Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Roughhousing for wimps: 17 ideas for gentle physical play


Roughhousing for wimps: 17 ideas for gentle physical play == Hobo Mama

Play is essential for our children — it is their language. And rough play serves a purpose in releasing energy, reconnecting with caregivers, testing limits both physical and psychological, acting out scary scenarios in a safe way, and seizing some mastery in a world that frequently makes children feel out of control.

But what if you as the parent are not a roughhouser? What if physical and aggressive play turns you off? What if you worry that rough play will make one or more participants scared or that the roughhousing will go too far and turn into crying or injuries (perhaps from experience)?

Then what you need is some gentle rough play — that is, play that is still physical and active but feels manageable to you, with limits you're able to set and maintain.

So you know whereof I speak … I'm a wuss. I had an older brother who would have loved to play rough with me, but my response whenever I was even tapped by him was to scream and run to my parents. I flinched from balls that were thrown into my vicinity; I never took any kind of martial arts; the idea of ever ending up in a fist fight still fills me with horror. (Even in the best-case scenario, my knuckles would hurt so much!)

So you can understand how I felt when I was gifted with two boys who love to play drump. (Side note: When Mikko was little, he heard the phrase "play rough" in a song during an episode of Ni Hao, Kai-Lan {affiliate link of the actual episode} and sang it as "play drump," and we still love that word. He has no idea what we're talking about anymore, of course, but that doesn't dampen my enthusiasm. I like using it in the lyrics to "Somebody That I Used to Know": "And I don't even need your love, but you treat me like a stranger and that feels so drump.")

Ahem … where was I? Oh, yes. I have two kids (and their dad) who have no problem with — and in fact have a great affinity for — roughhousing. What's a wimpy girl to do?

What I do is find easier, lighter ways to make the kids be really active that don't end up hurting me (or them). It still lets them get their antsies out and be assertive, but it feels better to me.

Here are seventeen ideas that work for us!

Safety message: As with any physical play, check out the surroundings and be aware of your own physical limitations. These games are intended for children — toddlers on up — old enough to have very good head and neck control and some measure of coordination. Try to keep acrobatic moves over soft surfaces and away from sharp, pointy objects. Follow your child's cues: Laughter is a good response; actual screaming is not. You know — use common sense!

Roughhousing for wimps: 17 ideas for gentle physical play == Hobo Mama
Attack hug!

1. Tackling

This is a fun one to do as a surprise. If your child's sitting in a safe place, say on the edge of a bed or angled on a couch, yell "Tackle!" and then bowl your loved one over. You'll likely then have to repeat it, of course, and then be the one tackled — which is totally fine.

Sam does a variation on the beach where he's the bowling pins, and the boys are the balls. The sand cushions his fall.

2. Horsie rides

Get down on your hands and knees and give one or more kids an old-fashioned pony ride. This is easier on you if you're on carpet or grass. Let the kids direct you the way they would an actual horse, and make the appropriate horsey sounds for verisimilitude.

3. Upside-down

We play a game here called Upside-Down Boy, which is, as it sounds, when one of our boys is hung upside-down. I'll turn one of them over by their ankles or around their waist (whatever feels most secure at the mo) and say to Sam, "Have you seen [Name of Child]? All I see is this upside-down boy." Cue merry laughter from Upside-Down Boy as Sam and I futilely search for our missing son, all the while he's dangling from my arms.

4. Flips

Alrik's been honing his acrobatic moves. He's been very interested in somersaults on his own. I decided to give him a little help with a full-fledged flip. He sits in my lap, facing me. I hold his hands and flip him backwards, upside down and over, till he lands on his feet. Be cautious with the twisting motion of the arms and make sure you keep the movement controlled. But this is a fun little circus number!

Roughhousing for wimps: 17 ideas for gentle physical play == Hobo Mama

5. Piggyback rides

Similar to horsie rides, but you get to stand up! Make sure there's lots of bouncing involved, and add to the fun by swerving or going up and down stairs. You can let your child lead you again, pretending you're a horse to command. Shoulder rides also work if you're outside or have high-enough ceilings.

6. Swinging around

I hear you're not supposed to swing your child around in a circle by the hands. Something about pulling their arms out of their sockets. Huh. Don't tell my kids; they don't know. But, ok, you can also do it holding them under the arms. Kids love it either way. Make sure you have a clear circumference.

7. Jumping up and down

Here's another one where you can take them by the hands or wrists or under their arms. Fly them up high, yelling, "Jump!" and then land them gently. They'll likely figure out quickly to bend their legs as if they're jumping, but you can remind them if not. This is a somewhat safer version of tossing a kid in the air, since you never let go, but it gives them the same stomach-dropping high. This one will wear you out, depending on how heavy your kid is, but it's a fun one. It's also a good way to get a recalcitrant child to go up stairs: "Jump!" a few steps at a time, and they'll forget why they didn't want you to carry them up. And the way to get them to come down the stairs? You guessed it: Let them jump into your arms from a higher step! "Flying" them down also works, where you wrap an arm around their waist and hold them in a Superman position. Go ahead: Ask me if I have a two-year-old who usually has to go up and down the multitude of stairs we have around here himself but takes for.ev.er. Yes. Yes, I do.

