The Benefits of Roughhousing

How Roughhousing might make for happier, more successful children

By Linda Knittel

Kids Roughhousing



I walked in the door one sunny afternoon to find both my 6-year-old son and his father flushed and breathing hard. “We were just wrestling,” they told me smiling. I felt my body tighten.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for being generous with loving physical contact, and I’ve been known to partake in a serious tickle fight or two, but wrestling just seems so aggressive—like it could lead to something negative down the road. Fortunately, a growing a body of research suggests I don’t need to be so nervous about physical play. In fact, social scientists believe a moderate tussle here and there might actually make kids
smarter, more coordinated, and even more likeable.

How horseplay builds smarts
In their book The Art of Roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It, physician Anthony DeBenedet and psychologist Lawrence Cohen outline just how roughhousing can benefit kids. For starters, it triggers the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF, which plays a role in cognitive and emotional function, as well as oxytocin, which makes kids feel loved. When released together, these chemicals promote the kind of new neural connections that make kids smarter. But there is more to a good scuffle than just brain chemicals. Having to strategize helps children fine-tune memory, attention, and complex problem solving. The spontaneous nature of such friendly “fights” helps manage the unpredictable—a key piece of intelligence. And of course the sheer physical nature of horseplay improves motor skill development.

How and when to rumble
While even adolescents and teens can benefit from roughhousing, studies show kids between the ages of 2 and 8 reap the most reward. According to experts, the best tussles involve three parts: a start, active play, and a winddown period.

Perhaps the biggest factor in successful roughhousing is parent involvement, either as a gentle participant, or as a supervisor ensuring that horseplay between siblings stays fun. As DeBenedet and Cohen write in their book, when parents roughhouse, they teach kids how someone bigger and stronger holds back: “We teach them selfcontrol, fairness and empathy. We let them win, which gives them confidence and demonstrates that winning isn’t everything. We show them how much can be accomplished by cooperation, and how to constructively channel competitive energy so that it doesn’t take over.”

Overall, roughhousing is about building bonds and having a good time. There’s nothing like positive physical contact to show your kids you love them. Of course, that can come in the form of a big old hug or perhaps, a pillow fight.

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