Let’s Get Physical! Understanding Roughhousing

Image via Katie Hurley

“Get me with that big pillow, Mommy!” Out of context, this frequent request from my preschooler might paint the picture of the permissive mommy. You know the kind — the one who doesn't set limits and lets her children play in an aggressive manner. That wouldn't be an accurate description of the situation, though. You see, pillow fights are common practice around here because they're fun. During a recent pillow fight with my son, we ended up rolling off the couch onto the floor together in a fit of hysterical laughter. Does that sound bad to you?

The boundaries are easily blurred, and I can understand why it's hard to know where play ends and aggression begins. The key is to maintain healthy boundaries.

Some kids love to engage in rough-and-tumble play with their parents and/or siblings. Roughhousing, as it's commonly referred to, is simply a form of play. It gets a bit of a bad reputation in some circles, though.

There seems to be some confusion between aggressive fighting and physical play.

Physical play boasts many benefits and can be a lot of fun, but it should never include deliberately hurting someone else. And when one player sets a boundary (ex. some kids despise tickling), that boundary should be respected.

{ MORE: To the Parent Who's Raising Their Children Differently Than They Were Raised }

Roughhousing often includes things like pillow fights, wrestling, rolling around, flips, tumbling, running into things on purpose, and even throwing little ones up in the air for a little lift (to name a few). All of these activities are perfectly safe and fun for both parents and kids, and they help kids grow in surprising ways. With a few key limits in place, roughhousing can be great fun for the family.

wresting match
Image via Flickr/ omninate

Benefits of Roughhousing

Kids can learn a lot from roughhousing at home. Physical play within the safety of a loving environment encourages kids to step out of their comfort zones and take a few risks while enjoying time spent bonding with family. Kids who engage in rough-and-tumble play reap the following benefits:

  • Healthy risk-taking: they learn to pull back and push boundaries
  • Physical connection with parents and/or siblings
  • Physical benefits of increased strength, improved coordination, better body control, increased flexibility
  • Better self-control
  • Increased emotional intelligence: they tune in to the emotional needs of others, learn to read facial cues, work on emotional regulation, and learn when to challenge and when to hold back
  • They test learn to assert their needs
  • They have fun!

{ MORE: These Are the Best Toys for Outdoor Play }

dog pile
Image via Flickr/ Sherif Salama

Necessary Limits


Roughhousing can morph into aggressive play when left unchecked. The rush of adrenaline that brings so much joy and emotional relief can also cause kids to get carried away. The key is to be present during the roughhousing. Reckless roughhousing without a parent in sight can lead to dangerous choices and safety concerns, but physical play in the presence of a parent can be great fun.

A few limits can help keep the roughhousing smart and safe.

  • No hitting, biting, punching, kicking, or otherwise intentionally hurting another person
  • Respect all boundaries: when one player says no, it's important to respect that boundary
  • Respect all feelings
  • Stop and help if someone gets hurt
  • A code word to stop the play can be useful if kids get carried away
  • Apologize if you accidentally hurt someone
  • A player can leave the play at any time
pile of leaves
Image via Flickr/ lecates

Outside of the Home

While some parents are comfortable with roughhousing to some degree, many are not. Sometimes, the play that occurs at home stays at home. It's important to check in with other parents before allowing roughhousing during a play date or at the playground. When my daughter's best friends are over, I know that four kids zooming up and down the slide and collapsing on top of one another is fine with their parents, but other friends might not be allowed to play that way.

While there are certainly many benefits of physical play, it's also important to respect the boundaries of other parents. And that begins with honest communication and setting clear limits.

{ MORE: 3 Reasons to Say 'No' to No }

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Let’s Get Physical! Understanding Roughhousing

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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