training workshop to teach new and expecting dads the information and practical tools needed to be a confident hands on father.
Outside of practice, Tony loves family time with his wife and two incredible children.

Do you have a question for Dr Tony? Ask your question here.