Best gift EVER? Play with your kids

What single thing develops every aspect of a child’s health?

A. Giving them LOTS of gifts

B. Giving in when your child whines

C. Roughhousing

The answer is C.

Roughhousing seems an easy way to get hurt. But I assure you that I’ve seen hundreds of kids with broken bones from jumping on trampolines and slipping in socks on wood floors; but never a roughhousing injury. What I do see are kids who take life way too seriously, so that every bump in the road (or to the head) seems a catastrophe.

Playing with your children, and even wrestling with them is one of the best ways to raise a great kid. The physical benefits of play may be obvious; children develop coordination through physical play. And getting out of breath is healthy for the heart and lungs. But roughhousing also improves social graces, morality, and even intelligence.

When children roughhouse with their parents, or other kids, they learn to adapt to unpredictable situations, deal with minor discomfort and see first-hand that failure is temporary. There really is no better way for children to start practicing these important life skills than through rough play.

Wrestling with your kids teaches them to read body language, to practice give-and-take and helps them develop self-control. And the spontaneous nature of roughhousing teaches them to be a more flexible thinker – in fact, the unpredictability of roughhousing actually wires connections between neurons that help with being a more flexible thinker in other situations. Some studies have shown that the brain releases a growth chemical that affects memory, logic and language development during rough play.

Even very young kids benefit. Go ahead and toss your baby in the air and catch him. It builds trust!

Non-contact play like pretending and joking with your kids is also beneficial. The give and take between you and your child when you are playing with toy ponies or action figures teaches creativity. And knowing how to joke is a learned skill that helps kids make friends, be creative and solve problems. So make time to play with your kids, and joke around with them. And if grandma is yelling at the kids to stop wrestling in the living room, tell her it’s okay. They are developing their emotional health and wiring their brains for success.

TODAY.com Parenting Team Contributor

Author: Wendy Hunter, MD

Associate Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, UC San Diego and pediatrician at Rady Children's Hospital, Department of Emergency Medicine.

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