After posting a blog about why I choose to play fight with my kids, I got a great response from parents and non-parents alike. What surprised me however was how many people – moms, uncles/aunts, non-kid affiliated adults – reached out to me and asked, "How do I even get started?"
It turns out a lot of people never play-fought as a kids…
They were told to never hit, never push, never poke.
Or they just never had a good example from their parents or older siblings or relatives.
Or as parents now, they have played with older kids but when they try to do the same thing with their little one she just cries and runs away.
That makes me so sad. There are so many benefits to play-fighting as a kid, and as a grown-up. Both my husband and I are huge advocates of physical play, including roughhousing. Play-fighting doesn’t have to be rough and tumble all the time either; there are some great games that involve the same elements as physical play but are more gentler on the body than traditional wrestling or punching games (pretending to be movable mannequins is one of my favorites).
Based on my research of studying physical play behaviors, and my own experience with my kids, not to mention observing my husband coach and facilitate grown-ups on how to play for the past 10+ years, here is what I’ve found to be good tips to get started:
Let the kids lead: Young animals of all species, including kids, are naturally the best players in the entire animal kingdom. It is how they learn about their world. So let them lead. You can come up with the game, but often times the kids already have a game in mind. Or, give them a gentle poke or push and see how they respond. Sometimes they might not be in the mood, but sometimes they will take your cue and run with it.
Anecdotally, I’ve noticed often girls will be done rough-playing sooner than boys or need more breaks, whereas little boys will often go and go until they start to cry, so don’t be surprised if either happens.
Match their strength…: When we see big dogs and little dogs play together, often the big dog will handicap themselves; they won’t push as hard, or they’ll get down on the ground so the little dog can actually reach them. Similarly, match your play partner’s strength. Push only has hard as they push, or hit only as hard as they hit.
…But show off yours too: Of course you can and should try doing lifts, carries, spins, gentle knock downs, and other things that require you to have more strength. That’s part of the fun of playing with someone bigger than you!
Let them win (sometimes): Similar to the dog play example above, if you want the game to keep going then make sure they’re having fun, which means letting them get a few punches in on you or knocking you down. (If you aren’t comfortable yet with falling down, think of this as a great way to practice slowly falling down in a safe way.) But that also means you get to win sometimes too; don’t be a punching bag, but it’s all about taking turns so you are both having fun.
Communicate: Check-in, see how they are doing. Ask if they want to switch up the game, or if you’re ready to switch it up or take a break, tell them. Which leads to…
Teach them no: The whole joy of play-fighting is the give and the take (have I said this enough times yet?). When it’s not fun anymore, both you AND your child get to say no, stop, time out, or I’m done. At any time. And, as the grown-up, you also need to be able to read your play-partner’s cues and tell when they’re not having a good time, even if they’re not specifically saying no.
Tickling is a great example. A lot of people see ticking as "harmless fun" and it’s tricky when a little kid is laughing and saying no at the same time, but it can be quite scary for a kid (or a grown-up) if they mean no and it isn’t respected. But, it’s also a great way to build trust with your play partner, whether they are a kid or a grown-up. Now, I HATE being tickled! HATE it! No tickles ever, thank you! Ever since I was little. My mom has stories of her trying to tickle me as a tiny baby, and even so much as putting her fingers out to say "coochie coochie coo" and I would just freak out! And she listened. So no tickles. As a grown-up I have not always had partners that understood that tickling is not fun for me, or when to stop tickling (as in immediately). But thanks to my mom I knew that I could choose to say no and that needed to be respected.
The same goes for tickling your kid; if they say stop, even if they’re laughing, stop. If they want more, they will ask for it (kids are good at that sort of thing).
And this can be expanded to all kinds of physical play; we need to learn how to listen to our bodies and our limits. If we get scared or frustrated, we need to learn to take a step back and regroup, and that we’re safe to do so. Physical play with a safe person like your parents is a great place to practice that.
Have fun!: In the end, that’s what this is all about. Sometimes you’re not in the mood to wrestle, and sometimes you are, or maybe you’ve got knee pain and can’t get on the ground, so just go with what feels right in the moment. Make up stories ("we’re bears, rawr!"), give yourself challenges (you can’t move from one spot; you can only use one arm), and just see what happens.
There are lots of different fun games you can try out with your kids and prompt you both to play more. Here is a great example of kid-led play fighting:
I’d love to hear some of the games you have come up with with your little play partners, so share them in the comments below.