Learning through unstructured play helps kids develop

Aug 19, 2011 By Julie Deardorff

Roughhousing, or tossing your children around on purpose, can be a hard sell to many parents. We worry our kids will get hurt. We don't want rowdy behavior carrying over into the classroom, especially in schools with no-touching policies. And many of us aren't really even sure how to physically interact with our kids.

But good, old-fashioned horseplay is a critical part of a child's development and comes with a surprising number of , according to some and experts in childhood .

Though schools are banning physical contact between students, some research has shown that the freedom to engage in rough-and-tumble play improves everything from to . Today's kids live increasingly structured lives; as a result, "we've lost the culture of childhood, where they play their own games, have their own fights and resolve them," said David Elkind, a professor emeritus of at Tufts University and the author of "The Power of Play." "A lot of the bullying that goes on in schools is largely a result that children no longer have this culture of spontaneous play."

Roughhousing, however, can teach children how to manage their own emotions and read the feelings of others, making them more likable, advocates say. It can help children build a moral compass because "when we roughhouse with our kids, we model for them how someone bigger and stronger holds back," wrote Anthony DeBenedet and Larry Cohen in "The Art of Roughhousing."

Interactive, free-form play can improve . It can foster confidence and trust. But DeBenedet and Cohen argue that the ultimate benefit of wild play is joy, love and a deeper connection, largely because it requires tuning into your child's emotions and needs.

TRY IT OUT

Here's how DeBenedet and Cohen suggest getting started:

Create the right tone: Begin and end all roughhousing sessions with hugs and high-fives.

Don't tickle. Laughter is an involuntary reaction. "Children can feel overpowered and out of control but look like they're enjoying it," Cohen said. A light touch is OK, but tune into your child to see if they're enjoying it. "If you must tickle, try a fake one - almost touch your child in ticklish spots, but not quite."

Roughhouse earlier in the day. There's a natural arc of active physical play; it starts with calmness, rises into activation, reaches a peak of super-excitement and then winds down. If you interrupt this flow - say it's right before bedtime - you're asking for a meltdown. Figure out your child's cycle - it's usually between 30 and 60 minutes - and leave that much time plus a little cushion.

Freeze the action. If things feel like they're getting out of control, make up a silly code word that means "stop" and freeze like a statue when you say it, encouraging your child to freeze too. Keep the breaks short unless there's an injury or you need time to review the guidelines. Use a different silly word for "go."

When in doubt, fall over. "This is always good for a laugh and helps your child feel more confident, because it means they are not always the one who is smaller, weaker and more helpless," DeBenedet and Cohen wrote.

Explore further: Unintended consequences: More high school math, science linked to more dropouts

not rated yet
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Too many U.S. kids lead stressful lives

Oct 09, 2006

The United States has strayed so far from the Victorian ideal of childhood that pediatricians should include "stress checks" in child exams, a report says.

Study: verbal aggression may affect children's behavior

Aug 04, 2008

The methods mothers use to control their children during playtime and other daily activities could have a negative impact on their child's self-esteem and behavior, according to a new Purdue University study.

Age-appropriate toys are the best choice, says expert

Dec 18, 2007

Many parents around the country will purchase toys for their children this holiday season. While choosing toys that will further a child's education development is important, it's also a great idea for parents ...

Recommended for you

Congressional rift over environment influences public

23 hours ago

American citizens are increasingly divided over the issue of environmental protection and seem to be taking their cue primarily from Congress, finds new research led by a Michigan State University scholar.

Decoding ethnic labels

Jul 30, 2014

If you are of Latin American descent, do you call yourself Chicano? Latino? Hispanic?

Local education politics 'far from dead'

Jul 29, 2014

Teach for America, known for recruiting teachers, is also setting its sights on capturing school board seats across the nation. Surprisingly, however, political candidates from the program aren't just pushing ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

alanborky
not rated yet Aug 20, 2011
I used a simple trick with my kids to test if they really wanted to be tickled or not: I'd clasp the base of my index finger and wiggle it about as if it was a worm and say, "What's that, Mr. Wormy, you want to tickle someone?" then say, "Oh, no, where did he go? Maybe he was shy..." If they were really in the mood they'd immediately start calling out to 'him' to come back, then run for the hills.

The trick with all tickling of course is tantalisation and moderation.