The Art of Roughhousing: Why Your Kids Need It

podcast iconDo your kids like to wrestle, tumble or get tossed in the air?

Do you worry that you’re playing too rough?

A little horseplay is actually good for your kids’ development. It’s OK to take off the kid gloves!

To learn about the importance of roughhousing, I interview Anthony DeBenedet for this episode of the Parenting Adventures podcast.

More About This Show

parenting adventures podcast michael stelznerThe Parenting Adventures podcast is a show from My Kids’ Adventures.

It’s for parents (and grandparents) who are looking for creative things to do with their kids.

The show format is on-demand talk radio (also known as podcasting).

In this episode, I interview Anthony DeBenedet, co-author of the book, The Art of Roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It.

He’s a board-certified physician, a dad who likes adventure and an advocate for parent-child play.

Anthony shares why roughhousing is so important for your child’s development.

You’ll discover how to incorporate more physical play into your lives and tips for some games you can play.

Share your feedback, read the show notes and get the links mentioned in this episode below!

Do your kids like roughhousing? In Parenting Adventures Podcast 8, Anthony DeBenedet shares why roughhousing is important for your child's development.

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You can also subscribe via iTunes or Stitcher.

Here are some of the things you’ll discover in this show:

Roughhousing With Your Kids

Why roughhousing is important

Anthony is the father of three girls. When his oldest daughter was about 2 1/2, he noticed that their connection became much stronger after playing together in a more rough-and-tumble way. This prompted him to start researching the effects of parent-child physical play.

Anthony talks about the three main areas of benefits of roughhousing: intelligence, creativity and parent-child connection. He goes into detail how roughhousing increases the three types of intelligence: IQ, emotional intelligence and social intelligence.

kids roughhousing

Roughhousing aids a child’s intelligence and creativity and fosters parent-child connection. Image source: iStockPhoto.

Regarding IQ, most brain development happens between 18 months and 8 years. When parents are roughhousing with their kids, there’s a chemical released in their brains called brain-derived neurotrophic factor. It’s basically fertilizer for a kid’s brain, Anthony explains.

Brain development increases when multiple parts of the brain are activated all at once. When parents are roughhousing with their kids in a healthy way, this simultaneous activation of the child’s brain occurs, prompting development of IQ.

Research shows that the amount and quality of roughhousing during early childhood is a better predictor of achievement for kids in kindergarten through second grade than any test scores.

girl taking test

For young kids, roughhousing is a better predictor of a child’s development than test scores. Image source: iStockPhoto.

Emotional intelligence is knowing what your emotions are and sensing the emotions of others. Roughhousing does a great job of conveying that to kids. Since there’s a wind-up period and a rev-down period with roughhousing, it helps kids learn what their emotions feel like through this arc in energy during active play.

The body language, eye contact and non-verbal communication employed during roughhousing—as a child has to sense what mom or dad will do next—also helps kids learn and translate these aspects of emotional intelligence to the real world when they get outside the house.

Social intelligence is knowing when to be a good follower, as well as when to be a good leader. These skills are also illustrated in roughhousing, since it’s all about reversing roles and taking turns.

Anthony describes benefits that parents derive from physical play with their kids as well.

Listen to the show to learn Anthony’s definition of roughhousing.

How roughhousing helps girls and boys

Anthony explains how roughhousing aids the development of both boys and girls. There’s no gender barrier.

Before they grow up and leave the house, boys need to learn that there’s more to physical contact than sex and violence. Roughhousing teaches warm, physical connection that’s not violent and not sexual.

boys and girls roughhousing

Roughhousing aids in the development of girls and boys in different ways. Image source: iStockPhoto.

Before they grow up and leave the house, girls need to find their voice. Roughhousing helps girls learn the difference between what feels good and what’s scary and how to speak up about it, which builds their confidence. That confidence is the essence of finding their voice.

Listen to the show to understand what moms and dads can learn from each other through roughhousing.

How to ease into roughhousing

Anthony believes that roughhousing gets a bad reputation because people think it’s unsafe. On the contrary, if families expose their kids to roughhousing inside the house, kids are less likely to do dangerous things outside. Knowledge equals safety.

Tune into your child, Anthony suggests, and ease into roughhousing. If your kids are playing nicely, don’t grab them, swoop them up and throw them around the house. Get on the ground with them and gently nudge them. They may laugh or giggle. And if they do, do it again.

mother and son roughhousing

Ease into roughhousing with your kids. Image source: iStockPhoto.

Start with basic physical contact, such as pushing your hands against each other. Then push a little harder. Then have them push you over. Kids love it when parents just fall over.

Listen to the show to discover how when parents show their vulnerability, it helps the connection to their kids.

Fun roughhousing activities

Anthony shares some activities from his book: The Art of Roughhousing.

The Ejection Seat is a classic in Anthony’s family. It involves bed jumping, which can be dangerous when there’s more than one person on the bed. But when you have just one child or one parent, it’s safe. Just watch out for ceiling fans.


As in the nursery rhyme “5 Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed,” be careful when you jump on the bed.

One person jumps on the bed, making fighter-jet noises. The parent launches a rocket or a missile coming at them (noises included). You say “Eject!” and then the kid falls down on his or her bottom, near the edge of the bed, and then “launches” to see how far he or she can land. Each time they’ll try to land farther away.

book cover

There are plenty of activities to get you started in The Art of Roughhousing.

Another favorite is called Flying Fox, which is a recreation of a zipline. Your kid will hold your one hand with their two hands. As you run through your yard, your momentum lifts them off the ground.

