Losing Touch: Revisiting the Importance of Touch and Physical Play in Childhood Development
Touch and physical play are instrumental to healthy child development in many domains. We are wired to move, to experience each other in space and time beyond words. In recent years, one such physical form of play has declined. Opportunities for children to engage in rough and tumble play have decreased, and in some circles the attitude towards its utility has taken a negative turn. Lines between the healthy aspects of physicality and harmful aggression appeared to have blurred. For this, a hands-off mentality has taken hold in many natural places of play.
Lost in the overly structured and “hands off” philosophy are opportunities for natural connection and the promotion of self-regulation. On the softer side, touch, whether a hug, a pat on the back or playful tap happens far less in the U.S. than other countries. Further, in schools and centers where children spend most of their days, touch is often discouraged. On the more active side, rough and tumble play is, for the most part, off-limits.
While these policies are most likely not changing anytime soon, there are things parents can do to make these important aspects a part of our relationships and rituals. First, let’s take a brief look at three important physical aspects of social-emotional connection.
The skin is the body’s largest organ and touch is vital to healthy development. In his book, Touching, Ashley Montagu states that ‘‘touch is ten times stronger than verbal or emotional contact… We forget that touch is not only basic to our species, but the key to it.’’ Touch is vital to the expression of care and connection, and is important to the development of a healthy attachment.
Rough and Tumble Play
Rough and tumble play involves physical contact such as wrestling and tumbling, and has been linked with both emotional regulation and physical aggression in early childhood. While mothers engage in physical play, it is often fathers who engage in the rough and tumble type. Studies found a relationship between rough and tumble play and physical aggression in early childhood if the father played a less dominant or submissive role. No such correlation existed if the father played a dominant role in the dyad.
The authors followed-up on this study 5 years later, found that the associations remained true. Importantly, the impact of rough and tumble play on the development of self-regulation was modulated by the quality of the father-child dyad. If the father maintained the role of challenging and supportive of learning in the domain of physical interaction, rather than a submissive partner, rough and tumble play contributed to the child’s psychological adjustment over time.