rough-and-tumble play at AZ+A

Rough and Tumble Play Supports Emotional Regulation

Rough-and-tumble play (or rough-house play) can often feel out-of-control, violent, and overwhelming for parents, especially if their child may have challenges with regulating their emotions. Because of this, it may seem counterintuitive to allow or even promote rough-and-tumble play as a parent. However, it is actually a powerful way for kids to learn and improve emotional regulation.


What is Rough-and-Tumble Play?

Rough-and-tumble play includes vigorous physical movements such as wrestling, play fighting, and chasing that invoke feelings of pleasure for the participants. Within this pleasure, children often feel joyful, powerful, and connected, which are motivating feelings, and this is why many children gravitate towards this type of play. 


How Rough-and-Tumble Play IS Beneficial for Your Child’s Emotional Regulation: An Occupational Therapy Approach:


  • Imitates the “ups” and “downs” of everyday life: The intensity of a person’s emotions fluctuates for any given situation. We get excited or angry, but it eventually wanes as we return to a more neutral state. We may feel sad or tired, but we start to get more connected as we move toward contentment. Children tend to feel emotions with more intensity and a longer duration. A common example is the “meltdown,” where a child is greatly upset (crying, yelling, throwing objects) for extended periods. In these cases, children’s nervous systems have trouble calming and lowering their heightened state, and they cannot effectively engage in emotional regulation. Rough-and-tumble play allows children’s nervous systems to practice moving through intensities with connected, motivating, and sensory-stimulating play. It gives children the much-needed practice to build emotional strength. 


  • Relieves stress: Rough and tumble provide a perfect combination of sensory input, movement, and enjoyment that kids need to relieve stress in their nervous system. Touch and deep pressure sensory input is often calming for kids and can help relax high-muscle tone. Joy helps provide feelings of safety, which signals the nervous system to relax and connect. A calm nervous system gives more space in a kid’s day-to-day to handle stressful or emotionally charged moments. 


  • Resilience and Fortitude: Rough-and-tumble play themes often lend themselves to a child’s physical and emotional challenges. Can they defeat the villain with their superstrength? Will they catch up to their parent in the obstacle course? Will they survive the sting of losing to their sibling in wrestling again? This depends on the perceived power they feel they have. While they might not have to fight a real supervillain at a place like school, they might have to deal with challenging table work, sharing toys or materials, and witnessing a peer complete activities easily. The more emotional resilience and fortitude they have in facing their adversities, the better chance they persist and sustain their effort over time, strengthening their emotional capacities.


rough-and-tumble play with ballHow Can I Safely Participate With My Child?

Rough-and-tumble may feel foreign or difficult for parents who never participated in it or were not allowed to do so when they were young. Starting slow is recommended, perhaps with activities such as tickling, squeezes, or finding joy in their powerful play by watching and commenting (Whoa! You really got that bad guy!). For whatever activity is initiated, it is essential there is some sort of agreement around safety and consent (“We can fight, but remember not in the head”) or (“If someone says ‘stop!’, we stop”). Above all, strive to follow the child’s lead, joy, and laughter!

By Vasilios Niphoratos

Senior Occupational Therapist, Amy Zier + Associates