The Truth About Rough Play in Kids

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Perhaps you are worried that your kids are the only ones that fight with one another like they are in a wrestling match. Maybe you worry that rough play in kids means that they are secretly dealing with anger issues. 

It can seem like your kids are the only ones who fight and rough house, and it is natural to consider– how much rough play in kids is normal? You may also be wondering about the line between play fighting and real fighting. 

If you are looking for further support and advice about your kids’ actions and behaviors, join the Twin Cities Kids Club for access to local discounts, tips, and encouragement. 

Playful father and sons rough housing outdoors

What is Considered Rough Play in Kids? 

Rough play is wrestling, fighting, and where both parties (or more than both if it is a group of kids) are engaged and having fun. Rough play for fun can involve made-up voices and facial expressions to go with the invented characters. 

Rough play may also involve taking on roles that they would typically never take- such as being the “bad guy” and doing actions that only the villain would do. 

Games may involve pretending to hurt innocent characters while playing. At other times there may not be this element of acting, and children may seem to be fighting. 

Rough play is NOT fighting that involves real physical harm that lasts. It does not include tears where only one side of the play fighting is enjoying the game. Rough play is not where children come together to fight and do not engage in any other social interaction. 

If any of the above is taking place, this is more in line with bullying than with play fighting or rough play. Children who engage in rough play should be monitored regularly to help make sure that all enjoy the game. 

Parents and other grown-ups can offer possible solutions if they observe any play that is unfair or is crossing the line into real fighting.

Brother and sister  wearing casual clothes  playing on a green sofa at home fighting with pillows

Teaching Social and Emotional Knowledge

One of the many benefits of rough play in kids is that it teaches social and emotional knowledge. It allows kids to try on different roles and feelings in a safe way. Kids are allowed to experiment with emotions like anger without having to engage in a negative situation that could be fearful for them.

Kids are able to try on roles that may be socially unacceptable. They can experiment with the characters of being the “bad guy” to gain a better understanding of what it means to be “bad” and “good.” 

When children engage in rough play, they are able to be things that they might otherwise be too shy to be or know that they would not be allowed to be. 

Daughter and father playing and laughing in the bed

Physical Needs

Rough play in kids is usually very physically active. Kids can feel that their body is in need of action and activity. Rough play fulfills some of this drive to move and be active. Kids are given a chance to use muscles and their bodies in motions and movements that they normally wouldn’t do. 

Rough play provides ample opportunities for all sorts of gross motor movements. This means that they are feeling the resistance of another person as they push against them. Or they are forced to balance as the other person moves and shifts in unexpected directions. 

This sort of gross motor movement is vital for the development of their large muscles. It also gives the strength that will allow them to work on their fine motor movements, as these bigger muscles support their hands and arms. 

Kids who do not have ample exercise of their gross motor movements have been shown to have a harder time sitting in a desk, learning to write, and other more focused actions. The physical demands of rough play mean that children are better able to focus later on. 

Brother and sister engaged in horseplay

Keeping Rough Play Safe

Every child, just like every adult, has their limits. The process of learning to communicate boundaries in a healthy manner is a life-long pursuit. These boundaries need to be negotiated and re-negotiated in relationships. 

Kids need to be empowered to communicate their boundaries with siblings and friends as they engage in rough play. For some, this may be a challenging process when different kids in the same family or peer group have greatly different levels of acceptable behavior. 

Kids need to be equipped to learn to vocalize these boundaries and to learn to respect others’ differences. It is appropriate to help kids in this area when needed.

Consider working with kids to develop a way to quickly communicate when something about the rough play gets too rough and have this understood. Saying “Stop” may work, but in some forms of rough play, this is a part of the game. It can be unclear for kids to understand what is a part of the game and sincere.

Perhaps institute the rule that if one child says, “please, stop,” or, “For real, stop,” they are speaking for real outside of the play. Variations can include other phrases or “tapping out” from being pinned. 

Two young sibling playfully hitting each other and rough housing.  Slight motion blur with sharp focus on the girls face.

Developing Rough Play Over Time

Rough play should function at different levels depending on the age and developmental level of children. Toddlers may enjoy playing wrestling or chase, but the line between play and reality may be blurred. They may hit in a way that hurts as they learn these differences and need reminders of the difference. 

Older children who are playing rough play with kids younger than them often seem to understand automatically the need to be more gentle than they might with kids their age. However, they should be monitored to make sure that this is happening. As children grow and develop, they should be able to handle increasingly complex narratives around their rough play.

If you are looking for more parenting advice and input about other issues, join Twin Cities Kids Club for access to local discounts as well as tips and encouragement. 

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