Is Rough Play Important?

Can more rough play help our boys become more empathetic or more focused?

There has been a lot of attention given recently to the values of play in children’s cognitive development.  Free unstructured play, safe access to the outdoors, and imaginative play are becoming less and less available to our children, as more and more of them are pushed into earlier and earlier accademic school and pre-school programs, and much of their remaining free time is filled with structured or proscribed activities, such as extra-curricular classes and TV and computer use.  Without free play, researchers are finding, children don’t fully develope what is often called executive function.  It seems that not only free, imaginative play, but also rough play is necessary too.

Executive Function, according to wikipedia is:  “is used by psychologists and neuroscientists to describe a loosely defined collection of brain processes that are responsible for planning, cognitive flexibility, abstract thinking, rule acquisition, initiating appropriate actions and inhibiting inappropriate actions, and selecting relevant sensory information.

Read this review on the book: Children, Play, and Development, by Fergus P. Hughes at:

Here is an exert of Hughes’ thoughts from:

Rough and Tumble Play as Pathology.  “Rough-and-tumble play, a form of social engagement consisting of activities such as play fighting, hitting, wrestling, and chasing with the intent of fighting, is believed to constitute approximately 15% of all the vigorous physical play observed in children (Humphreys & Smith, 1984; Smith, 1989). While it is not known why immature organisms engage in such play, Pellegrini and Smith (1998) suggested that its primary function might be to allow children, and particularly boys, to establish their status within a dominance hierarchy.  This appears to be the function of rough and tumble in other mammals, such as chimpanzees; it is a relatively safe way to establish one’s status within the group without the risk of injury that may occur during genuine aggressive acts (Pacquette, 1994).”

“There is a correlation between the appearance of this activity and the maturity of the frontal lobes of the brain.  The executive functions of the frontal lobes include reflection, imagination, empathy, and play/creativity, and when these develop, they allow for greater behavioral flexibility and foresight, for well-focused goal-directed behavior.  As the frontal lobes mature, the frequency of rough and tumble play goes down, and damage to the frontal lobes is associated with a higher level of playfulness (Panksepp, Normansell, Coc, & Siviy, 1995).”

He goes on to write:

“Since learning requires attention and focus, vigorous physical play may appear to be antithetical to the educational process.  Teachers may believe that opportunities for physical play may make children, and particularly those diagnosed with attention disorders, even more difficult to teach.  Panksepp (1998) maintained that, as is true of other appetites, the need for rough and tumble is self- regulating process.  Once the need is satisfied, the organism will return to a relatively quiet state.  In fact, there is evidence to suggest that if children are deprived of physical play, they will play with even greater vigor when given the opportunity to do so (Pellegrini, Huberty, & Jones, 1995; Smith & Hagan, 1980).  If there is an appetite for rough and tumble play, and if such play not only reflects but also promotes neurological maturity, it seems that it would be counterproductive and possibly harmful to try to prevent it.”

This one is worth a read too, explaining clearly the importance of extended imaginative play on developing executive function.

Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills,   by Alix Spiegel

“Clearly the way that children spend their time has changed. Here’s the issue: A growing number of psychologists believe that these changes in what children do has also changed kids’ cognitive and emotional development.”

“It turns out that all that time spent playing make-believe actually helped children develop a critical cognitive skill called executive function. Executive function has a number of different elements, but a central one is the ability to self-regulate. Kids with good self-regulation are able to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline.”

While it has been known for some time that boistrous play with dad(s) (or mum(s)) is very important for developing gross motor skills, and learning about personal boundaries etc., I was surprised to learn that rough play in general, even among peers, may be essential in helping children to become more empathetic, and to have more self-control and foresight.  Even more importantly, those children, often boys, who are more energetic and aggressive need it more than others, and without it cannot focus in school; hence the rise in “hyperactivity disorders”, many of which, interestingly, disappear once a ‘diagnosed’ child leaves the confines of a brick and mortar school to home-school or un-school.

It also instinctively made sense to me that as the frontal lobes mature with the aid of rough play, a child’s need for wrestling goes down, a calmness and sense of focus appear.

So, sorry for all the quoted research….I think we need to let our kids rumble!!

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5 Responses to Is Rough Play Important?

  1. Kamala says:

    I totally agree with you on that! Little boys need to ‘rumble’. I have two boys, and I have to say with my first born, I noticed a distinct difference in toddlerhood between him and other boys his age who we hung out with–the other boys were rough and tended to hit and push (indeed, it is almost a stereotype of young boys that they will kick and hit and bite), while my son did not. It could be a personality thing, but one thing I noticed is that my husband would play wrestle and let our son get his ‘boy energy’ out in that way. The other Dads did not do this. There is a need to use the body in that way, I believe. It helps them direct that often frustrated and intense energy in a good way.

    • Belinda says:

      Thanks for joining in the discussion Kamala. I just read your comments on HS_Van about the recent Hockey riot, here in Vancouver and I totally agree! Either my partner here, edgymama or I will be writing more about Hockey, sports violence, out-of-control crowd energy etc. and how we and our society raise our boys….would it be ok if we quoted you?

    • Edgymama says:

      What you say is interesting Kamala because our son also seems to have a lesser need to be rambunctious with other boys. We have always enjoyed wrestling with him and continue to do so as well as to monitor how he wrestles with his little sister (who is also getting pretty darned good at it herself) so maybe this has something to do with it. I had two brothers and enjoyed rambunctious play with them and our father.

      One thing though, with the wrestling and rumbling with other kids, is he need to watch, monitor, and advocate. It’s not always easy to determine when to intervene and when to let things run their course. Naturally if someone is getting hurt this has to be stopped but when it’s a bit more grey, I struggle with what is right.

      I think though, that the more we allow them to rumble and tumble as they are naturally inclined to do, the more apparent it will become when something crosses the line and the more adept we will become at redirecting it.

  2. Sheryl Smith says:

    (It’s been over a year since this blog entry was written, but I have just come across it in my search for ideas for a coming-of-age celebration for my boys’ 13th birthday. I read a few other entries before reading this one.)

    We have always played rough with our boys. They were both very high energy from the minute they entered this world. Dad has always been very physical with them in a variety of ways – sports, wrestling, martial arts, rough snuggling, etc.

    We have noticed that many of our boys’ friends are hesitant at first when hubby starts to play with them, but then they get going and are not able to stop. Hubby has observed that many of our friends don’t play with their boys.

    Nothing too real conclusive in that – it is really just that hubby thinks that he sees in other boys this hunger or need to be physical. It also seems that our boys are much more comfortable around us and around other adults. They have a different kind of confidence that we don’t see in their friends.

    Our boys see community as being a group of people they are connected to of varying ages, genders, races, etc. Other boys seem to only be comfortable with their immediate mates. They don’t seem to be able to function outside the pack.

    One of my boys recently joined basketball. Going in he didn’t know anyone, but did find a guy he knew that was also joining the team. The other son joined cross country. He didn’t know anyone going into it either, but showed no nervousness, or fear, or hesitation. He walked right up the coach, shook his hand and made himself part of the team.

    • Edgymama says:

      Thanks for your thoughts Sheryl! I agree that boys are looking for physical contact.

      Interesting how your own boys who’ve had lots of wrestling, etc seem to feel more comfortable going into a new sports activity than other boys.

      It makes me feel sad for the others who had probably just looking for a physical connection with someone they are close to at an earlier stage of their lives.

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