A kitten makes a sideways run to pounce on her unsuspecting sibling. Two puppies growl and nip each other, all the while thumping their tails with glee.
Roughhousing comes naturally to young animals (even non-predatory animals), so it should be no surprise our kids have the same instincts. “Play fighting” can actually help kids learn to deal with aggression. Plus, the movement and laughter help release built-up energy and generate oxytocin in the body. And rough play with dad has been linked to many social and emotional benefits for both boys and girls. Horseplay can also help kids learn smart risk-taking.
Here’s how to keep your rough-and-tumble kids safe and respectful (without you feeling like a full-time referee).
Keep it fun – Horseplay should always be good-natured. Make sure your child knows that when one participant stops enjoying it, it’s time to stop. Always feel free to check in with each child involved and make sure they’re still cool with it.
Set limits up front – Establish what’s ok and what’s not. (You’ll probably add to these rules over time.) Designate areas where wild play is allowed, as well as off limits areas where someone could be hurt or something could get broken. Let the kids make some of the rules so they’ll have ownership in the situation and make sure logical consequences are established and enforced.
Assess any danger – There’s a difference between rowdy and dangerous. Sometimes kids are just loud and boisterous and it feels more chaotic than it actually is. Your instincts will tell you if there’s something to worry about, and if you’re not sure, check in with the kids and ask how they’re doing.
Make a safe space for wild play – Clear a space in a carpeted room (or lay down blankets or mats) for safe play. Pillows and other soft items can help cushion a fall.
Be calm but firm – If the kids are spinning out of control, the last thing the situation needs is more worked-up energy. Take a deep breath and firmly state your intentions:
“Remember: no horseplay around the fireplace.”
“Can you see that your friend isn’t laughing anymore? Let’s take a break and make sure everyone feels safe.”
Cue them to settle – The 5-minute notice works well here. Plan a more calm activity for preschoolers to shift into the next gear before asking them to focus on something else. Some parents may worry that roughhousing kids can get so riled up they’ll never wind down, but play researcher Anthony Pellegrini says, “Some studies show kids are calmer and more ready for social play after a good rough-and-tumble.”