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The Healthy Side of Rough, Risky Play

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Photograph by Twenty20

Not long ago, I watched a group of boys (they looked to be about 10) embark on one of those playful adventures that makes your heart skip a beat. They were racing down a steep hill on skateboards—but they were sitting on them. Yes, they had helmets. Yes, it was a walking path. But it was definitely one of those please let them be OK moments, even though I didn’t know them.

One partially crashed into a tree but popped up in a second with no problem. Another fell off while zooming down the hill. He laughed. One stood the bottom of the hill in an attempt to help “stop” them, but quickly realized that was a bad idea. Two crashed along the way and their skateboards sped on without them. They kept at it for almost an hour. They had a blast.

I found that I kept checking on them from afar, because I wanted to lend a hand if anything did go wrong. Nothing did. They pushed their limits. They made risky choices. And they had fun.

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Rough and tumble and risky play (as in climbing to the top of the tree and zooming downhill on a skateboard) have huge benefits for kids, and yet one the most frequently asked questions I get from parents is “How do I stop my kid from physical play?” It often stems from fear about (accidentally) hurting other kids or worrying about what other parents will think.

My short answer is: don’t. Don't stop your kid from engaging in rough and tumble play. Here are four important reasons why:

1. It builds muscle strength

The more kids engage in unstructured, rough and tumble play, the more strength they build. Advice about raising healthy eaters is everywhere, but then kids are forced to sit for hours on end with little to no recess time (and that small recess period often comes with tons of restrictions) and no physical education.

When kids engage in rough and tumble play, they test their own boundaries and limits.

Kids need to move their bodies. They build strength and figure out what to do with that strength.

2. It builds confidence

When kids engage in rough and tumble play, they test their own boundaries and limits. They figure out what they’re made of, and they learn to push themselves a little harder.

Kids are constantly learning and growing. Challenges are everywhere, and sometimes that can be hard. When kids have the space to push their own limits and take risks in their play, they feel more confident. They learn that they can overcome obstacles and work through challenges on their own.

3. It builds social skills

Kids need to learn to work together, to solve disputes, to compromise and to generally get along with others. When left to engage in unstructured, rough and tumble play, kids do work together. They make up new games. They try new challenges. Sometimes they argue and have to figure out how to compromise. Sometimes the challenges are a little too challenging (makeshift skateboard ramp heading straight for a pond, anyone?), and they learn to adjust their expectations and solve problems.

Let your children play the way they like to play.

Your rough and tumble kid might very well knock over another kid by accident at some point. What can he learn from that? He can learn to empathize, apologize and pay more attention to his surroundings in the future.

4. It’s fun

I love organized sports, art classes and piano lessons as much as the next mom, but I also love watching my kids make up their own games and try things that sometimes send me into a silent panic (like fashioning a jump rope into a “tree swing” over a concrete sidewalk). It can be hard to find that balance sometimes.

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My best friend and I spent our days wandering the wooded area near our homes, lifting heavy rocks in search of cool bugs, swinging from branches and balancing on stones as we crossed streams. We played games in the woods, pushed our limits and made our own discoveries. And you know what? We attended great colleges, earned graduate degrees and followed our hearts.

Let your children play the way they like to play. Whether they are quiet players, rough and tumble players, risky players or some other kind of players, they do need the time to play their own way.

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