Play fighting, rough and tumble play, and even hugging are consistently restricted by well meaning teachers and parents who worry about children's safety as I wrote about in my last post. In fact, play fighting rarely escalates according to research. When it does escalate, it is generally due to a child feeling rejected, or more likely due to accidental injury. In either case, the incident is a powerful learning experience for both children. Because it is so meaningful, the lesson is much stronger and more likely to be learned and incorporated into future decision-making.
As opposed to fighting, which is coercive or threatening, play fighting involves happy, smiling children who are exploring their physical limits and practicing physical control. As children get older, their physical contact is restricted naturally and you can see that they actually gain the ability to hold back their physical impulses. Simultaneously, they begin to make better, more thoughtful decisions. In other words, you can see the brain growth!
So instead of eliminated physical play and hugs completely, let's work toward encouraging supported, safe play environments for good practice!
Here's some tips for providing safe opportunities for supervised and guided rough and tumble play:
1. Help your child understand and set limits. Remind him or her that if a friend's face or words becomes angry or sad, he or she may not like the game anymore. Also help your child express his or her limits. Have your child practice saying "Stop!" "I don't like that!" or "You're hurting me!" or using a physical sign such as that below to indicate that the play is no longer wanted.
2. Use teachable moments. Let children wrestle, but help them identify cues should the play reach an uncomfortable level for a child. For example, say, "Bobby, Jimmy is pushing on your chest because he wants you to get off of him. You need to listen to that."
3. Watch for children who may feel rejected or left out. Should these children attempt to be more physical with others, they may have a more threatening intent and approach. Help that student interact with his peers in a more acceptable way by guiding them on ways they can join the group.
4. Provide space for the play. When space is limited to less than 25 feet, children tend to be more aggressive. Not only that, but they can also more easily hurt themselves on furniture or other objects. Providing a large, safe place to play is essential.
5. Listen for the cue that your children might need a break. Are they getting too loud? Are they still able to hold back physically? Is someone starting to dislike the interaction? These are all signs that your children are losing the ability to regulate their behavior. Tell your children that they need a break and point out why. "Danny and Timmy, you're having trouble being safe now, so you both need a break. You need be able to play nice and safe." This will help them learn their limits and when they need to stop.
Using these tips, your kids will be on their way to reaping the benefits of a little roughhousing!