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The science behind play-fighting—and why it’s not all bad

Commence bear cub-wrestling!

The science behind play-fighting—and why it’s not all bad

It’s understandable why some parents are eschewing all forms of play-fighting—toys guns, swords or even wrestling—in today’s world. The news out there can be scary (and a little depressing) and we want to ensure our kids are safe.


As a mom of two young boys, I deal with these issues on a daily basis. We have so many Nerf darts in our house that I’m tempted to make them part of the decorating scheme. My boys can wrestle, sword fight and play cops-and-robbers with the best of them. I admit, at times, I cringe a little when they start these games.

However, will banning all forms of play aggression really make our world a safer place in the future? Is there any link between kids’ play and real-life aggression?

What the research tells us

Luckily, we have quite a bit of research to pull from to shed light on the function of play-fighting in children’s development.

Play-fighting is one type of play categorized under socio-dramatic play, in which kids act out roles or ideas that exist in the adult world. We see this commonly as pretend play in which kids act as “mommy,” “daddy,” “baby,” or “teacher.”

This type of play is crucial to young kids as it helps them understand their place in the world, boundaries and social interactions.

Play-fighting, then, is simply an extension of this type of socio-dramatic play. Even with no exposure to TV shows, guns or any real-life violence, most kids will participate in play-fighting at some point. This gives us one indication that this type of play must serve some function, since it is almost universally seen in kids worldwide.

Lab research on animals illustrates that this type of play fills a crucial function in helping youngsters learn social interactions, track body movements and communicate with pack-mates. In humans, the benefits are similar.

By engaging in play-fighting or rough-and-tumble play, children gain valuable skills in social negotiation, boundaries, language skills and reading facial expressions.

Equally importantly, play-fighting provides kids with a way to act out their fears. Although we might not think of it much as adults, kids have very little control over many aspects of their lives.

Setting clear boundaries in playtime about who is the “bad guy” and the “good guy” helps kids work out these roles and ideas in real life. Playing with pretend guns or superhero play may help them garner a sense of control that they do not have in the real world.

If you watch kids play closely, you will notice that they are regulating themselves and know when the play has gone too far and will stop, many times even without the intervention of an adult. This is key because what they are doing is actually building the skills and brain structure needed to empathize with others.

It takes practice for kids to learn how to read complex facial expressions, to put themselves in ‘another person’s shoes’ and know when to keep playing or when to pull back.

When play-fighting goes too far

We have all seen instances where kids’ play fighting goes too far—someone gets an elbow to the face or hurt feelings. As kids are learning to assess boundaries with others, some real injury may occasionally occur. Child development experts report that this only occurs in about 1% of play-fighting interactions.

However, there are a few key distinctions that should be made as we watch our kids play-fighting with others. One is the important difference between play-fighting and real aggression.

Researchers point out that the key difference here is that play-fighting is always cooperative role-playing that involves make-believe themes of aggression, but there is no real intention to harm (either emotionally or physically).

As with most any play, kids still need supervision from adults. If parents see real aggression start to emerge, then hands-on guidance is necessary. Additionally, clear rules might need to be set in advance to prevent real-life injury.

With older kids, however, they might be able to negotiate rules themselves—and this, after all, is part of the skill-building part of play-fighting.

A world without play

Even with all this research, some of us may wonder why play-fighting is really necessary. Can’t kids learn these skills in another, less aggressive way? Well, this is a complex question, but we do have some insight into this from leading play researcher Stuart Brown.

After studying the childhoods and psychological profiles of hundreds of criminals (primarily those convicted of murder), the one theme his team consistently saw was a lack of free play in childhood—particularly rough-and-tumble play.

None of the criminals he studied had a childhood that included normal rough-and-tumble play. This could be for a variety of reasons, including overbearing parents or some form of neglect, but the pattern still remains:

Although this play-fighting may seem unnecessary to adults, it’s really an important testing ground for kids still learning empathy and the ins and outs of social interaction.

So the next time your kids start to tackle each other or pull out the toy swords, you might feel a little better knowing that they are really just doing what kids do best—learning about their world by playing and testing out roles.

These new arrivals from the Motherly Shop are *so* good you need them all

Noodle and Boo, Mushie and Plan Toys—everything you need, mama.

Motherhood is hard work—finding great products and brands to make the journey easier doesn't have to be. Each week, we stock the Motherly Shop with brilliant new products we know you'll need and love from brands and makers that really care.

So, what's new this week?

Noodle and Boo: Holistic baby skin care

Through working with chemists who specialize in natural and holistic skin care, Noodle and Boo has developed exclusive formulas that nourish, replenish and protect especially delicate, eczema-prone and sensitive skin—including laundry detergent. Their signature, obsession-worthy scent—which is subtly sweet, pure and fresh—is the closest thing to bottling up "baby smell" we've ever found.

Mushie: Kids' dinnerware that actually looks great

We're totally crushing on Mushie's minimalist dinnerware for kids. Their innovative baby and toddler products leverage Swedish design to marry both form and function while putting safety front and center. Everything is created in soft, muted colors from BPA-free materials.

Plan Toys: Open-ended toys that last

Corralling and cleaning up the toys becomes less stressful when you bring home fewer, better, more beautiful ones. Plan Toys checks all the boxes. Made from re-purposed rubber wood, they're better for the planet as well.

Not sure where to start? Here's what we're adding to our cart:

Mushie silicone baby bib

Mushie silicone baby bib

There's no going back to cloth bibs after falling in love with this Swedish design. The pocket catches whatever misses their mouths and the BPA-free silicone is waterproof and easy to wipe down between uses.

