Last Saturday I was standing in a friend’s Kitchen watching out the window while her two sons, my son, and another friend wrestled on a trampoline.
She was on edge watching them play; it was the morning after a sleepover birthday party for her younger son, and unfortunately the party had not gone smoothly. There had been a lot of fighting and emotional tempests, and when I arrived the birthday boy was hiding away and processing his emotions.
Luckily, my son had apparently been a good mediator and helped to balance the energy. With the party shrinking in size to just my son, her two boys and her older son’s best friend, the energy had changed, and the kids were starting to really enjoy each other’s company.
This is when the four boys went out to the trampoline. They started with bouncing, which eventually turned to wrestling, then we saw kicks and light punches getting thrown, 2 or 3 kids were ganging up on one, and kids were grabbing chokes. We were both worried that this might spiral out of control and that we would have angry, upset kids again at any moment.
However I encouraged her not to react too soon and to give them some room to organize their own play. I could see my son was at least calm and really enjoying himself.
Over the next twenty minutes we watched as they played; interfering only a couple times to encourage them to be careful with certain techniques but otherwise leaving them alone. What we saw was fascinating.
Yes all four boys at times seemed to be reaching overwhelm, faces turned red, there was shouting and erratic behavior, three of the four had to stop at some point because they felt hurt, despite this though they continued their play that whole time and each time the energy got too intense they found a way to bring it back down and continue to play without anyone getting overwhelmed, feeling picked on, or actually getting hurt.
I pointed out to her how their emotions were being vented when they got too intense. How nobody was getting targeted more than anyone else and how when a kid felt hurt, the other kids were immediately showing empathy and engaging in repair.
Eventually one of the boys had his shoulder wrenched hard enough to stop the play. I pointed out that this is a pretty common pattern where play ends when someone is hurt enough to not want to continue. That might seem scary, but the boy took a few quiet minutes and then joined us for open gym at Life Force Ninja later that afternoon no worse for the wear.
As far as I could tell this was extremely valuable and nutritious play, and exactly what they needed, as scary as it looked to us at times. The skill that was being developed in this interaction – in movement, checking in with each other, and in regulating aggression, was so rich.
As we watched, my friend started asking me questions about roughhousing, expressing how much value she had gotten out of roughhousing with her dad, and thanked me for helping her see what the boys were doing.
This all had an especially big impact on me because the day before this I had been interviewed by Jordan Peterson, and the first hour of that conversation had revolved around rough and tumble play.
We spoke about how much we as a culture have misunderstood and suppressed this form of play. A truth that is, to use Jordan’s language, “a complete bloody catastrophe. “
This is an area he has done a lot of academic research on, and something we each have dived deeply into in both practice and academic research.
It’s also a big part of my own life history; roughhousing was how I most deeply connected with my dad as a child, and it was the core of the relationship with my mentor who helped me overcome learning disabilities.
As a teen I would then share this kind of play with younger kids as babysitter and mentor. Finally I incorporated it into my teaching and thinking around natural movement as an adult.
What struck me about this particular conversation was the deep need we have for a recovery of play culture, and deepening of the sensitivity and awareness in adults of what healthy childhood play looks like. It’s so crucial that we learn how to help create conditions where it can flourish, and learn to tell when and how to properly interfere if necessary.
This has been a project both my wife and I have wanted to devote energy to for many years but between raising our own children, her job, and the broader EMP project, we simply haven’t had the chance.
As an adult, one of the best ways to begin attuning yourself to the benefits and nuances of rough and tumble play is to begin adding it to your own practice. To learn how we conceptualize and scale our own beginner roughhousing drills, check out this article.