8. Obstacle course

Set up or designate a bunch of climbing activities in your home: stacks of couch cushions, back of an armchair, over a table, under a bed. Time your kids to see how fast they can make a circuit, or tell them the floor is hot lava and they have to stay up high, or just go free-form in using furniture completely inappropriately.

Roughhousing for wimps: 17 ideas for gentle physical play == Hobo Mama

9. Dancing

Put on an up-tempo song, pop some dancing hats on (does your family not have dancing hats? Alrik started the tradition here), and boogie.

10. Foot dancing

For a variation to bring you closer, have your kids place their feet on top of yours as you dance around, or have one kid sit on each foot and grab around your calves as you try to drag them around the house like cute and heavy ankle weights.

11. Mountain climber

I used to love doing this with my own dad! While you're both standing facing each other, take a good hold of your kid's hands and let your little climber scale up your legs and stomach as if you're the mountain. Finish with a flip for extra credit.

12. Catch

Balls are great for physical play, and don't rule them out just because you're indoors. Particularly with younger toddlers and softer, smaller balls, you can usually get away with a gentle game of catch. This teaches hand-eye coordination, planning, and cooperation. But, also, it's fun, and kind of soothing. If pitches are getting wild, try rolling or kicking a ball instead.

13. Soft sword fights

One of the best things we inadvertently bought were these {affiliate link} inflatable swords as props for a pirate birthday party. Because they don't hurt, and they're light, and kids can really whack them around. They make for safe sword fighting, though since I still don't relish being beaned on the head repeatedly regardless of how light the object is, I generally have the kids whale on something that doesn't mind: like the bed or a chair. They can really take out their aggressive impulses, then, with no one crying at the end of it. We also have some foam swords that are similar (but a bit more damaging). Water balloons or shooters or a garden hose outdoors in the summer would also be a good use of safe weaponry if everyone's appropriately (un)attired.

Roughhousing for wimps: 17 ideas for gentle physical play == Hobo Mama
Alrik showing us "Punch punch punch!"

14. Karate practice

Mikko's dying to take a karate class. In the meantime, he amuses us all with being the sensei and showing us moves in his own private dojo. I really, really want to get them all on video before he learns actual karate moves. We have a rule when practicing karate at home that we practice hits and kicks in the air or we hit something like a couch cushion that won't mind. We do also let the kids punch our open hands, like a boxing coach, when we're prepared for it.

15. Too heavy

This is the game where you pretend to be a terribly unreliable parent. You're holding your child on your hip and all of a sudden, "Oh, dear! You're just … too … heavy. My arms … are giving … out!" and you start to drop your precious cargo, then catch it again just in time. Then drop again, then catch. You can do it in a series of bounces to the floor: bounce, catch, bounce, catch, bounce, set down. Or you can drop your kid above a couch or bed and let go completely.

16. Squeezing

Jessica Cary has a game she and her daughter play where they squeeeeze each other tightly. This is a full-contact but low-impact way to release some physical and emotional energy.

17. Hug sandwiches

Along the same lines, Sam and I can't hug in our kids' presence anymore without having them join us for a hug sandwich. Name each child a different condiment, have you and you partner be the bread, and smoosh them all up.


To make a smooth transition out of rougher play if the kids are losing control of their bodies or emotions, it might help to taper down by going into something equally boisterous but not as physical: hide & seek, peekaboo, jumping out around corners, Simon Says, dance party. Then you can end the new game a little more easily. The key, I think, is to "Yes—and!" your kids as you wean them off the roughhousing. Be cheerful about the new opportunities you're offering: "Let's see how fast everyone can get undressed and into the bath!" or "Everyone pile on my lap while we read this new book from the library!" Or toss them into a piggyback ride to travel the new activity, like dumping them safely but goofily to bounce on the bed.

If it's not late in the day, you could move the silliness outdoors where they can continue to run and jump till they're nicely worn out. If you want to transition to something quieter like bedtime, continue to be silly while doing tasks like putting on jammies (try putting them on yourself first with comical grunting noises about how they don't fit) and brushing teeth (do it wrong a few times: "It goes in your ear, right? No? On your knee?"). Give lots of hugs and snuggles (and nursing, if you've got that in your toolbelt) as you continue the process of winding them down so that the physical contact is still there even as you slow down the pace and the noise.

I hope some of these ideas help you as you seek to be a more playful parent! I know my kids are teaching me daily how to let go and take myself a little less seriously!

What are your go-to ideas for pain-free roughhousing?

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It can be hard as adults to reconnect through the language our children speak best: PLAY. But it's so important if we want to understand and be understood.

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Roughhousing for wimps: 17 ideas for gentle physical play == Hobo Mama
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