No touching. Keep your hands and feet to yourself. Stay still. Stop fidgeting. These are just some of the things we say frequently to our children. Despite our constant nagging, our children still naturally play physical and rough. They hug, they grab, they push, and they touch. Even as an infant, kids grab at hair or toys. They kick their feet or push things away.
With a behavior that so naturally occurs and typically develops, why is there such a push to ban it? Why are we moving toward policies both at home and school that restrict physical contact like hugs and play fighting? In an effort to protect kids from harm, have we gone too far?
I've previously written about the importance of free play on social development. In addition to free play, touch and free physical play are just as important, if not more, to social and cognitive development. Physical touch such as hugs, holding, or rocking has been linked with increased social and cognitive development, while lack of physical touch can lead to developmental delays.
Meanwhile, physical play has been extensively analyzed in animals as an evolutionary, adaptive trait designed to increase social and brain development. Even in humans, we know that touch and motor skills are highly tied to our cognitive skills according to current brain science. Physical touch has been linked to improvements in growth and development in infants.
Similarly, developing our motor skills throughout childhood actually further enhances our ability to think abstractly, problem solve, and control and regulate our thoughts. Research has even shown a link between well-developed early fine motor skills and increased academic performance. As a matter of fact, fine motor skills were even a better than early math, reading, and science score at predicting future performance in the subject areas.
It turns out that the same parts of our brain that control our body also control our thoughts. So, when you exercise and strengthen the motor control system, you're working out your thought control system. Those of us who use exercise as a stress reducer know this well! In our kids, naturally occurring physical, rough play is associated with periods of critical brain development. Your brain even releases chemicals designed to enhance the growth of areas responsible for social judgment and making decisions. Despite these findings, we continue to discourage touch, movement, and play and diminish the importance of developing control over our movements.
In my next post, I will offer tips for providing safe opportunities for supervised rough and tumble play. In the meantime, here's more on the issue of roughhousing:
Don't stop kids from playing rough from Bloomberg View
6 benefits of roughhousing from PsychCentral