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Roughhousing & rough play for kids

Updated: Mar 8, 2023

Roughhousing. Horseplay. Wrastling. Whatever you call it, it’s one of the best things about being a dad or uncle. I’ve always loved chasing the niece and nephews around the house or yard, picking them up and putting them on my shoulder to run around, shoving each other, wrestling on the ground.. I especially like doing it with the kids I work with. I enjoyed doing it with my dad and siblings as a kid, I now see the benefits it had on us and see how much fun kids I do it with have. They absolutely love it!

Unfortunately, in recent years, roughhousing and rough play in general has gotten a bad rap and is often avoided in the family home and in schools. Parents, concerned about safety and preventing ADHD, limit the amount of rambunctious play their kids participate in, and it’s certainly not acceptable behaviour in schools.

“Research has shown that roughhousing serves an evolutionary purpose and actually provides a myriad of benefits for our progeny. In their book The Art of Roughhousing, Anthony DeBenedet and Larry Cohen highlight a few of these benefits and the research behind them. Instead of teaching kids to be violent and impulsive, DeBenedet and Cohen boldly claim that roughhousing “makes kids smart, emotionally intelligent, lovable and likable, ethical, physically fit, and joyful.” In short, roughhousing makes your kid awesome.”


What is roughhousing and rough play?

Roughhousing and rough-and-tumble play are when children do things like climb over each other and other people, they wrestle, roll around and even play fight.

Rough play is a basic human instinct that helps children develop many skills – but mostly children like this kind of play because it’s fun!

I roughhouse a lot with my nephews (my niece and I used to, but she’s in high school now so that’s not her ‘thing’ anymore lol) and with some kids I work with. As an adult who’s stronger and smarter (I think?!) I can regulate and moderate the rough play to keep it as safe as possible while allowing as much benefit as possible. This isn’t so easy for parents today because it’s really a dying practice in modern households, often a male isn’t around often to do it confidently with kids, and kids today have more challenges in terms of ASD sensitivities and behavioural issues.

But we need to bring back rough play for kids, it needs to be a normal part of growing up again, not just for boys and dads/uncles but for girls and even mums!


What are the benefits?

There’s a story further down of a really wonderful example but generally I see incredible benefit with the kids I rough house with; physically for sure but emotionally more so. The confidence they get from it is incredible.

Here are some expert reasons why rough play is so good for kids…

“Roughhousing is essential for kids. Laughter transforms the body chemistry to reduce stress hormones and reduce anxiety. Laughter creates more oxytocin, the bonding hormone, so when children laugh with another person, it strengthens that relationship. Physical movement helps work out emotion and is essential for brain development.

Roughhousing even builds self esteem, as children experience their own physical strength — especially for kids who are less assertive, or smaller than other kids their age.

And like other young mammals, when kids “play” fight, they learn to manage aggression, which makes them less likely to lash out when they’re angry. ” – Aha! Parenting

And benefits listed on the Essential Kids website include:

“Physical play teaches kids about morality, right and wrong, and following rules. Roughhousing helps kids learn to take risks and boosts resilience.

Roughhousing makes kids smarter.

Physical play builds children’s – especially girls’ – confidence, assertiveness, academic achievement, and increases the chances that they’ll stand up for their friends.

Roughhousing is great exercise.

Lack of rough-and-tumble play is associated with negative developmental, emotional, and physical problems”

𝘿𝙤 𝙮𝙤𝙪𝙧 𝙠𝙞𝙙𝙨 𝙧𝙤𝙪𝙜𝙝 𝙝𝙤𝙪𝙨𝙚?


Challenges parents face

Will letting my kids play fight lead to violent acts later in life?

What if they really hurt each other?

I’m a single mum, I just don’t know how to rough house with my kids.

And if I do, what if they hurt me?

My child doesn’t want to do any form of rough play even though I encourage it.

If my kids wrestle at home will they be likely to try it with other kids unsafely?

My child is on the spectrum and doesn’t have the same level of empathy and social understanding as many other kids.

My child on the spectrum isn’t as confident or physically developed as many other kids, how can rough play be good for them? Or how do I get them into it safely?

There’s no male around to rough house with my kids.

These are some of many common questions, concerns and challenges parents today face with the concept of rough play for kids. I work with ASD children at varying levels of physical ability, emotional awareness and energy levels. I notice a lot of them get over energetic when we play and wrestle and don’t want to stop, some are just not confident initially and need a lot of support and guidance to help them become comfortable giving it a go, some are low in energy and fitness and give it a go but tire out really quickly, others just have very limited understanding of how to do it but are keen to try.

