By Jessica Kelmon
In my all-time favorite picture with my brothers, we’re standing on a rock overlooking a meadow near our grandparents’ house. It’s a posed picture, meant to be a keepsake shared with family members. And my older brother has me in a headlock. From wrestling matches to pillow (and stuffed animal) wars, we were pretty physical players – often to my mom’s chagrin. It turns out she should be happy that she never enforced a ceasefire.
“Roughhousing actually makes kids smarter,” says Dr. Anthony T. DeBenedet, author of The Art of Roughhousing: Good Old-Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs It. From a scientific standpoint, random physical play that engages all your limbs kick-starts positive changes in the brain. When you roughhouse with your child, it triggers the release of brain-derive neurotrophic factor or BDNF, which plays a role in cognitive and emotional function, and oxytocin, which makes children feel loved. This molecule-and-hormone combo creates new neural connections, “like fertilizer for the brain,” Dr. DeBenedet says.
Also, the random, helter-skelter nature of roughhousing means multiple areas of the brain are activated at once. Flying through the air and rolling around? Hello, cerebellum. Strategizing your next move or judging your partner’s agility? Jump on in, cortex. And that happy, connected feeling is the amygdala stirring. Activating these three areas of your child’s noggin at once promotes healthy brain development.
Perhaps the most important connection between roughhousing and intelligence is that those friendly “fights” make kids behaviorally flexible. No one can memorize a right answer to every question. Coping with whatever comes your way and managing the unpredictable: That’s an essential ingredient of intelligence. It involves creativity, and the ability to look at problems from different angles on the spot, without being prompted.
Ready to start roughhousing? Then grab your child – the majority of studies show children ages two to eight are the most likely to benefit, but there are emotional benefits to roughhousing right through adolescence and the teen years – and jump on in. And since you’re the parent, keep this in mind: Every playtime has an arc. You may be interrupted by a phone call or a kitchen timer, but try to respect the arc whenever possible – revving up at the start, playing energetically, and then winding down at the end. It helps fine-tune your child’s internal emotional barometer, which means honing skills such as reading body language, practicing eye contact (without the nagging), and picking up on nonverbal cues. It's hard to believe that such difficult concepts to teach can be so easily incorporated into a simple pillow fight. And so much more fun than yet another lecture!
With reporting by Lauren Shanley