Rough Play Is Good For Your Kids—Here’s Why

Rough play allows kids to gain confidence and body awareness while they manage their strength and hone their coordination skills. Parents can add to the benefits by joining in.

Dad plays with his kids in the backyard

Rob and Julia Campbell / Stocksy

When my kids play, I swear the space they occupy groans under both the literal and actual noise and vibrations they make. My nearly 12-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son and daughter twins are boisterous and silly. And when they play they are loud and physical. Wrestling, pillow fights, attempted backflips, and Nerf battles are the go-to activities inside our house. Even Uno at the kitchen table can turn into a full-contact event. Because why not have a game of tag between hands? 

The same type of rough play happens when they are outside too. Any sport, game, or adventure quickly includes tackles and full-body scrambling over each other in the name of fun. My kids—more my daughters than my son—are athletes and seem to have endless amounts of energy to burn. Their play is hard and often. I get it because I’m the same way too. 

I love doing a puzzle or snuggling up with a book with my kids, but our “play” usually includes passing a ball to and at each other, throwing them onto a fort of pillows, or spinning them around the room until they are dizzy and fall over.

As much as this can drain my energy and patience, especially when it’s time for bed and we are one John Cena away from a pay-per-view fight, I let my kids engage me and each other in rough-and-tumble play. Not without reason or rules, though. And it turns out this rough play is actually good for them. “Psychologically, rough play encourages healthy emotional expression,” says Kally Hartman, LMFT, clinical director at Ocean Recover in Newport Beach, California.

Rules of Engagement When It Comes To Rough Play

Before I fully understood the benefits of my kids climbing all over each other, we talked about consent. I taught my kids early that if they were going to throw water balloons at each other or hit each other with stuffies, then they needed to be sure everyone was on board with being touched or hit with something. They also needed to stop when someone said so. 

I did this because I wasn’t and will never be in the mood to hear sibling fighting or frustration, but more importantly, I need them to respect each other’s bodies and boundaries. By asking for permission to rough house and also having the ability to say no, I am giving them the tools to apply consent to situations that come with higher risks. 

Hartman tells Parents that open communication is key. “Encourage your children to talk about what they like (and don’t like) in order to ensure that everyone is comfortable and having fun.” She also says it is important that rough play never involves name-calling or intentional physical harm. 

These rules don’t mean someone won’t get hurt, but it establishes expectations and allows my kids to let go of hard feelings if the injury comes out of fun or play vs. a trip out of spite for not getting the last brownie. 

What Kids Get Out of Rough Play

Rough play is good for kids physically and allows them to gain confidence and body awareness while they manage their strength and hone their coordination skills. It’s also a great way to relieve stress and pent-up energy, and it’s fun! Physical activity boosts our endorphins and mood. Is there anything better than happy and chill kids? 

Rough play also has emotional and social benefits. In addition to learning consent, kids can also learn lessons on how to understand the body language of others and how to manage their emotions in the thick of intense activity. Rough play allows kids to develop self-control and confidence too. 

Hartman adds, “Playing together allows kids to use physical activity to express their feelings in a safe way—and having fun provides an outlet for excess energy that might otherwise be channeled into more disruptive behavior.”

Miriam Frankel is a mental health occupational therapist who founded the online learning platform Bloom, and she encourages parents to join their kids in physical play even if they haven’t done it in awhile. “Don’t be afraid to try the rough and tumble activities!” Frankel says that playing with your kids this way is a great bonding activity and allows children to learn the “unspoken rules of roughhousing in a supportive environment.”

Rough play is valuable for all genders, but parents who are actively trying to challenge gender roles and stereotypes can show their kids that rough play is not just for boys or masculine-identifying tweens and teens, nor is physical touch and affection just for girls or something that is considered weak. All humans crave touch and rough play can offer this in fun and supportive ways.  

All of these benefits transfer into problem solving, navigating friendships, and building relationships that are based on respect and communication. 

What Happens When Play Gets Too Rough?

When play gets too rough, we stop. 

My kids have been physical since they were toddlers, so they have come to expect this type of play with each other. But as they get bigger and because they are kids and imperfect humans, things get out of hand once in a while. Someone ends up in tears and sometimes all rules are broken and I need to stop the roughhousing. 

Once the kids (and myself) are calm, I explain why their activity became too much and why a timeout was needed. We review the rules of consent and talk about dangerous play and loss of control.

Sometimes it’s a matter of location. Rough play isn’t for everywhere, whether that means the living room or school. An after school counselor recently mentioned that one twin shoved the other while under his care, but the counselor was impressed that it resulted in no more than a shove back and giggles. My twins were warned about the “no touching other people’s bodies” rule, but the counselor also recognized this was consensual sibling behavior. They know not to shove other students, but I still talked to them about the right place and time to shove each other. 

From very early on, I knew it was better to create safe and soft environments for my kids to wrestle and roll around together than to try to ban this type of play. At the time, doing this was more for my sanity and their protection than knowing the benefits that would come from rough play. But I’m glad I did because it’s been much better to wrestle with them than fight it. 

Explore More

Children have less unstructured free time than ever before, but play is beneficial to their mental health and overall well-being. Read more of Parents’ deep dive on how kids play today—plus tips for caregivers to get involved in—and even lead—the fun.

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