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The Importance of Rough Play

Let them play rough!

I am a mother of four. Four boys. That seems to be cause for quite the reaction from people I meet. “Gee you must have your hands full.” “Wow, you deserve a medal.” “Can I get you a drink?” While this empathy is great, I am of the view that kids are kids. I acknowledge the gender specific research about development, but sometimes the application of this is taken too far and often used as a reason to excuse things that should be managed. As I’m not a mother of girls, it is difficult to compare. But I am from a family of four girls who grew up in close proximity to our cousins, a family of three boys. In my memory there were clear differences between the children, seemingly not related to gender. The differences I recognized that seemed to be related to gender were more obvious in the teenage years.

When I’m speaking with my friends about the nature of my children’s play, I articulate that their play is often loud, active and rough. The most common response to that is an acclamation that this is because they are boys. Perhaps. It is also because, while it drives me crazy sometimes, I encourage it! And I think all parents should. There are so many valuable lessons to be learnt from rough play; for both boys and girls.

Rough play begins in the first year of life. Babies love being bounced and rocked. As they grow older they may even enjoy being lifted into the air. This play isn’t rough. We all know the damage that can be done to a baby by shaking. But in my experience they enjoy the excitement of active play. Toddlers enjoy playing tiggy, jumping over things (including people), being tickled, slowing people down by hanging onto an arm or a leg, and also generally being tossed about. As they grow into school children, I watch the progression into jumping onto each other’s backs, pulling people to the ground, and general wrestling and tackling. I wish more parents would not only allow this play to happen, but encourage and appreciate it. Especially mothers. Research tells us that women are more likely to put a stop to rough play than men, and that women (with the exception of women who grew up with brothers) are not as good at identifying whether something is rough play or serious fighting. So, to all the mothers who did not grow up with brothers, before you put a stop to the ‘fighting’, consider if it is simply rough play, and consider the benefits of it, before you put a stop to it.

In rough play, the goal is to have fun. Children are smiling and laughing and enjoying themselves. In genuine fighting, the goal is to hurt or harm. Children are expressing sadness, anger or fear. If it is in fact rough play and not genuine fighting, know that the research tells us that rough play very rarely progresses (about 1% of the time) to real fighting. This does not mean children do not get hurt. But it is not with intent.


"In rough play, the goal is to have fun. Children are smiling and laughing and enjoying themselves. In genuine fighting, the goal is to hurt or harm."


Children love rough play because it’s a challenge and it’s exciting. They get to test their physical boundaries and experiment with being powerful. Adults should love it when their children play rough because they learn so much. They learn to take turns, to control themselves, to read other people’s facial expressions and body language, to not over react or get unnecessarily offended. They learn to trust and to be trustworthy. They learn about the importance of consent. They learn about intent, and that people can still get hurt in the absence of it. They learn their limits, they set boundaries, and respect the boundaries of others. They experiment with social relationships through role play. And on top of all of this, they get exercise and are engaged socially. These skills and lessons learnt are some of the most valuable a child will learn. And they are not only skills and lessons that boys need to learn.

In order for rough play to be successful, kids need to know how to do it. The best way for them to learn is to have it modeled. Get involved in rough play with your children, coach them. Teach them about facial expression and body language, respect and self-control. Teach them to be safe and know their boundaries and limits and those of other people. To maintain your sanity you might classify rough play as an outside game, you might put a time limit on it, you might provide a word they can use that lets all people involved know that you’ve had enough and you’re not enjoying it anymore. In my house, rough play doesn’t happen after dusk; that’s when they are tired and it’s more likely someone will get hurt or someone won’t respond appropriately.


Let them play. Let them play rough. Teach them how to do it safely and respectfully. Regardless of whether they are boys or girls. You’ll be glad you did.


About the Author

Gabrielle left her job as an Assistant Principal in a secondary school to follow her dream of making a difference to future generations by teaching emotional intelligence. To supplement this, she worked as a secondary relief teacher, she tutor school students as well as adults from non-English speaking backgrounds, and she is a freelance writer who intermittently ghost writes blogs for websites other than her own. As a hobby she write books. She have written a children’s book that won 3rd prize in the CYA Conference in 2016 that is currently being illustrated, and she is in the midst of working on a Young Adult novel. She is a parent, but it is not what defines her. She blogs at about her life as a mother of four boys, and the topics she write about are varied.

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