Ban Chairs – Not Tag, by Heather Shumaker
Why roughhousing prepares kids better for life and school than a life of safety and sitting down
The original title of my book was “Boxing at Preschool” (now titled It’s OK NOT to Share…And Other Renegade Rules). That’s because my childhood preschool had boxing gloves and welcomed wrestling matches in the classroom. This was a bold school not afraid of life and childhood, with all the accompanying messiness and glorious risk.
When kids began to tumble together like puppies on the floor, instead of screeching “you two get your hands off each other!” the teachers at this school said, “Why not?” They brought in tumbling mats. In fact, they went further. They created a designated Running Room: a big, empty room where kids could MOVE – run, jump, yell, climb, wrestle and play chase games. There were hooks on the ceiling for rope swings and otherwise big open space.
Kids need play, not chairs, for academic success. Roughhousing– playful physical games with willing partners—actually boosts brain power.
During book talks I give, men in the audience often approach me and confide that they grew up being told they were “bad” simply because their bodies needed to move. It’s even worse in this generation. Moving has become misbehavior.
It’s no surprise it’s the men who tell me this. Boys move more. Studies by psychologist Warren Eaton show boys are consistently more physically active, starting at age 2 and peaking at ages 7-8. Of course, many kids are “high energy” or super active – girls included – and active motion is good for everyone.
My preschool teachers back in the 1970s knew rough-and-tumble play was good for kids. Now we know why. Current brain research shows that roughhousing games increase brain power. All that goofing off and horsing around? It actually strengthens the frontal lobe – an area of the brain vital for impulse control, memory and later academic success. In fact, researchers credit rough play to better learning, flexibility, problem-solving, impulse control, memory, executive function, social and emotional skills, and creativity. Wow. All that from rolling around on the floor with a friend in a fun game.
What’s important to remember is that preparation for school looks nothing like school itself. Roughhousing can be just as important as reading to kids.
Rough-and-tumble play advocates like Dr. Anthony DeBenedet (The Art of Roughhousing) consider roughhousing to be the “holy grail” of children’s play. Long-term studies by Dr. Rebecca Marcon tracked kids in academic preschools versus play-based preschools. The kids in the academic programs did worse later in elementary school – both their grades and behavior. It’s simply the way human development works.
Here are some ideas for adding action, movement, risk and power into kids’ lives:
- Active energy is not misbehavior. Kids need room for loud, fast, daring and rough-and-tumble play. Change the environment to make room for it.
- Motion boosts learning, memory and focus by building neural pathways and neuron growth. Some kids learn best while moving (read a book to them while they move). Some kids need near constant motion. Remember, human brains evolved while in motion.
- Let kids climb trees – and don’t help them down. If they get stuck, say “I’ll stand right here, but I won’t do it for you. Where could you put your foot next?” Kids need to learn their own limits and become partners in their own safety.
- Welcome powerful roles. Kids thrive in powerful roles. Welcome the superheroes, mommies, teachers, tigers, dragons and tough, physical play.
- Welcome powerful actions. Karate chopping boxes, throwing mud at trees, throwing rocks in water, climbing up the slides, making big splashes, jumping on bubble wrap, riding bikes fast, lifting heavy logs or bricks, digging with metal shovels, painting huge cardboard boxes.
- Set up a Running Room. Clear a room or basement area for big body action. Put screens around light bulbs if you have to. This should be a room where loud, fast, physical risk is welcome. Small home? Go outside – even in the rain. – H.S.