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Roughhousing is good for kids brains
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You can ban touching on school grounds with good intentions, and tag and dodge ball go away. But some experts think kids lose more than that with such bans. - photo by Lois M. Collins
All childhood aggression is not equal, but that's a fact missed by stringent no-touch policies that eradicate free-play activities like a good game of tag or dodgeball. And the strict rules come with a cost, according to experts who say roughhousing is good for kids and the development of both skills and brain power.

"Roughhousing is more than good exercise. Psychological research shows that its essential to childhood development, writes Virginia Postrel in a column for Bloomberg News. "Rowdy, physical play teaches kids to communicate verbally and nonverbally; to take turns; to negotiate rules; and to understand when they can use their full strength and when they need to hold back. It may sometimes look like fighting, but it isnt. Kids smile and laugh, return voluntarily to the game, take turns in dominant roles and wear distinctive 'play faces.'"

There's significant difference between real aggression and physical play, according to University of Nevada Las Vegas researchers who published a paper extolling the value of rowdy play and offering examples to help parents and educators tell the difference for the journal Children Australia. They wrote that "it may be argued that the omission of aggressive play in early childhood programmes fosters the underdevelopment of social, emotional, physical, cognitive and communicative abilities in young children. This is particularly relevant for preschool-aged boys because they engage in aggressive sociodramatic play more often than girls."

Dr. Anthony T. DeBenedet and Lawrence J. Cohen collected benefits of physical play to children in the book, "The Art of Roughhousing." The subtitle was "Good old-fashioned horseplay and why every kid needs it." Their list of reasons included that roughhousing makes kids smart.

Therese Borchard explained that claim from the book for an article on PsychCentral. "Roughhousing fertilizes our brain. For real," she wrote. "This kind of physical play releases a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which really is like fertilizer for our brains. Roughhousing stimulates neuron growth within the cortex and hippocampus regions of the brain, responsible for memory, learning, language, and logic. Animal behaviorists have found that the youngsters of the smarter species engage in physical play, so it isnt surprising that roughhousing actually boosts school performance."

Among other benefits from the book's list: It gives kids emotional intelligence and joy, makes them more fit, strengthens their ethics and makes them more likable.

Greatschools.org has a section called Great Kids in which Jessica Kelmon writes, "The random, helter-skelter nature of roughhousing activates multiple areas of the brain and promotes healthy brain development upping a childs academic and emotional smarts. Flying through the air and rolling around? Hello, cerebellum (an area that contributes to your childs motor skill development). Strategizing your next move or judging your partners agility? Jump on in, cortex (the zone that handles language, math, memory, attention, and complex problem solving). And that happy, connected feeling after so much romping and rollicking is the amygdala (a group of nuclei where memory and emotional reactions are processed) stirring."

Postrel's column notes why Mercer Island School District in Washington state reinstated tag as a recess activity. "The hands-off policy intended for unstructured play and recess, however well intended, has led to confusion, false reporting and is clearly not supported by many staff and many parents," a press release announcing the reversal said. "Other respectful games that involve appropriate physical interaction are also encouraged. Our school principals and teachers will work with our students as they imagine and develop new games for play."

Fathers incarcerated at the Utah State Prison can take a parenting class. Among the things they learn, according to an article about the program, are that "children with fathers who care and take responsibility are less likely to be depressed, and that fathers promote independence and exploration, and help language skills. Even rough-housing contributes to a child's development. Children with good dads get better grades, have more successful interactions with peers and can cope with stress."