From their first gentle touching games like “This Little Piggy” to rambunctious wrestling, children love physical contact. But as any parent will tell you, sometimes the horseplay seems like it's over the line. Parents of boys, especially, know the scenario: it starts out with a choke hold, they laugh uproariously, throw each other to the ground, wrestle, and five minutes later someone is crying. Why do kids have to play so rough?

Although it may end in tears, Carol Stock Kranowitz, M. A., author of The Out-of-Sync Child and The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun, suggests that “kids roughhouse because it feels good. They gotta roughhouse.” And the developmental benefits can be huge.

Physically, says Kranowitz, children develop gross motor skills when they engage in rough play, and that's a must for developing fine motor skills such as writing. “Most kids today are much too sedentary, and, as a result, have huge problems with handwriting," she says.

Neurologically, rough play nourishes a child’s sensory system through feelings of “deep pressure to their muscles, joints and skin. One cannot learn these skills by watching TV or reading a book,” Kranowitz says.

Roughhousing also has social benefits, according to Kranowitz.  “Children learn about give and take, cause and effect, taking turns, and playing by the rules," she says.

But should parents be concerned about their child’s rough play? “Yes and no,” says educational consultant and therapist Ingun Schneider. “Some children these days seem to have very little sense of how strong or hurtful they can be. Parents need to set rules to suit their particular child,” Schneider says.

These rules should include:

  • No biting, scratching or kicking
  • No hitting or attacking anyone’s head
  • Stop when the other child (or a parent) says “stop.”

Parents shouldn't be worried about “encouraging” this type of behavior. In fact, they can be instrumental in maximizing the benefits of rough play. Ingun Schneider suggests that:

  • Parents can use a whistle to signal a time-out to cool off with some water or a wipe of the brow (all in imitation of more formal and competitive rough and tumble).
  • Children should be taught how to roughhouse safely by learning how to pillow fight, ride on each other’s backs, and put each other into “holds” properly.
  • Parents should be present until they see that the children can gauge their own power and play by the rules.

Rough and tumble play helps children learn about their bodies and the world, and prepares them for learning. So, parents, grab your whistle, lay down some cushions and some rules, and let ‘em at it!