Rough and tumble saves the day

A neuroscientist determines that play fighting teaches children how to read situations and respond appropriately

Kids will be kids, as they say. And kids, left to their own devices, will wrestle and fight with each other in rough and tumble play. It is common in all cultures.

Sure, it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye — but a University of Lethbridge neuroscience professor has found that children who engage in rough and tumble play (not to the extent of eye damage, of course) have better impulse control, better short-term memory and a greater repertoire of strategies to negotiate with their peers.

Sergio Pellis, who spoke to a packed house Sept. 20 as part of U of L’s “public professor” series, said that since the Second World War, children have had fewer opportunities for unstructured play as they are guided toward more “useful” or safe activities.

“Many studies have shown that since the 1950s, the incidence of play that’s freely engaged, outdoor, without supervision, by children, has declined,” he said.

“Along with the decline in play, there’s been a corresponding other change in the lives of children and that is that over the same time period, the incidence of psychopathologies amongst children and adolescents have increased.”

Pellis decided to study whether there was a causal relationship between that increase and the reduction in opportunities for what he calls “rough and tumble” play. He hypothesized that play fighting, which is historically persistent across most cultures, teaches children how to read situations and respond appropriately.

1980s research by researcher Anthony Pellegrini indicated boys who engage in lots of play were more popular with other boys and they also had “a greater capacity to use a variety of skills in order to figure out how to handle a social problem,” said Pellis.

To study the relationship further, Pellis experimented with lab rats, which engage in a lot of play when they are young.

By giving some rats the chance to play with other rats, and isolating a separate batch of rats, he learned the latter group was deficient in “executive skills.” They had poorer cognition, reduced ability to regulate emotions, poor short-term memory and poor impulse control compared to the group allowed to play with peers.

“Most importantly, social skills were compromised,” he said.

When he studied the brains of the rats in the various groups, he found differences in both the medial prefrontal cortex and the orbital frontal cortex, areas of the brain that assist with social and executive skills.

“One set of experiences you get from rough and tumble play is having to learn to deal with ambiguity and loss of control … and figure out what the right level is for you to keep doing what you’re doing or change what you’re doing,” said Pellis.

Executive functions help children — and adults — better adapt to unknown situations and are key to the educational process as well, he added.

“Play is good and it should be encouraged in children because it has good long-term effects.”

The level of roughness in play is less a factor than allowing kids to freely choose partners who like doing the same kinds of things, and then letting them work out the rules and the interactions for themselves.

Organized physical sports are not an adequate substitute, he said, because the rules are established and enforced by others, so children do not have to negotiate among themselves. The give-and-take of unstructured play allows that interaction, which is needed for development of social skills.

Young children will also self-select their play companions, so bullies are general ostracized or forced to alter their behaviour to have playmates, said Pellis.

“You need to give kids as much leeway as possible to identify where that line is and whether they can fix it on their own.”

Some years ago, Pellis saw a painting by Flemish Renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel, circa 1560, in which some 250 children are depicted playing many different games, all unsupervised by adults.

“This is classic free outdoor play by children,” he said, later adding that the kids in the painting probably had superior social skills.

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