$13

Mushie kids' square dinnerware plate set

Mushie kids' square dinnerware plate set

We're totally crushing on the soft muted colors that flow with our table aesthetics and the thoughtful high-sided design that helps babies and toddler who are learning to feed themselves.

$15

Noodle and Boo nursery essentials kit

Noodle and Boo nursery essentials kit

Stocked with everything a new mama needs to care for her little one's delicate skin, Noodle and Boo's nursery essentials gift set is the perfect way to create a holistic and natural skin care routine from day one.

$45

Plan Toys doctor set 

Plan Toys doctor set

Ideal for quiet time and imaginative role play, we love the gorgeous planet-friendly doctor kit from Plan Toys. The rubber wood stethoscope, blood pressure cuff, thermometer, syringe and reflex hammer pack up neat and tidy into the red cotton case should they need to dash off on a rescue mission.

$30

Noodle and Boo instant hand sanitizer

Noodle and Boo instant hand sanitizer

Since we're buying and using hand sanitizer by the truckload these days, we're thrilled Noodle and Boo has made one we can feel good about using on little ones who cram their hands in their mouths 24/7. Not only does it kill 99.9% of germs, but it also leaves hands moisturized as well.

$10

Plan Toys natural wooden blocks set

Plan Toys natural wooden blocks set

A toy box isn't complete without a set of blocks—and this set is one of our new favorites. The sustainable, re-purposed wood is eco-friendly, comes at a relatively affordable price point and are certain to last well beyond multiple kids, hand-me-downs and even generations.

$30

Noodle and Boo family fun pack cleansing set

Noodle and Boo family fun pack cleansing set

Because their products were developed for delicate and eczema-prone skin, Noodle and Boo's full line of skin care has become a favorite among those with sensitive skin of all ages. This set is the perfect way to pamper the entire family.

$48

Mushie kids' round dinnerware bowl set

Mushie kids' round dinnerware bowl set

No need to sacrifice safety or design with the sustainable dinnerware from Mushie. Their minimalist, functional dishes are perfect for serving up meals and snacks to your tablemates who might hurl it to the floor at any point. They're made in Denmark from BPA-free polypropylene plastic mamas can feel good about and dishwasher and microwave-safe as well.

$14

Plan Toys geo stacking blocks

Plan Toys geo stacking blocks

The best engaging, open-ended toys are the ones that are left out and available, inviting little (and big!) ones to play. These beautiful gem-like blocks make for addicting coffee table play for the entire family.

$30

Plan Toys wooden green dollhouse

Plan Toys wooden green dollhouse

Energy-efficient design isn't just for grown-up real estate. This green dollhouse includes a wind turbine, a solar cell panel, electric inverter, recycling bins, a rain barrel, a biofacade and a blind that can adjust the amount of sunlight and air circulation along with minimalist furniture we'd totally love to have in our own houses.

$250

We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

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5 brilliant products that encourage toddler independence

Help your little one help themselves.

One of our main goals as mothers is to encourage our children to learn, grow and play. They start out as our tiny, adorable babies who need us for everything, and somehow, before you know it, they grow into toddlers with ideas and opinions and desires of their own.

You may be hearing a lot more of "I do it!" or maybe they're pushing your hand away as a signal to let you know, I don't need your help, Mama. That's okay. They're just telling you they're ready for more independence. They want to be in charge of their bodies, and any little bit of control their lives and abilities allow.

So, instead of challenging your toddler's desire for autonomy, we found five of our favorite products to help encourage independence—and eliminate frustration in the process.

EKOBO Bamboo 4-piece kid set

EKOBO bamboo 4-piece kid set

This colorful set includes a plate, cup, bowl and spoon and is just right for your child's meal experience. Keep them in an easy-to-reach cabinet so they'll feel encouraged (and excited!) to get their own place setting each time they eat.

$25

Puj PhillUp hangable kids cups

Puj PhillUp hangable kids cups

Before you know it, your little one will be asking (okay, maybe demanding) to fill their own water cups. This amazing 4-pack of cups attaches directly to the fridge (or any glass, metal, tile or fiberglass surface) making it easier for your child to grab a cup themselves. Just be sure a water pitcher or dispenser is nearby, and—boom!—one task off your plate.

$29

Wise Elk puzzle tower blocks

Wise Elk puzzle tower blocks

These beautiful blocks, made from sustainably-sourced wood and water-based, non-toxic, lead-free paint, will keep your little one focused on their creation while they're also busy working on their fine-motor skills. The puzzle design will encourage patience as your kiddo creates their own building, fitting one block in after the next.

$18

Lorena Canals basket

Lorena Canals Basket

This *gorgeous* braided cotton basket is the perfect, accessible home for their blocks (and whatever else you want to hide away!) so your kiddo can grab them (and clean them up) whenever their heart desires.

$29

BABYBJÖRN step stool

BABYBJ\u00d6RN Step Stool

Your kiddo might be ready to take on the world, but they might need an extra boost to do so—cue, a step stool! An easy-to-move lightweight stool is the must-have confidence-boosting tool you need in your home so your growing tot can reach, well... the world.

$20

We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

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I have two kids—and I think I'm done

The idea of "more," making more money, obtaining more things—and in my case, creating more life—is not necessarily the ticket to a happier life.

I met my best friend Katie in fifth grade and one of our most favorite games to play was MASH. Our future fates would be decided by one "magic number" where one of us counted the rings on a spiral circle after the other screamed STOP as loud as humanly possible. "Future Husband" and "Number of Children" were clearly our two favorite categories. I remember my "magic combination," and it was marrying Mel Gibson plus having four kids.

And my plan was to do all of this by the time I reached 27. Getting married and having children would be the ultimate climax of life. At the age of nine, the pressure was on to best prepare for the long climb to the top.

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