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How Roughhousing saved my life, and how we can use it transform yours!
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How Roughhousing saved my life, and how we can use it transform yours!

Do you remember roughhousing as a child?

Wrestling with your siblings or cousins, being thrown in the air or spun around by a parent? A game of soccer or basketball turning into a joyous dogpile?

Do you remember the joy of it? Or perhaps you remember fear, or feeling awkward and unwelcome. Perhaps you never had this and only saw other people doing it?

Rough and Tumble play, physical intense intense play fighting and acrobatic play is a major feature of young life not only for humans but all mammals. Most of us can remember a time when it was fun and rewarding, though not all. For some, roughhousing was an experience where their boundaries we’re not respected or somewhere they didn’t feel welcome.

Whether good or bad, there is a good chance your experience with this kind of play was meaningful to you as a child, and there is a good chance you stopped doing it at some point.

For most of us, our parents play with us when we are little, or maybe we get to play with our siblings for a little while, but at some point we get too big to be thrown around by mom or dad. Our wrestling gets destructive in the house and certainly we find that at school and outside our home this kind of play is frequently looked down upon. We have all seen the signs posted at pools and play areas no roughhousing/no horse play.

Our culture does not take play seriously and we are deeply afraid to confront the reality of our heritage as predators and warriors. This has led to us becoming so overly sensitive, and so touch illiterate that we interpret almost all touch as either violent or sexual. So the normal high spirited physical play that all young animals engage in is repressed and redirected into video games and passive TV watching.

We don’t want our little boys and girls taking the risks of doing heroic and dangerous stuff themselves so we distract them with the most shallow and grotesque Avatar’s of these capacities in our popular media while punishing our children for trying to express their own nature.

The truth is that rejecting children’s natural impulses to explore physicality, assess and manage risk, and expand their skills of communication or expression can very easily lead them down a more dangerous road. I know this personally and I think it’s important to share my own experience to illustrate the power that roughhousing can have in shaping a young person’s life.

My Roughhousing Story

My story started like many of yours. My dad was super playful with me and my siblings when we were little. There is a picture of each of us being held like an airplane at the top of his outstretched arm. My dad would run around our property carrying us like that. He would toss us in the air and swing us around by our feet and hands. Those are some of my fondest childhood memories.

I also had a brother 4 years older than me and a cousin who was just 4 months older than me who lived next door. We all loved to wrestle, chase, box and stick fight together. We also lived in a natural wonderland at the end of a dirt road surrounded by acres of forest for us to play in.

My idyllic early childhood took a difficult twist when I started school. It was clear by the end of kindergarten I had learning disabilities; I would eventually be diagnosed with ADHD and Dyslexia. To make matters worse, my older brother had moved to California to live with his biological father during the school year. Spending hours every day in a school where I was not allowed to roughhouse a major challenge.

Things got even worse in first grade. My cousin moved across the state and I was sent to a new school in a different town in the hope that a program there would help my learning disabilities. What was worse though was my dad started to cut me off emotionally and my parents began fighting constantly.

My dad had suffered the same learning disabilities that I now showed, when he saw me struggle he wanted to take me out of school. My mom refused, she had just gone back to work because we did not have enough money. Fights over my education, money, career and housework became constant.

Gone were the days of playing all the time with my dad. I alternated between begging for his attention and not getting it, and being afraid of him after seeing the shouting matches between my parents.

In school my physicality turned towards genuine violence, I was in trouble regularly for fighting. In second grade I lashed out and smashed a kid’s face into the blacktop so hard his nose and lips split open. I served detention for six weeks. That was the worst, but far from the only such incident

The school wanted to hold me back after first grade, and again after second grade. Each time my mom petitioned me through.

Third grade came and I was moved back to my first school to try a new pilot program for different learning styles. It didn’t help; I was getting intensely frustrated, angry and isolated. At the end of the year the school refused to advance me.

I was headed in a dangerous direction.

Help arrived unexpectedly though at the end of 3rd grade, a new renter moved on to our property. His name was Gopal and he started babysitting my sister and I occasionally. The two of us soon developed a close bond. By the end of summer I was walking over to his house almost every day where he would wrestle with me, just like me dad used to. When the new school year arrived, incredibly he volunteered to help my mom homeschool me.

For me, daily roughhousing was like air to a drowning man, I needed that outlet desperately. I stopped fighting, and between the roughhousing and the epic literature he read to me I discovered my own love of learning. At the end of 3rd grade I tested at a kindergarten level for reading, by the end of 4th grade I was reading at a college level.

I believe this experience saved my life. About half the kids I grew up with went on to struggle with drugs, spend time in an out of prison or die young due to overdoses or accidents while on drugs. It’s easy to see how this could have been my path too, if not for the kindness of my mentor and the power of rough and tumble play.

I would go on to mentor other young kids in my community in the same way and help them move through difficult times in their lives but that’s a story for another day.

