Anna Dusseau | 28th April 2020
Play fighting is a daily occurrence in our house. Daily? Perhaps I should say hourly. I think that’s why my kids are so happy. You see, play fighting – also known as roughhousing – releases a chemical called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) which stimulates neuron growth within the cortex and hippocampus regions of the brain; areas responsible for memory, learning, language, and logic. You want smart kids? Start with a pillow fight. And if your kids are anything like mine, they are fierce as fuck, and things can escalate quickly. So, get ready to rumble, but first of all brief yourself on these basic safety guidelines to make sure everyone stays safe and happy.
Hands up, loose wrists. You want to adopt a defensive position at all times and mostly just let them maul you and tumble about. Protect your face and keep your wrists loose so that, if you are playfully slapping their head or shoulders, they are receiving just light strokes, rather than anything that stings or surprises them.
Beware the rebound. Kids love wrestling and being caught, grabbed, scooped off their feet and so forth. Just be aware that, if there is a lot of energy in the game, your should watch when you release them that there isn’t a wall or unexpected step to cause an accident, because naturally their first instinct will be to sprint away because they are lost in the game.
A note on chasing. Again, this is to do with speed and watching where they are going. If you can see that your child isn’t paying attention to their surroundings, be sure to use your normal voice clearly to remind them to slow down, watch for the edge of the counter, and then you can switch back into the Gollum-vs.-Predator voice for the whole “right, I’m coming to get you” malarky.
Preventing dislocation. This is really important, as children are growing and so their joints are more relaxed and easier to dislocate. My advice, if you are lifting, spinning or throwing, is to take a hold on the actual joint (such as the wrist or ankle, rather than the hand or foot) and, if possible, support as well under the arm or knee, so that you don’t put joints under strain.
Cushions. Obviously cushions and pillows are brilliant for play fighting, but beware that a heavy cushion can knock a child off their feet, so judge it carefully and if they want the game to be rough, make sure there is a soft landing. Very safe and one of my kids’ favourites is when you take two cushions and bring them together with a ‘clap’ on their head. Fun but doesn’t hurt at all.
Know your body weight. And I think this is especially important for the dads, because often an adult male body weight is significantly heavier than a woman or child. Just biologically, guys; no offense. So what I always tell my husband to watch out for if he’s rolling around on the floor being pummeled by our three, are little limbs and making sure nobody gets a leg or arm trapped under his back.
Watch for tiredness. Play fighting is massively fun, but it’s also exhausting on every level and, when the tiredness kick in, this is when accidents can happen. Watch for signs that your child is wearing out and try to slow the game down, hug it out a bit, distract and move on to another activity, so that it ends on a good note.
“Move like a butterfly, sting like a bee. Wait, no! I mean hands up, loose wrists. Duh!”
Checking in. If your children are fierce and really want you to go for it with the roughhousing, then absolutely do, so long as everyone feels safe and happy. Because you are the adult, the essential thing is to check in regularly and make sure that they are still enjoying the game and aren’t feeling frightened (if the chase game just went a bit ‘here’s Johnny!’) or overwhelmed.
Supporting neck and spine. Regardless of the age of your children (our baby likes being tumbled about as much as the older ones) it’s paramount that you watch how they land if you are throwing. Throwing them? Yes, of course. Onto mattresses, piled up duvets and so forth. Check the landing, support the neck and back with your arms and ensure that they don’t land with a jerk.
Of course, never retaliate. It goes without saying that, if you engage in play fights, you could end up with a black eye. My daughter is getting quite big and an accidental knee to the nose really flipping hurts. It’s natural to want to shove them away if this happens, but you can’t. Because you’re the adult. Instead, just calmly stand up and make it clear that – for you – the game is over for now.
Play fighting doesn’t come naturally to everyone and, I think it’s worth pointing out, not all children universally love it. Use your judgement to consider what is right for your family, but for the vast majority of parents, I would suggest that safe, energetic play fighting is a key ingredient in maintaining mental well-being in children, as well as regulating their mood, balancing energy levels and improving concentration. Just remember: “move like a butterfly, sting like a bee”. Wait, no. That’s not the right one. I mean: “hands up, loose wrists.” Duh!
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