Everyone knows that it’s fun to play.  But did you know that play, especially rough-and-tumble play, also nourishes our mental, emotional, and physical health?!  It does, and we’ve got science to prove it!

When researching The Art of Roughhousing, we were awestruck by all of the science behind the benefits of roughhousing for both kids and adults.  Roughhousing is truly good for body and brain.

Our goal here is to present some of the most interesting science on roughhousing and play that we uncovered while doing our research for the book.  Here we will also post new ideas and concepts in the field of physical play as we learn about them.  If you know of something that might fit here in our science section, please send it to us!

Roughhousing as a “Science”

The first person to explore the science of roughhousing was Harry Harlow, who observed young rhesus monkeys in his animal psychology lab at the University of Wisconsin during the 1950s and ‘60s.  Harlow noticed that the monkeys often practiced what he described as “rough-and-tumble play.”  He observed that the monkeys often displayed a so-called play face—an open-mouth, teeth-bared expression—which looks fierce to humans but to other monkeys actually says, “Let’s play.”

Human children have their own play face, accompanied by smiles and laughter, to signal that roughhousing is play and not aggression.  And, just like monkeys, roughhousing children will run, chase, jump, flee, wrestle, fall over, and play-fight.

Some of the Science behind Our Bold Claim for Roughhousing

Our Bold Claim: Play—especially active physical play, like roughhousing—makes kids smart, emotionally intelligent, lovable and likable, ethical, physically fit, and joyful.

-Physical play releases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which is like fertilizer for our brains.  It helps stimulate neuron growth within the cortex and hippocampus, both of which are vital to higher learning, memory, and advanced behavior such as language and logic (Margot Sunderland).

-How well and how much children engage in roughhousing predicts their first-grade achievement better than kindergarten test scores (Anthony Pellegrini).

-Play trains mammals to cope with the unpredictable; it makes their brains more behaviorally flexible and increases their learning capacities (Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce).

-Roughhousing is good for learning because it provides an opportunity for making mistakes without fear of punishment (Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce).

-Emotional intelligence improves with roughhousing; children practice revving up and calming down, which helps them learn how to manage strong emotions (Anthony DeBenedet and Lawrence Cohen).

-Rough-and-tumble play serves an important role in helping children develop social and problem-solving skills (Anthony Pellegrini).

-Roughhousing helps kids learn concepts of morality and ethics by teaching them about self-handicapping; self-handicapping is one of the most amazing illustrations of moral behavior in animal play.  It occurs when a larger animal deliberately holds back while sparring with a smaller opponent.  This is a moral behavior because the larger the animal cares more about both players having fun together than it does about winning (Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce).

-When play circuits of mammalian brains are activated, especially by roughhousing, the result is joy (Jaak Panksepp).

Some of the Science behind the five core types of roughhousing: Flight, Games, Contact, Imagination, Extreme (all from Anthony DeBenedet and Lawrence Cohen)

-Early vestibular stimulation may be a building block for future athleticism.

-Roughhousing games require coordination of three aspects of human intelligence: physical, social and cognitive.

-The chemicals that are released in our brains when we give or receive genuine touch don’t just promote exuberance, delight, and happiness; they can be healing as well.

-Imaginative roughhousing is good for developing problem-solving and storytelling skills.

-Extreme roughhousing is good for developing risk-taking skills, perseverance, and confidence.

*Full citations available in book

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