Now most of you probably don’t have ADHD and don’t have such a traumatic and triumphant story around roughhousing, but I think in my story there are themes that are meaningful to all of us.

What are the benefits of roughhousing for you?

So what can we learn from my story?

We can learn that roughhousing can be healing, it can help develop connection, trust and empathy and it can help us learn to regulate our aggression.

Unfortunately our society does not understand this. In fact we have become so play illiterate that very often we can not even tell the difference between play fighting and real fighting, and even when we can, we worry that play fighting will lead to actual fighting.

We think if we allow kids to wrestle, box, and play with toy guys we are encouraging them to grow into violent adults. The research shows the exact opposite is true, for aggressive children nothing helps regulate their aggression like rough and tumble play. In fact roughhousing improves our capacity for empathy, communication and theory of mind.

When my father stopped playing with me and my brother & cousin moved away, my natural physicality combined with trauma to turn me toward violence. When I was given an outlet for roughhousing and the support I needed again I stopped fighting.

There is a reason that kids love rough and tumble play, there is a reason it’s a cultural universal and found in all mammals and many other species even less closely related to us.

Rough and tumble pay develops the:

  • Visual system
  • Vestibular system
  • Proprioceptive system
  • Body mapping
  • Strength
  • Agility
  • Coordination
  • And More

The impacts of course are not just physical, it also helps us develop relational and emotional capacities like.

  • Theory of mind
  • Empathy
  • Communication
  • Sensitivity in touch

You might say “That’s great, you have convinced me but I am not a kid and I don’t have kids, so what does this have to do with me?”

The truth is that development does not stop when we become adults, and we can continue to develop all of these characteristics through well calibrated roughhousing. The smartest and most social animals also engage in the most play as adults.

Most of us as adults if we are honest have deficits in our coordination, our proprioception and our ability to empathize, communicate and connect and if not deficits we wouldn’t mind having more of these things!

Who doesn’t want to be stronger, more agile, more connected and integrated in movement? Who doesn’t want deeper friendships, better communication and better romance?

A well developed roughhousing practice is incredibly useful in affording us the connections we seek and cultivating the attributes we want in ourselves.

What Makes Evolve Move Play’s Roughhousing Unique?

However, like any beneficial activity, done poorly it can cause damage. Poorly calibrated roughhousing can become a dominance exercise where some players are effectively being bullied. It can deteriorate in to sexual molestation, it can trigger trauma for people with physical and sexual abuse histories, and yes it can be physically dangerous.

Humans are cultural creatures and to harvest the best from our innate tendencies we have to build effective cultures around them.

In fact many of the most powerful practices of personal transformation are simple capacities we all share that have been made into an art.

Evolve Move Play’s roughhousing practice is a pedagogy for rebuilding a culture of play, a practice to take this fundamental form of play and elevate it into a potent tool for self transformation. Our central principes are the 5 S’s.

  1.  Safety:
    We focus on establishing and maintaining a culture of consent and fostering communication between players and facilitators. In all activities, YOU are in control of your body and space and YOU decide the level of intensity appropriate for you. We teach people to recognize their limits, and give them permission to speak when they are exceeded. Only when we feel physical and emotional safe enough can we fully participate in any practice.
  2. Struggle:
    Safety is necessary but not sufficient. This is often forgotten in our safety first culture. For growth we need to be challenged, we need to struggle. The original meaning of competition is striving together because through striving together we grow. The shared positive struggle of roughhousing is one of the most powerful forms of challenge we can choose.
  3.  Support:
    As humans we are deeply social creatures and the sense of belonging, the sense that our efforts are seen and appreciated, is extremely important to us. A play culture that optimally helps with the growth of the player must provide strong social support
  4.  Success:
    In order to maintain motivation in any game players need to regularly experience success. Knowing how to set players up for success and to help them see their successes is a key aspect of a well calibrated play culture
  5.  Scalability:
    This is where all the rest comes together, it is only through understanding how to effectively scale the different variables in a game that we can provide the proper balance of safety, struggle and success.

The scalability of our approach is what makes EMP’s roughhousing unique.

Children implicitly understand scalability. Well socialized children when allowed to engage in unstructured play naturally scale their play to make it rewarding for all players. Long before children can explicitly describe the rules of the games they play, they have the ability to invent new games, to negotiate rules and to handicap stronger players so everyone feels safe and like they have a chance of success.

The take over of our physical education by adult lead, winning focused team sports combined with the loss of unstructured play is eroding these basic competencies. Increasingly both children and adults are becoming illiterate, poor at negotiation and psychologically fragile.

What we have done is to make the implicit rules, that allow optimal play, explicit through studying the research on play from many different fields while connecting that research to our years of practice of martial arts and contact dance.

At Evolve Move Play we have developed a system of manipulating the constraints of free play so that we can match the needs of athletes of all levels of skill and confidence.

We use three tools to manage the way our students play.

