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The surprising truth about roughhousing

Science now backs up what so many parents instinctively know: a spirited round of rough-and-tumble play is good for kids, helping them build academic, emotional, and physical smarts. Here's why.

By Jessica Kelmon

Growing up, when my siblings and I played, things got physical. From wrestling matches to stuffed animal wars, we were constantly challenging each other. My dad often jumped in on the fun, wrestling us to the ground and tickling us. As long as we kept our play “down to a dull roar” — and no one got hurt — my mom never enforced a ceasefire. She was intuitively letting us learn through play. Now, science backs this type of learning.

Roughhousing builds smarts

"Roughhousing actually makes kids smarter,” says Dr. Anthony T. DeBenedet, author of The Art of Roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It. From a scientific standpoint, random physical play that engages all your limbs kick-starts positive changes in the brain. When you roughhouse with your child, it triggers the release of brain-derive neurotrophic factor or BDNF, which plays a role in cognitive and emotional function, and oxytocin, which makes children feel loved. This dynamic molecule-and-hormone duo fosters new neural connections, “like fertilizer for the brain,” DeBenedet says.

The random, helter-skelter nature of roughhousing activates multiple areas of the brain and promotes healthy brain development — upping a child's academic and emotional smarts. Flying through the air and rolling around? Hello, cerebellum (an area that contributes to your child’s motor skill development). Strategizing your next move or judging your partner’s agility? Jump on in, cortex (the zone that handles language, math, memory, attention, and complex problem solving). And that happy, connected feeling after so much romping and rollicking is the amygdala (a group of nuclei where memory and emotional reactions are processed) stirring. (Read more about brain development in your preschoolerkindergartnerfirst gradersecond graderthird graderfourth graderfifth gradertween, or teen).

Perhaps the most important connection between roughhousing and intelligence is that those friendly “fights” help kids become behaviorally flexible. Since no one can memorize the right answer to every question, coping with whatever comes your way and managing the unpredictable is a valuable life skill — and an essential ingredient of intelligence. It involves creativity and the ability to look at problems from different angles on the spot, without prompts or prods.

is an associate editor at GreatSchools.org.

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