The case for spending more time rough housing

Last week I went to a Fred Donaldson seminar about the importance of “play fighting” (or, what we should more accurately just call, ‘playing’). I was a bit skeptical at first…I thought, how can someone go on for almost 2 hours about play fighting? But I left feeling totally educated and inspired.

That night,I went to bed thinking about the seminar. The next morning, a handful of lines were still running through my mind. Since I couldn’t stop thinking about it, I decided I would write a blog post to share a bit of what I learnt. If you’re skeptical-keep reading. I was too but left feeling completely inspired to start play fighting with my kids!

The seminar began with a bit of an introduction of play. It’s something that everyone, at any age, can do. Children, teenagers, adults…even animals. Baby animals and their parents both engage in play. So, everyone can play. But not everyone does, and unfortunately, we’re being told at a younger and younger age that now it’s time to stop playing and start focussing on “more important things”.

It’s worth noting that play, in it’s purest form, is quite different from a game. Play is simple and spontaneous. It has no rules, no goals, no starting point, no ending point. It has no winner and no loser. You engage in play with someone, not against them.

How many of us feel more comfortable playing a game with our children, rather than just playing? When our children crave time with us, how often do we suggest playing hide and seek, or tag, or a board game? While none of these things are bad ways to spend time with your children, they aren’t the only way.

Simply getting down on the floor and engaging in body contact with your child is something that is often overlooked but highly valued by kids. Play fighting, rough housing, tumble time, it goes by many different names but at the end of the day, it’s just playing.

The man giving giving the seminar told us a story of a child he was “play fighting” with at his childcare center. The man was kneeling on the floor while the child climbed up his back and summersaulted over his head, over and over again. Suddenly the child, completely lost in the moment, shouted between giggles: “this is so AWESOME!”.

At the same center, they have a room full of mats. Wall to wall mats covering the floor, and nothing else. No toys, no swings, no blankets or stuffed animals. Just mats. And here the children play, with each other and with the adults that work with them. On the ground, rolling, tumbling, embracing, hugging… play. The man’s 2 year old daughter attended this centre, and always called this play time “mat time”. One day his daughter said to him, “Nurse Mama. Mat time Papa.”

This sentence is profound in the way that it so clearly articulates just how important this type of play is to children. It is, in their own words, right up there in the hierarchy of needs, next to nourishment. This type of play has the same life worth as eating and bonding. It is bonding. It’s uninhibited, skin to skin, human to human, bonding. The young boy that shouted out how awesome it felt, as if finally, finally, there was an adult who got it. No fancy toys, no endless sports and activities, just simple, one on one play.

He told us a third story, this time at a summer festival the center put on. Two adults were standing together talking when they looked over and saw their children playing with one another. The girl was running behind the boy when father of the boy suddenly shouted, “faster Noah, she’s going to catch you soon!”. A minute later, they looked over and the two children were rolling on the grass together. The father interjected again, “Oh no, she got you! Now it’s your turn to chase her.” The mother of the girl, on the other hand, was none to pleased to see the kids ‘fighting’ on the grass. “Someone’s going to get hurt, and you’ll ruin your clothes!” she told them.

And it struck the man as sad, the way these two adults responded to the children’s play. That the father felt the need to label what he saw and outline what the rules should be, rather than let it be spontaneous running. He named it ‘chase’ and instantly it became a game (remember, a game has rules and goals and winners and losers). He also inadvertently made it clear that Noah shouldn’t want to be caught. That coming in contact with one another would some how be losing.

Then, when they were rolling on the grass, the father interjects again. “Ok, she caught you, now it’s time for you to chase her.” The truth is, the children probably weren’t thinking about these things. It’s unlikely they came together and, before starting to play, outlined with each other who would chase who, and what would happen when one of them was caught.

The mother interpreted the children rolling on the grass as fighting. But, it’s actually very easy to tell the difference between playing and fighting. In play, the goal is never to hurt one another. Yes, there is a lot of body contact going on, but if you examine at it more closely, there is a lot embracing, rolling, and tumbling happening. When punching and/or kicking take place, this is no longer play. This is fighting. But the rest, the rest is play.

If you’ve ever observed two children start playing with each other, you might have noticed that they play likely began spontaneously. Children rarely see the importance of outlining the rules beforehand. They often make things up as they go. They improvise, provide input, react to inputs given, and find themselves deep in the throes of spontaneous, uninhibited, goal-free play.

The unimportance of pre-agreed upon terms is never so clear as when two children who don’t speak the same language come together and start playing with eachother. Maybe you’ve seen this on vacation, when your child has suddenly made a new best friend, even though they can’t understand a word the other one is saying. The rules, the definitions, these aren’t what matter.

The seminar ended with a question and answer portion.

“This is all very interesting, and you’ve sold me on the idea of play fighting. But, isn’t this something that should be done within the family? Does this type of play really have a place in the childcare system? I’m not sure I’m comfortable with my child engaging in this type of play with an adult who isn’t a family member…”

To which he answered, this a product of a culture that has been bombarded with stories of child abuse. When a child has hurt themselves and I embrace them in a hug. Or a child is having a bad day and craves some time just sitting on my lap, taking a break from it all. These are all examples of body contact that children need, crave, and deserve, and play has a place in this realm as well. When we look at animals in the wild, they not only engage in play with their own family members, but also members of different species! It is only unnatural if start thinking about it in that light.

“What about the child who does start hitting and kicking? Don’t there have to be some rules?”

As he stated, wanting to hurt someone isn’t playing anymore. That is fighting. But, perspective is important. What do little kids do when they lie on their back? They kick their feet bicycle style. Is this kicking to hurt someone, or kicking to play? Sometimes, changing the way we interpret their movements is an important part of embracing this type of play.

He also offered some great advice with how to deal with these types of movements. Rather than moving away from a child who’s arms and feet are flailing in a way that could potentially hurt us, move in. Get closer. It seems counter-intuitive until you think: the closer you are to their body, the less able they are to make movements like kicking. Sometimes having your body right up against their feet, so they can feel the weight of you, is all that is needed to stop this potentially hurtful movement. And often, it is the wildest children, the children we label as the “roughest”, most “aggressive”, who are craving this type of body contact the most, but have never learnt how to get it in a positive, acceptable way.

If only we knew how much learning in taking place when children people engage in “mindless” play, we might start attaching more worth to it. We might start valuing it more, carving more time out for it, being more accepting of it when it spontaneously arises, even when we have other things on the agenda. So much of child-rearing has moved into the extremes these days. Sometimes (often times) all we need is to go back to the basics. Get on the floor, and P L A Y!

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