Mattress Rafting is a classic. Take a twin mattress, put it at the top of the stairs and you raft down the stairs. You can do this with multiple people on the raft. Note from Anthony: Stairs with carpet work better.

Listen to the show to find out which roughhousing activities Anthony does with his kids when his wife is out of town.

How roughhousing has helped Anthony’s relationship with his kids

When things are kind of hectic, Anthony’s kids suggest they do some roughhousing.

dad and boys

Roughhousing opens the lines of communication between parents and kids. Image source: iStockPhoto.

Anthony explains that after they get out that energy and connect at a physical level, his kids will start talking about what’s really bothering them. Roughhousing’s a vehicle that opens them up to conversation.

Listen to the show to discover where being playful with your kids can lead.

Parenting Adventures Tip

String treasure hunt

My Kids’ Adventures’ Jennifer Ballard and I talk about a cool sensory experience you can set up for your kids: a string treasure hunt.

This treasure hunt will take your kids all through the house looking for a prize. Set up different-colored string for each kid. It’s helpful to have a different person make the string maze for each path, so you don’t get tangled during setup.

string lazer maze picture

Start by putting the prize at the end, and unwind the string as you set up the maze backwards. If you want, add notes for your kids to find during the maze.

We recommend you let your kids go at their own pace. It’s a great teamwork experience, since they’ll need to help each other out to avoid getting tangled.

This maze can be done inside, outside, for parties—the options are endless.

Listen to the show to learn sneaky places to put the string.

Key takeaways mentioned in this episode:

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What do you think? What are your thoughts on roughhousing? Please leave your comments below.

Images from iStockPhoto.

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About the Author, Michael Stelzner

I am a dad of three kids, the founder of My Kids' Adventures and the founder of Social Media Examiner. I also host the Parenting Adventures podcast. Other posts by »


  • http://www.riverhouseepress.com Ron Kraybill

    Thanks, Michael, I love this article. Moms have a biological advantage for bonding with young children, but dads have a physical advantage for bonding through roughhousing! (Moms could easily develop their own less physical version, but interestingly, I don’t see so much of this.) Now raising my 5th and 6th children (5 year old twins), I see its value daily. A few additions to the splendid ideas you offer.

    I bought and for many years periodically used athlete’s kneepads, the cushiony kind. This makes it easy to get down on hands and knees, where roughhousing starts with little guys, and to move fast without getting sore knees.

    Letting children “push you over” is never-failing fun and psychologically very useful, I believe. We are gods and children are relatively powerless much of the time. Think how many decisions are made for them by us and how little say they really have in most of these…. Kids love, love games that reverse that role. I sit on the floor, propping myself up with hands behind me. Then the game is for them to see if they can push me over from in front. In the beginning I am immovable, but I pretend that they are gradually pushing me over. When they see they are making progress they get very excited and determined. Eventually I fall over, to much mock protesting. Then I try to sit up, but of course they don’t let me. Kids will play for this game endlessly.

    My goal, for this little window of time, is to have them experience being powerful and in control. If there is more than one child, make it impossible to push you over unless they are working together. My first four got very good at teamwork. One on each limb! I have great memories of them shouting instructions to each other – get his hands, get his feet!

    A game my first four loved so much I thought I never wanted to hear the word again was “Pigs”. Very simple: I was the wolf and they were the pigs. The wolf is demanding and irritable. He says the kids have to stay in certain places and of course they do not. Then the wolf has to put them in Pig Jail (preferably a sofa or bed where you can throw them a bit as you incarcerate them). But of course they don’t stay there, so the wolf has to chase them and put them back. The wolf lies down from time to time and takes naps. Of course the pigs come near and start annoying the wolf. This too requires Pig Jail, and chasing. We played this game almost every night after I came home for years – “Let’s play pigs!” was the greeting at the door!

    A favorite of my 5 year twins is “Plllows”. I throw them on the sofa so they are lying lengthwise and they are my pillow, in the small of my back. Then I “sleep” and start snoring. Pillows are supposed to be quiet and let me rest, but of course, these won’t. They wriggle and make noises. I feign great annoyance, scold the pillows, and jostle them with my elbows and back to be quiet. “It’s my job to sleep. You are the pillow and it’s your job to be quiet!” Quiet for 5 seconds, then a repeat. This game is demanded several times per week, and is easier than Pigs because there’s no chasing.

    Children don’t understand the power of their growing bodies, and often unintentionally hurt others, by kicking or hitting in what they think is play. I think it is a good idea, especially for men who are stronger and less vulnerable than women, to not be too stoic in the face of the real pain that children inevitably inflict during roughhousing. When my sons hurt me, I say “ouch, that hurts!” in a tone commensurate with the pain. If it really hurts, I get angry and disengage briefly. As soon as it feels better I come back and say, “I know you didn’t mean to hurt me. It’s ok now, let’s play again. Among all the other good things, roughhousing helps kids discover, enjoy, and self-regulate their own power vis a vis others. And it enables modeling of recovering from inevitable mistakes, forgiving, and moving on emotionally.

    Finally, roughhousing gives great opportunity for children to experience flexibility of roles. When we are roughhousing, the kids are mostly in charge and they get to be outrageous and disobedient, as I feign annoyance and helplessness. But when the play is over, we are back to parent-in-charge, time-for-bath-now reality. We often have to make this transition in seconds. I think it is good for children to experience this and develop the emotional flex and role adaptability it requires.

  • http://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/ Michael A. Stelzner

    Ron, thanks so much for all the great thoughts and ideas. 5 year old twins sound like a handful but a lot of fun :)

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