Many families today are split so dad-time is limited, the men in kids’ lives simply don’t rough plat or there just isn’t a male role model around to do the rougher type play with kids. It’s not natural for mums and other older female family members to rough play; they might have done it when they were kids but it’s not a natural instinct as women age. It’s traditionally and genetically not the main role of women either, it’s generally ‘men’s business’. But not so much today.

𝙇𝙚𝙩 𝙢𝙚 𝙠𝙣𝙤𝙬 𝙬𝙝𝙖𝙩 𝙮𝙤𝙪𝙧 𝙗𝙞𝙜𝙜𝙚𝙨𝙩 𝙘𝙝𝙖𝙡𝙡𝙚𝙣𝙜𝙚𝙨 𝙖𝙧𝙚 𝙬𝙞𝙩𝙝 𝙜𝙚𝙩𝙩𝙞𝙣𝙜 𝙤𝙧 𝙡𝙚𝙩𝙩𝙞𝙣𝙜 𝙮𝙤𝙪𝙧 𝙠𝙞𝙙𝙨 𝙩𝙤 𝙧𝙤𝙪𝙜𝙝 𝙝𝙤𝙪𝙨𝙚.


I love telling this particular story about confidence

This isn’t the day it happened but the girl in the photo, Grace, came to my first ever kids class maaaaany years ago, all shy and quiet. I hadn’t met her before and didn’t know she had low confidence and self-esteem, and often felt overpowered by her older sister.

During class we played one of my favourite rough play games Bull in the Ring where I drew a circle in the sand and everyone jumped in and had to try and push each other out, to be the last one inside the ring. Pushing, shoving, pulling, by whatever means necessary (with obvious safety rules and guidance of course!). It was a lot of fun.

A couple years later, when these photos were taken, Grace’s mum was chatting to Aimee while I played Hip Tiggy with Grace and mentioned how when she got home after that first kids class she was “like a different kid” with an air of confidence about her her parents hadn’t seen before.

Aimee was amazed and told me about it later. I remembered the class and the game of Bull in the Ring and how I had ensured Grace actually won a couple of games against me and other kids to try and make her feel good about herself. And it apparently worked and had a long-lasting effect!

Being an adult who can easily steer a rough-play session and who wins and loses is very handy. It can help the over-cocky kids learn that losing is part of life and that they can cope when they lose. And helps super shy and low confidence kids realise their potential and feel good about themselves and their abilities.

It’s something I’m very aware of with every child I work with, 1;1 or in group situations and it’s something parents and educators can be aware of and utilise when appropriate.

Do you have a shy child who could benefit from a rough play win?


Girls (and women) can roughhouse too!

From Aimee:

Here’s a story about me (Aimee) and rough play. I didn’t really do it as a kid. An only-child, dad not around much, more into playing with my Barbies than wrestling. I ended up becoming a bit of a wuss to be honest with you, and I’m not ashamed to say it but I know I’d have been a lot less of a princess if I’d had more rough-and-tumble-play as a kid.

When Clint got into MovNat and play it included wrestling and he eventually got me into it. I could really see what a baby I was that’s for sure! But it helped ‘toughen’ me up. It also became a really enjoyable way of ‘exercising’, another huge bonus! Just the other day we wrestled a bit before doing a movement workout at the park and I laughed so hard the entire time, even though Clint beats me 99.9% of the time! And when I win it’s cos he lets me haha.

But I don’t mind. I find I’m more determined to try harder to TRY and beat him, I get banged and bruised but I don’t mind, I feel more resilient and confident in myself, I have to use my brain, rough housing really is an incredibly beneficial activity!

So if you have daughters please encourage them to rough house and wrestle, with other girls or with boys, with you even! If you’re a mum I encourage you to wrestle a bit with your kids, there are so many games you can play that aren’t flat out wrestling but still rough enough to get the benefits and have some fun.

King of the Beam, Sternum Tag, Bull in the Ring, Hip Tiggy, pillow fights, if you need more ideas ask Clint, he has heaps of rough play games up his sleeve!


Tips for parents

Get comfortable with the discomfort

Rough housing is incredibly beneficial and important for kids of all ages, abilities and for both girls and boys. So parent, get comfortable with the idea of them being in discomfort of they want to be in it! Kids like feeling the discomfort from wrestling for many reasons and they like giving it to others for just as many reasons. If your child is keen to do it, have an open mind and a positive view on it, instead of “NO FIGHTING, EVER!”. Once you get past the discomfort of being comfortable with the whole idea of your kids play fighting you can learn how to encourage and allow it safely and positively so they can get the most out of it when they do it.