1. Constraints
2. Frames
3. Emotional Awareness and regulation


Constraints are the rules we use to structure and organize a free play scenario. Children do this in their roughhousing; you will regularly hear them break from play to negotiate new rules if any player is feeling unsafe or frustrated by a lack of success.

All the successful martial arts are also built on this fundamental tool. If we look at the rise of MMA and the arts that proved successful in competition, like Boxing, Muay Thai, Wrestling, BJJ & Judo they all share a common characteristic. They each have a central form of free play they practice. These are a set of rules developed over a prolonged period that limit the danger of crippling injuries while allowing the players to cultivate combative skills that actually function in a fight.

What we did with EMP is take the inspiration of the roughhousing I had done as a child, the best research on play, and then look at the primary free play forms of all the martial arts mentioned above including Capoeira and Contact dance. From this we extract out a set of variables that allow us to constrain a game so it is scaled optimally for the students and will allow them to effectively work on whatever skills or attributes we are interested in.

What makes our approach unique compared to any martial art is the breadth of the games we play and how finely scaled we have made them.

There are three primary constraints we work with: Momentum, Tools and Targets.

Games that allow high levels of momentum in collisions between players are more dangerous, games that allow harder and more penetrating tools to be used in attack are more dangerous and games that allow targeting of more vital areas are more dangerous.

Consider the difference between being pushed over from your knees while rolling in jiu jitsu, vs being tackled in the NFL, or being struck with open hand vs a fist elbow or shin, or being struck on the chest, vs the eyes, throat, or groin.

By understanding these constraints we can design innumerable games that can allow us to compete intensely at any level of skill and fitness while staying safe. As we progress in skill and conditioning the games we can play become more and more free.


A frame is an imagined scenario that creates a specific emotional and psychological environment. Pretending one player is drunk and the other is trying to avoid a hug is a frame, and it will get people to start self organizing many basic grappling skills in a relatively free game structure while remaining safe and having an awesome time.

Emotional Awareness and Regulation

The biggest danger in play fighting is the game deteriorating into a real fight. This certainly happens in children’s roughhousing and it certainly happens in martial arts training as well. As we progress to freer games it is inevitable that we will get hit, tackled or locked harder then we want at some point. If we escalate, we run the risk of ending up in real fight, or at least training at an intensity that is not optimally developmental for the players.

By intentionally exposing ourselves to the triggers of our reactivity we can learn to recognize our thresholds. At what level of intensity do we become angry, frustrated, or over excited? Once our thresholds are established, we provide players with strategies around how to down-regulate their emotional arousal levels so that they may gently and safely increase their thresholds.

Using these three tools and our five S principles has proven incredibly powerful in getting students of all ages, skill levels and temperaments to enjoy and gain the benefits of intense rough and tumble play.

This approach is also incredibly effective at inducing the flow state, which is both extremely rewarding to experience and massively increases learning rates.

The key to the flow state according to Mihalyi Czentmihalyi is the balance between challenge and competence. Challenge is of course a synonym for struggle, while Safety and Success are the fundamental measurements of our competence. Social connection and support are also key triggers of flow, themselves.

Is Roughhousing a martial art?

While EMP’s roughhousing is deeply indebted to the martial arts and contact improv dancing we are not simply trying to replicate either. Our focus is on self development through movement practice.

Many Martial Arts do have strong traditions of and an emphasis on self development, unfortunately this has often been associated with a move away from training in a live manner that actually develops real skills to help you deal with violence.

Our focus on free play unites us with the practical martial arts rather than the mystical martial arts.

We do focus on the development of fundamental combative skills, but this is only one aspect of developing the self through practice. Our base as martial artists is rooted in the same styles that dominate modern MMA and we stay tuned in to that world as part of our overall project.

While roughhousing is a good intro to general MMA skills, and a great set of pedagogical tools to assist practice design. It is not a replacement for high level MMA, Kickboxing, grappling or self defense training. If your primary focus is development as a martial artist we happily recommend people whose primary focus is in those areas. To name a few for grappling look to guys like John Danaher or Matt Thornton. If you want the best technical education in striking there are guys out there like Duane Ludwig. If you want to understand violence and self defense we recommend Rory Miller and Steve Morris.

What is Evolve Move Play Roughhousing?

At Evolve Move Play we are rebuilding a culture of rough and tumble play and through it we are cultivating a rich and rewarding practice of self development

We believe that within this ancient and fundamental form of play lies many of the most powerful tools for self development.

We help you reclaim the joy and connection to roughhousing itself, and then help you capture the full benefits it affords in physical ability, technical skill and emotional, cognitive and social skillfulness.

If you want to experience the place where all of these lessons intersect, that is the purpose behind Evolve Move Play’s roughhousing. The richness of this practice is why we’ve made it a fundamental pillar of our entire system.

You can get started right now by checking out our intro to roughhousing series here, and jump on the waitlist to join us for a retreat, to experience it for yourself.

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