How children benefit from rough-and-tumble play

by API Blog on November 18, 2014

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By Barbara Nicholson, cofounder of Attachment Parenting International and coauthor of Attached at the Heart with Lysa Parker

friends-swinging-together-749492-mPlay is a critical component of healthy, secure attachment. As our children grow, we parents need to ensure that they have plenty of opportunity for active, fun activity.

Our culture is often criticized for too much structured time, with team sports often taking the place of unstructured play time for families and friends. Even preschoolers are shuttled to dance, gymnastics and other classes that can take the place of play time.

Why is play so critical to our children’s development? Research in the field of play, specifically Rough and Tumble Play (RTP) — which includes games children have always enjoyed, from pretend games of war/fighting, playing tag and chase, and “red rover” type games to father and son roughhousing in the living room — shows us why this type of play, in particular, promotes healthy development because:

  • Children are willing participants, are smiling and re-engage for more.
  • Children learn the give-and-take of appropriate social interactions.
  • Children learn to read and understand body language (e.g. when play should come to an end).
  • RTP supports cardiovascular health.
  • RTP meets many children’s needs for nurturing touch.

One of the most important components of RTP with fathers and sons was how the fathers — without even realizing it — were teaching their sons an important life lesson: Even though they are bigger and stronger, fathers “hold back” to intentionally keep from hurting their weaker opponent, an important imprint for young boys.

By contrast, RTP research shows that boys that are too aggressive can learn this through activities like karate, tae-kwan-do, aikido and similar contact sports that teach the value of avoiding conflict when possible, rather than initiating it.

Editor’s note: While the RTP research was specific to boys, this lesson would likely be imparted to girls, too.

As mothers of six sons between us, it is a relief for Lysa and I to know that in all those years when our boys were making swords in the backyard, slaying dragons, building treehouses and roughhousing with their dads, they were reaping incredible value in their maturation and development.

We are of the generation that wanted to encourage nonviolence and worried about aggressive play, but our sons taught us that pretending was a way to deal with their emerging testosterone-fueled drive for action and adventure. Through healthy play, they had their own creative ways to work out conflict and come in the house exhausted and ready for a story time and snuggles with mom before bed.

So indulge yourselves with play, everyone! Who knew that this could be one of the most important ways to wire our children for a more peaceful tomorrow?

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APtly Said, Formerly API Speaks launched in April of 2008 as part of Attachment Parenting International's larger effort to offer interactive content through their newly-redesigned web site: http://www.attachmentparenting.org. All contributors to APtly Said, as with so many of API's staff, are volunteers who donate their time and energy to promote Attachment Parenting world wide.


{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Kim B. November 18, 2014 at 6:53 pm

Why does this article only mention boys? Do girls not benefit from Rough and Tumble Play?

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Rita Brhel November 19, 2014 at 9:44 am

Thanks for your question. The author was speaking from her position of being a parent of a household of boys. (She did not have any daughters.) Certainly girls benefit from Rough and Tumble Play, as well.

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