My son Sage has a classic case of extreme friendliness. He shouts “Hi!” and waves to strangers in their cars as he’s riding his tricycle on the sidewalk. He likes to chat up the homeless guys who drink and rant to each other on the benches at our neighborhood park. And he’s always game to jump into the action when we go to someone’s house and there are kids playing.
So it was a little surprising to me about six months ago when Sage declared one day at lunch, “Mama, I’m not a nice guy. I’m really tough.” I responded with something along the lines of, “Oh really?” and assumed the delusion would pass. I was wrong.
This was about the same time that he and my husband began wrestling. It was the usual stuff: fake tackles followed by my husband pretending to get pinned, Sage laughing and screaming the whole time. Seemed harmless, but now we had a not-nice guy on our hands.
Pretty soon I was hearing from his pre-school teacher that Sage and another little boy were seen rolling around on the carpet at school. She didn’t seem worried, but I decided to have a conversation with him just to make sure he wasn’t going down the road to hoodlumdom. That’s when I heard the phrase that has become a staple in our house.
“I like to play rough tough,” Sage explained. The other little boy at his school likes it too, he said. We talked about how some friends like rough tough, but others don’t. Sadie, my Fussbucket co-author Kristin’s daughter, loves rough tough. Other good friends of his don’t like it and I told him he should always ask before taking someone down.
Fast forward to this morning when I noticed an article in the NY Times entitled, “Putting the Skinned Knees Back Into Playtime.” It was all about the trend, if you’d call it that, towards getting kids to play traditional outdoor games such as hopscotch and four-square. The article mentioned a number of official sounding organizations devoted to the cause of childhood play.
There was the Alliance for Childhood, the American Association for the Child’s Right to Play, and even the National Institute for Play. I was intrigued. Is there a crisis I don’t know about? Why are all these people up in arms over play?
I did some investigating and found that play is much more serious than I ever imagined. The Alliance for Childhood, a group of educators and psychologists is very concerned about the loss of child-initiated, imaginative play. “We are now preparing to launch a national campaign to raise public consciousness about the importance of play and its current endangered status.” I had no idea! Sounds like a cause a certain tough guy I know could get behind.
The American Assocation for the Child’s Right to Play has as its stated purpose: “To protect, preserve, and promote play as a fundamental right for all humans.” Can’t argue with that.
But it was at the quirky National Institute for Play that ‘rough tough’ suddenly made sense. After passing over the cryptic logo which says, “Play + Science = Transformation,” and pausing briefly to wonder if I’d entered loonyville, I scrolled down until I found a link to “The Patterns of Play.” This quickly led me to Social Play and its three Subsets, one of which is the scientific term for rough tough. That is, “Rough and Tumble Play.”
The importance of R&T play in animals and humans, has been shown to be necessary for the development and maintenance of social awareness, cooperation, fairness and altruism. Its nature and importance are generally unappreciated, particularly by early (preschool) teachers, who often see normal rough and tumble play behavior such as hitting, diving, wrestling, (all done with a smile, between friends who stay friends), not as a state of play, but one of anarchy that must be controlled. A natural extension of the form – as it naturally diminishes with age – is lifelong involvement in games, sports and group activities that not only tolerate, but enjoy creative tension. Lack of experience with this pattern of play hampers the normal give and take necessary for social mastery, and has been linked to poor control of violent impulses in later life.
So my little one isn’t such a bad guy. I won’t tell him though. He likes to think of himself as really tough and I don’t have the heart to tell him he really is a good guy after all.