Set clear boundaries & rules (probably the biggest one)

Whether I’m working with kids or playing with my nephews I always set clear rules for rough play before it begins. My main rule is “whatever you do to me I can do to you” because so few kids these days understand, through experience, physical discomfort, their own limits and those of others. So when an adult who’s bigger and stronger can whack them back after they whack, they end up learning their own and others’ physical thresholds!

Some rules to include for kids rough housing together might be: – no head shots – no biting – no intentional groin hits – say “tap out” and if they do so, stop immediately – rough play in a suitable place/environment only (home only, not school etc) – always ask permission from others before starting – only do it when an adult is present – if one person wants to, or the adult says to stop, it’s time to stop and everyone is going to be ok with that etc

Join in

Some kids are shy, not confident in their physical abilities, or just don’t know how to do it. If you initiate it and make a game of it it can encourage shy and timid kids to have a go. You can start by mild teasing and nudging, setting goals and dares. Use your imagination and what you know about your child in terms of how they cope and react but pushing them a little outside of their emotional and physical boundaries, a bit at a time, can be hugely beneficial.

"My kids keep going and don't want to stop"

I find it helpful to set a time limit at the start of the rough play session with verbal agreement from all participants or, and set a “two minutes left” timer alarm then the alarm for when the time is up. If everyone knows beforehand that there’s a time limit (similar to time limits set for tech time and online gameplay), and then there’s a really clear alarm to indicate to kids when time is almost up, it helps prevent the seemingly never-ending rough play sessions!

If your kids aren’t likely to adhere to this then go the next step of creating a consequence for not stopping when time is up then stick to it.

Tears aren't necessarily a bad thing

Of course parents don’t want to see their kids crying but tears aren’t necessarily a bad thing when it comes to rough playtime. Often, kids begin to cry when they get a big bump while roughhousing. Sometimes those tears are appropriate to the injury and your child is ready to get back into the action after a quick hug or reassurance from you.

Sometimes, though, kids cry wildly, clearly over-reacting. That’s good! It means all that laughter has loosened up some pent-up emotions and they’re using this time to let out pushed down or unprocessed feeling. After a good cry, your child will be so much more relaxed and happy, since those emotions will be released.

One of the rules for rough housing could be that if serious tears are happening that everyone needs to stop and check in on each other, and verbally agree to continue or to stop and do something else. It all comes back to getting used to continual open and clear communication and understanding.

Rough play for kids on the Autism Spectrum

“Because ASD affects the development of social skills and communication skills, it can also affect the development of important play skills, like the ability to copy simple actions, explore the environment, share objects and attention with others, imagine what other people are thinking and feeling, respond to others, take turns” (Raising Children)

𝘐 𝘧𝘪𝘯𝘥 𝘢 𝘭𝘰𝘵 𝘰𝘧 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘬𝘪𝘥𝘴 𝘐 𝘸𝘰𝘳𝘬 𝘸𝘪𝘵𝘩 𝘴𝘪𝘮𝘱𝘭𝘺 𝘥𝘰𝘯’𝘵 𝘸𝘢𝘯𝘵 𝘵𝘰 “𝘸𝘳𝘦𝘴𝘵𝘭𝘦” so I incorporate rough-ish behaviour/actions into games and activities we already do or new ones. By using a pool noodle as a sword and linking it to a game they like that includes sword fighting, they respond well and then the play intensity can increase with how hard we hit each other, where on the body etc without it seeming so ‘rough’ to the child.

Some kids respond well to gentle ‘picking on’ communication and actions and it coaxes them into rough play, while some kids who want to wrestle and beat me up who have a hard time toning their aggression and physical intensity level down need more conversation around empathy, limits/boundaries, consequences, lots of explanation on their level and me being attentive to their level of understanding and progression. I have to adapt to each child and work with where they’re at at the time.

Even a simple game of King of the Beam can be ‘rough play’ but doesn’t seem like it and can suit a lot of kids, even the shy ones. Two people balance on a beam and try to get each other to touch the ground, whoever lasts longer is the king!

There’s no one formula for the perfect wrestle/rough play session, but thorough communication is always important

Would you rough house with your kids?

Get in touch with me if you have any questions about my experiences with roughhousing and rough play for kids.

I hope this information and our perspectives and experiences help you and your family on your journey to better health and happiness!.


Confidence Coach


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