Rough and tough: Doctors say horseplay is good for kids

Sam McManis

Squeals of delight, piercing and persistent, issued from the staircase down the hall.

Some serious roughhousing was under way at this Natomas, Calif., home, but mom Michelle Hewitt hardly fretted. She and husband Dan consider themselves physical and playful parents, and the kids – Alice, 5, William, 3, and even 14-month-old Claire – crave the contact and closeness.

They normally don’t need some book to tell them how to roughhouse, but they had the new how-to manual, “The Art of Roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It,” on hand, so they took a quick look and found some rousing new stunts dreamed up by the authors, Drs. Anthony T. DeBenedet and Lawrence J. Cohen.

And the new move causing all the commotion and giggling from the stairs turned out to be “Futaleufu Mattress Rafting,” named after the Chilean river purported to be the world’s most dangerous whitewater rafting spot. It was a simple proposition, really: Just place a twin mattress near the top of the stairway, have parent and child hop on and hold on for a swift descent to the carpet below.

“Again! Again, Dad!” Alice commanded, and each time Dan moved the “raft” farther up the staircase. His younger child, Will, begged off after two “runs” at lower heights, but Alice the thrill-seeker didn’t want to stop. By then, it was 7 p.m., a half-hour before bedtime, so quiet time was needed to soothe the raging offspring.

“I really like that the kids are active,” Michelle said. “It makes them not afraid to try things, to be more adventuresome. I do believe the physical thing gives them confidence.”

Such an attitude is the notion behind “The Art of Roughhousing” (Quirk Books, $14.95, 192 pages), the brainchild of DeBenedet, a doctor of internal medicine, and Cohen, a child psychologist. It is their response to a generation of youths reared, well, on their rears playing video games hour by slack-jawed hour and harried parents content to let them veg out.

By getting down on the floor and being physical with your child as early as the infant months, the doctors believe, it helps spawn “spontaneity, improvisation and joy” – all traits that will serve them well into adulthood.

They have heard all the concerns from parents so protective of their little ones that they almost swaddle them in bubble wrap, and those so focused on their kids’ academic achievement that they feel they simply don’t have time for frivolities like play.

They hear, and they reject such arguments.

“Parents will say, ‘Oh, play is fine for extra times,’ but to a Tiger Mom, there is no ‘extra’ times,” Cohen said with a wry chuckle. “But call our roughhousing ‘deep learning,’ and the parents get it. They’ll say, ‘Oh, right, I definitely want my child to have deep learning.’ “

DeBenedet said he understands that parents will choose “learning” over “play,” because they’ve been inculcated with the belief that the two are mutually exclusive.

“They think intellectual success will give (the child) happiness,” DeBenedet said. “But if they choose play, that will lead to happiness, and learning will become more natural. When all is said and done, it’s about teaching them to connect with others. We’re trying to start that connection at a young age.”

Oh, and about the threat of injury?

The doctors flatly state: “We believe that occasional bruises and scrapes are a normal part of childhood.”

They back up their claims with scientific research. They point out that roughhousing and other vigorous activities release the chemical “brain-derived neurotrophic factor,” which stimulates growth in areas of the brain dealing with memory, learning, language and logic. They quote a study by a University of Minnesota psychology professor showing that how well children behave on the playground – ground zero for roughhousing – can predict first-grade achievement more accurately than kindergarten test scores.

Less scientifically, turning a mattress into a raft, or sofa cushions into a fortress, or a pillow into a cudgel sparks imagination. It fosters inner creative impulses, whereas the creativity derived from playing a video game comes solely from the game’s maker.

Then again, no one ever broke a bone or had a bloody nose or was rushed to the emergency room from a video-game injury.

“We’ve switched from safety first to safety only,” Cohen said. “We’re not advocating going back to pre-seat-belt days. But there are worse things in life than a bump and a scrape. We don’t think enough about the dangers of children being timid, being listless and apathetic or unable or unwilling to take a risk. Being overweight and out of shape is a bigger risk.”

The doctors also dispel parental worries that encouraging roughhousing will make an “active” or “tactile” child overly aggressive. They see roughhousing between parent and child as a way to channel a child’s physicality in positive ways.

A key is to distinguish play from aggression and have the two trade off who is the aggressor and who is the “victim.” Dr. Stuart Brown, in his book “Play” (Avery Trade, $16, 240 pages) writes that vigorous play “is necessary for the development and maintenance of social awareness, cooperation, fairness and altruism” in children.

Cohen said giving kids a chance to dominate Mom or Dad is empowering.

“One of the favorite sayings of every 3- or 4-year-old is ‘I’m the king of the mountain,’ ” he said. “Children are smaller and less strong than us and, in play, they can experience that (dominant) feeling. And they can learn, when they are the dominant one, how to hold back.”

That’s a trait parents also need, they say. In fact, the doctors say roughhousing is essential for the parents’ health as well.

“There’s nothing like physical play that can build that sense of connection with your child,” DeBenedet said. “When you go to the park with friends and their kids, often you see the adults not even engage. They get on their iPads or iPhones while the kids play.

“By playing with them, you’re saying to your child, ‘I care about your life more than what’s going on on my Blackberry.’ That gives kids self-confidence and makes them feel loved.”