My daughter is a rough and tumble kind of kid. She climbs as high as humanly possible in a tree and then jumps down to see what will happen. She begs her dad to pick her up and throw her on her bed (over and over again). She hangs upside down whenever possible and quite literally climbs the walls in our home. She needs physical input. She needs to use her muscles. She craves action.
I get some looks from strangers at the park. I let her balance on things that aren’t necessarily intended for balance and jump from tall objects. I let her tackle me when we play football and I swing her around at an alarming rate. This is who she is. This kind of play is what she needs. She is the kid who stands on her bike seat with one foot while the other foot is in the air. She is a rough and tumble kid. To deprive her of that is to tell her to be someone else. No way.
Roughhousing can be a polarizing topic in parenting. People either love it or fear it. Parents either step back and let the chips fall or hover and attempt to keep kids calm and safe. In all honesty, I find that I do a little bit of both. If we’re at a crowded park and the play structure is packed, I have my little roughhouser tone it down a bit. We have to consider the other children around us when we are out in the world. But at home? She has free reign to move as she sees fit.
Some kids are more drawn to rough and tumble play than others, but all kids should have to freedom to engage in this type of play when they’re ready. Although hanging upside down from tall monkey bars or jumping from trees might seem highly dangerous, these kinds of activities provide huge opportunities for growth and self-discovery. Here’s why…
1. They engage in healthy risk taking. I don’t love the climbing to the tippy top of tall trees thing when I’m watching from the ground, but I do remember that feeling of freedom that accompanies pushing physical boundaries and reaching personal goals. I was a master tree climber as a kid, and my mom never pulled me away for fear of a broken arm. When kids engage in healthy risk taking, they learn to push their boundaries and they gain a better understanding of their limits. When they’re constantly told that activities are unsafe, they begin to live in fear. They learn to assess for danger instead of learning to give something a try. Engaging in physical play helps kids understand when to push boundaries and when to pull back. It also gives them the freedom to try new things.
2. They develop a physical connection with others. Relationships aren’t just about being near others and engaging in conversation. When kids hug and kiss their parents, they earn positive feedback. Physical contact is an important part of close relationships. But when it comes to wrestling, tackling, or playing in a more physical manner, kids tend to receive negative feedback in return. Here’s the deal: If two kids agree to swing from trees together or have a raucous pillow fight, that should be acceptable. If one doesn’t want physical contact, boundaries should be established. The truth is that many kids enjoy roughhousing with a parent or a sibling, and playing in close contact can strengthen the bond.
3. They build emotional intelligence. When kids roughhouse, they learn to tune into the emotional needs of others. Through physical play, kids learn to read the facial cues of others: Is my friend still having fun? Is he crying? They also work on emotional regulation (knowing when to stop is a big lesson learned through physical play), and learn when to challenge versus when to hold back. Kids with high emotional intelligence enjoy better relationships with others, focus more in school, and have the ability to regulate their emotions. They learn that they won’t break every time they bend.
4. They reap physical benefits while having fun! Kids who engage in physical play build strength, work on gross motor skills, are coordinated, have better body control, and demonstrate increased flexibility. While there might be something comforting about playground equipment that appears safe and stands over a padded floor, kids push themselves physically when they step out of those safety zones. They also have a lot of fun in the process. It’s not that safety-approved playgrounds aren’t any fun (kids have a remarkable ability to find fun just about everywhere), but there is something exciting about tapping into the unknown. Encourage your kids to step outside of their comfort zones and get a little bit physical sometimes. And if they climb too high or jump too far? Just take a play from my book and take a quick trip to a deserted island in your mind until your kids are back on solid ground.
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