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Roughhousing in the Time of Corona

With rain forecasted, one of my coop's board chairs asked me to write a brief piece on this useful parenting tool to help you all out.


Are you noticing your children have too much pent-up energy?


Is it getting harder to get along?


Are you getting sass, ignored, or increased tantrums?


How about trying a tried and true parenting technique used by mammals of all kinds? I’m talking about roughhousing! Nothing lets off steam, creates connection, inspires cooperation, aids relaxation, and spreads joy like intense close-contact physical play. And bonus: it makes your child smarter!


Roughhousing increases both emotional and academic intelligence because it produces Brain-Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF). BDNF has been called brain fertilizer: it is a protein that promotes energy homeostasis and neuronal plasticity, both crucial factors for learning—something that happens whether or not our children are attending school.


Roughhousing makes us all smarter in so many wonderful ways! It improves cognitive flexibility, which trains us mammals to cope well with unpredictability and instability (ahem); it trains us to read subtle, nonverbal social cues, which leads to respect for each other’s comfort levels and boundaries; and it fosters ease with both inferior and superior positions of power, something everyone needs to have as we switch back and forth between learning from and leading each other. It has also been shown to make us mammals more lovable and likable in our social spheres, as well as more joyful in general—something we can all stand to be right now.


So take time to roughhouse with your children every day. An especially effective time to do it is during challenging transitions. Roughhousing has been known to make clean-up a snap, mealtime more convivial, and bedtime into a magical time!


Tips for Doing it Well:

  1. When it’s time to stop, be patient. Roughhousing will raise a child’s energy level, and their nervous system will likely take longer than yours to settle down. Calmly guide your child in quieter activities such as reading one of your children’s books aloud to yourself, rocking to soft music, or just smiling at them calmly as they take their time to down-regulate at their own pace.

  2. Have a silly safe-word. Make sure everyone feels secure at all times in the knowledge that they can stop it whenever they want just by saying “tooty fruity hooty!” Or “peanut butter pickles!”

  3. Have rules in place that prevent punching, scratching, spitting, hair-pulling, kicking, pinching, head-locks or tickling. Stick to pushing, pulling, grasping, and anything that is not deliberate hurting. When rules are broken, stop, remind everyone of the rules, and then start again.

  4. Don’t be scared of anger. It’s natural for big emotions to come up during intensive play. If your child becomes seized by rage, stop the play, listen kindly, block any blows that come at you or anyone else in the play, and problem-solve it all later when the clouds have passed.

  5. Someone might get hurt. If it happens, stop the play and tend to all physical and emotional wounds before starting again.

  6. Get creative. My son, Franky, and I used to kiss-wrestle when he was little. We would both try to kiss each other without getting kissed. And while wrestling is always tried and true, there are many other ways to roughhouse besides play fights if that’s not your or your child’s thing. Here are some ideas: https://theinspiredtreehouse.com/10-fun-roughhouse-activities-for-kids/

  7. Become an expert by reading The Art of Roughhousing or watch the Ted Talk.


Adapted from The Art of Roughhousing by Anthony DeBenedet and Lawrence Cohen

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