What Kids Can Learn From A Water Balloon Fight

Jun 25, 2014
Originally published on June 25, 2014 9:30 pm

"Don't chase me!" is one of my daughter's favorite invitations. Of course, this is a cue to run shrieking through the house, grab her up in a fireman's carry, hold her upside down and finally nosh on her legs as she mock-protests, "Don't eat me! I'm a person, not a snack!"

As part of the "Men in America" series on All Things Considered, host Audie Cornish interviewed Dr. Lawrence Cohen, a psychologist and co-author of The Art of Roughhousing, a book about the importance of aggressive play for both girls and boys.

"It's pretty darn universal," Cohen says about this kind of play. "It's nearly universal in the mammal kingdom ... even ants will wrestle each other." But, he says, a certain kind of interest does seem to be more prevalent in boys: "I've never seen a girl chew her breakfast toast into a gun."

Cohen makes the case, using research and his clinical experience, that parents shouldn't be afraid of rough-and-tumble play and even play-acting involving pretend violence. Instead, they should get down on the carpet and participate.

This kind of play serves vital emotional and physical needs for kids. It helps parents and kids bond, resolve conflicts, practice setting limits and deal with aggression. "It's a big developmental accomplishment to regulate those aggressive impulses," he says. "When we're always telling them no, no, no, that interferes with their natural cycle of revving up and calming down."

While it's not the main point, this play has academic benefits as well. Children learn resilience and other cognitive skills by responding in the moment to rapidly changing situations. One scientist found that how well and how much children engaged in roughhousing predicted their first-grade achievement better than kindergarten test scores.

It also "fills kids' tanks," Cohen says, with giggles and good feelings, creating a reserve of goodwill that can lead to more cooperative children at other times. Regular doses of roughhousing help children grow up calmer, healthier and better coordinated. And it's safe, as long as parents are paying close attention.

"I'm always encouraging parents, especially moms, to join in this kind of play. I think that when we join in the play we can transform it, but only if we're inside it."

The Art of Roughhousing is also a manual with step-by-step ideas of rowdy games to play with your kids. These include old favorites like wheelbarrow, leapfrog, piggyback rides, fireman's carry and airplane, along with some new ones like "Greek catapult" — launching your kid onto the couch using your feet.

These are some video examples of roughhousing drawn from the book's Facebook page and other sources around the Web. What are your favorite ways to get rowdy with your kids? Leave some examples in the comments.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


More now on the energy of boys.


CORNISH: At home in Canton, New York, Ciaran and Finn O'Brien are demolishing an elaborate castle they just built out of Legos, with gusto. They are 5 and 3, and their dad, Sean, says their typical play is rough, rowdy, loud and sometimes disturbing.

S. O'BRIEN: Well, they love battles, which as their pacifist dad, I'm thrilled that they have a lively play life. But I also always want to underline that, you know, hitting's not OK, violence's not OK in the world outside of it.

LAWRENCE COHEN: I read the Dalai Lama's autobiography. They sent his brother to come be with him at the monastery because he was sent to the monastery very young, and his brother was sent home because they roughhoused too much.

CORNISH: Yes, the Dalai Lama, a man of peace. He was once a rowdy boy, too. Psychologist Lawrence Cohen is co-author of "The Art Of Roughhousing" and our guide to how most boys, and, yes, some girls, play.

COHEN: Well, there's a lot of good stuff going on, which gets lost when adults are always telling boys, stop it, stop it, stop it, calm down. One thing that boys are learning through roughhousing is revving up and calming down, revving up and calming down. And this actually teaches them to regulate themselves and regulate those emotions, those aggressive impulses. It looks like they're running amok in all of this shoot-'em-up play and wrestling to the ground play. But actually, play is the way that children, especially boys in this area, regulate that out-of-control stuff so that they can control it as they grow up.

CORNISH: So is there really any harm psychologically to boys when adults try to shut down this type of play? I mean, you said there's a rev up and a calm down (laughing).

COHEN: Exactly.

CORNISH: Are we just helping them calm down?

COHEN: Well, unfortunately, I think a lot of what we do to stop it, stop it, stop it is not helping them calm down. It actually either sends this play underground, where they do it secretly, and they think, oh, this isn't allowed, but I can't stop myself. I'm going to do it anyway. Or they stop doing it, and they feel bad about themselves. And boys may feel like, there's no place for me. And one of the biggest harms that I've seen is the way that boys will turn off to school because school is an environment that doesn't welcome them and their full physicality and their excitement, which includes that excitement about mayhem and destruction.

CORNISH: Now, for a lot of adults, they see boys playing aggressively, especially that version of play that is kind of like, I'm going to kill you, I'm going to shoot you. And this sets off alarm bells, right?

COHEN: Absolutely.

CORNISH: You know, what does this mean if you live in a community where violence is a real problem? I mean, is there a link between pretend violence and future violent behavior?

COHEN: There is no evidence at all that pretend violence causes real violence. But when children are exposed to actual violence, then they will need to make sense of that violence that they are witnessing or experiencing. And children make sense of everything important in their lives through play.

CORNISH: On some level, does our fear about violence, and violence and young men, overshadow how we deal with boys and their rambunctious play?

COHEN: I believe that's absolutely true. And I think that the numbers tell this, that boys are expelled from preschool four-and-a-half times more often than girls. And I think that a lot of this is taking this boy energy, this rambunctious, this physicality, and misreading it as bad, as not being ready for school, as not being able to get along with other children. And then there's some research that adults are not very good at telling the difference between play fighting and real fighting. Children are actually very good at knowing the difference. They can say, oh, we were playing, and they really were. Or they can say, oh, that boy over there, he pretends he's playing, but he really just likes to hit people. But adults look at it, and they just see mayhem, this has to stop.

CORNISH: So how does a parent join in or encourage aggressive play? And is that a wise thing to do?

COHEN: Absolutely. I am always encouraging parents, especially moms, to join in this kind of play. One of my favorites is the sock game. Take off your shoes, leave on your socks, get on the floor, and you say 1-2-3 go. And everybody tries to take everybody else's socks off while keeping your own socks on.


COHEN: This is guaranteed for a laugh.

CORNISH: That sounds like mayhem.

COHEN: And then if you want to get more into the play fighting realm but you're still a little nervous about it, you can do slow-motion fighting like stage combat and the slowness of it makes it more like a dance than like a fight.

CORNISH: Very cool.

COHEN: And if you're really adventurous, you get up the little mattress, and you ride the mattress down the stairs.

CORNISH: (Laughing) I will let the letters from many parents come directly to your office...


COHEN: OK, very good.

CORNISH: ...About that suggestion. All right, Lawrence Cohen, thank you so much for talking with us.

COHEN: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: Lawrence Cohen is a psychologist and the author of "Playful Parenting."


Admit it, you want to try the sock game yourself with your friends, male and female. You go right ahead. In the meantime, you can keep up with our series about men at npr.org.

CORNISH: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.