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Active Play and “Roughhousing” Makes Kids Smarter

Updated: Aug 31, 2021

NinjaZone roughhouse smart kids flip

As the mother of two little ones, I’m keenly in tune to of the physical nature of boys. It’s a rare occurrence in my house if there isn’t running, jumping, tumbling, or tackling. I’ve often joked to friends that sitting on the floor in my home is an open invitation to start wrestling. But what can be done about it? Surely, we don’t want to encourage roughhousing – or do we?

No more physical play in schools

As a former teacher, I’m very aware of the current trend in schools regarding recess with the number of schools removing recess altogether, on the rise. Where recess is still present, a solid 77% of administrators report taking away recess as a form or punishment despite two-thirds reporting students are more focused in class following recess.

Goodbye recess

Despite the clear academic and behavioral benefits of active play, teachers and administrators are choosing to remove these opportunities during the school day to expend energy making it even more important for children, particularly boys, to have an opportunity to be active.

In the 2009 Alliance for Childhood study on play, 89% of administrators cite recess and lunch as the most challenging of times for behavior, with play quickly turning too rough, yet is roughhousing really that bad? In the book The Art of Roughhousing Dr. Anthony DeBenedet and Dr. Lawrence Cohen argue that rough and tumble play is not only beneficial for children but it makes them smarter.

Roughhousing makes kids smarter

When a child engages in whole body, physical play, it stimulates the release of brain-derive neurotropic factor – or BDNF for short. This chemical promotes normal cognitive and emotional functioning of the brain, and acts as a natural antidepressant. The release of BDNF is at it’s peak during play where children are having to strategize their partner’s next move, use agility to navigate a situation, and use problem solving combined with physical exertion.

“I don’t want anyone getting hurt…”

Now, you may be thinking, “Won’t wrestling and roughhousing just lead to someone getting hurt? I don’t have time to take someone to the hospital!” The more children roughhouse, the more behaviorally flexible they become. They begin to learn what the acceptable boundaries of the situation are, how to properly approach interactions with others, and builds social skills such as turn taking and respect.

So, what can I do?

Children aren’t receiving as much active time during the school day as they used to, so when extracurricular activities are being selected be sure to choose classes and sports where children can use their whole body to engage in physical activity, NINJAZONE classes, for example, teaches agility, confidence, and respect, just as in many sports, but while allowing children to flip, kick, jump, and tumble at the same time. This combination of skill and impulse control combined with a whole body physical activity is the perfect way to exercise key skills.

So, next time you witness your kids tackle each other playfully in the backyard, leap from log to log during your hike, or run, tumble, and slide across your kitchen floor, take solace in the fact that by allowing it to happen you’re making an impact on their social, emotional, and cognitive development.

- Megan Noel, PhD


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