Rough and Tumble Play
Last night I met online with the team of early childhood educators I work with to receive a lecture on risky play from one of the team leads. Risky Play refers to activities that were once considered a vital part of childhood skill development and now tend to be watered down by perhaps over-vigilant attitudes that cause the important practices to be offset until adulthood, which – in the mindset of many childhood educators – is far too late in life. Risky play might include such things as teaching children to responsibly use tools, climb high structures or trees, build forts, explore their environment free from adult supervision, or even how to safely light and extinguish campfires. To be sure, the progressive centre I belong to is pro risky play, and last night’s meeting was to discuss how we might incorporate more of these concepts into our programming.
Regarding the “rough and tumble play” (wrestling, mock fighting) that is a part of the Risky Play concept, a question was asked about whether school-aged children of the opposite sex should be allowed to explore rough and tumble play together. Please let me be clear: every educator that was on this call is highly sensitive to the developmental needs of young children, educated on best practices, up-to-date on current philosophy, open-minded, and incredibly intuitive. Various viewpoints were explored on how to allow such play while ensuring wrestling doesn’t progress into unwanted or inappropriate touching, or how to ensure children who are rougher don’t injure other children who are interested in exploring a milder version of rough and tumble. It seemed that there was an underlying desire to protect girls especially from situations where they may be physically hurt or exposed to unwanted touching. As a staff body largely made up of women, it makes sense that this protective stance would leap to top of mind. Statistically speaking, it’s likely that many of us have – or love another girl or woman who has – experienced physical or sexual violence in the past.
But as the conversation progressed, I had to argue an opposing position. If the concept of risky play is to expose children to age-appropriate, facilitated risk so that they are able to navigate the greater risks of adulthood, then we should absolutely allow girls and boys to explore rough and tumble play together in order to practice consent and bodily autonomy during low-risk activities in childhood instead of having to forge the skills during high-stakes experiences later on. Rough and tumble play also presents opportunities for children to navigate the uncomfortable emotions that come with physical rejection when a playmate doesn’t want to be touched, and teaches children how to respect that refusal with grace. When supported by mindful caregivers, rough and tumble play also allows children to develop an early sense of what enthusiastic consent looks like – you know when someone is having fun and wants to continue, and you learn what the signs of disinterest or hesitancy look like and, therefore, when you must stop.
Allowing children to play rough under the supervision and guidance of attentive adults teaches the child to utilize such phrases as no, I don’t like that, I don’t want to be touched, or I don’t like to play like that, let’s wrestle like this instead, and serves as an introduction to self-advocacy that will be important in future adult encounters. The viewpoint received positive reflection from the team as one that made space for teachable moments.
Freedom to Explore
It was prime timing for the conversation as when it comes to parenting / childhood education, I’ve been thinking about bodily autonomy and consent a lot lately, and how freedom away from adult supervision aids in supporting it.
My children are in the thick of the school-age: eight and eleven years old. In the fall, one heads to grade four, and the other begins junior high. My eldest looks like a young woman. We now share the same size in all clothing, and I am definitely not of a “boyish” or “athletic” build (a former male employer once called me “top heavy” if that helps describe my frame. I know – yuck. But that’s another story for another day). Alongside her growth, my daughter has noticed a change in the behaviour of those around her. While long boarding with a friend last week, she was catcalled by a teenage boy who biked by with his friends. Let me repeat, my daughter is eleven years old.
And yet, that catcall was an age-appropriate – if rude! – opportunity for the development of my daughter’s self assertion skills. Had my daughter not been given freedom to explore her neighbourhood with mitigated risk (she was with a friend, it was daytime, and the trails are frequented by enough neighbours that there’s a sense of safety), she would not have been exposed to the young man and she would not have been able to practice standing up for herself when she replied, “I am eleven!” Apparently, this comment made the boy blush and the boy’s friends turned their attention from her to his buffoonery instead. When she reported the interaction back to me, she communicated the situation with pride (for standing up for herself) instead of shame (for her body being commented on without her permission).
Choice over Food Consumption
School-age might seem young for these conversations about physical consent, but, as the boy-on-the-bike proves, it’s a reality that experiences in our children’s lives happen outside of the timeline we’d ideally set them on. As I know it’s never really too early, I’ve been considering other ways in which I can support my daughters’ sovereignty over their own bodies at home. One recent change has been to demolish dinnertime drama. We used to insist they eat portions of their meals and as they began to assert greater independence, it got to the point that arguing was ruining the majority of our family dinners. Now we use a new tactic that has brought peace back into the house: Parents decide when, where and what we will eat (so no more crushing a bag of chips a half hour before supper and claiming you’re too full to eat your greens, or filling up on a serving-bowl of cereal before bed because you didn’t want veggie soup), and children will decide if they will eat, and how much. If they don’t eat the options that are presented on the table at breakfast, lunch, snack, or dinner, or if they eat very little, they won’t hear a thing from us – they’ll just be hungry. Which is fine, because there will be healthy food at the next meal and fasting ain’t so bad for you anyway. Both sides of this equation have encountered a few uncomfortable moments while we get used to the new practice, but on the whole everyone’s happier and there’s much more space for meaningful evening conversation instead of food fights and tears.
Another powerful tool to support preteen body autonomy is massage. The morning before the Risky Play evening team meet, my eldest and I had a “couple’s massage” at our favourite local, family-owned spa, Namaste. The spa has a calm, welcoming, new-agey vibe that we really appreciate because while I chat with the friendly staff, my budding geologist likes to inspect the displayed crystals and raw cut geodes.
A massage may seem like a luxury item – and for many it is – but our family health coverages allows each member to bill approximately ten therapeutic massage annually (financially it would be a lot more helpful if optometry or orthodontics was covered, but I digress…). Yesterday morning was the second massage I’d taken my eldest to as Namaste just reopened after the Covid-19 shutdown.
I wouldn’t have thought of massage (save for baby massage) as a childhood education tool until my daughter started complaining of backaches and asking me to massage her each night. Because I don’t know anything about anatomy other than what I can see, I set up an appointment for us to visit the professionals together, insisting we be treated in the same room, and that she have a female therapist. The spa was more than happy to comply and gave me great information on childhood massage. At her first appointment, her therapist reassured us both that she wouldn’t always feel such pain. Simply put, parts of her had grown faster than the muscles necessary to keep her comfortably standing upright. Over time, the muscles in her back and core will become stronger and better proportioned to hold her adult figure, and they wouldn’t be under so much stress. “You are blessed, girl,” the therapist told her. My daughter loved that, and now uses the term to describe herself: “I am blessed.” *insert preteen giggle*
But beyond the treatment of pain, it was immediately obvious how powerful the new experience was. Both I and the therapist explained at different and multiple intervals before and during the service that it was important and expected that she speak up and let the therapist know if the pressure was too great, if there were areas she didn’t want to be touched, or if there was ever a time when she wished to withdraw her consent and end the massage or ask the therapist to move on to a different area of her body. She had the reassurance of her mother only a few feet away, and was able to practice these important concepts in a safe way at the encouragement of the adult there to honour and protect her (me) and the professional caring for her health (the therapist). She also had the opportunity to internalize the message that it is to be expected that her wonderful body is wholly approved of and lovingly cared for by the person whom she has consented to touch her, and she gets to hear her mother model autonomy and consent nearby:
No, I don’t like that.
A little lighter, please.
Higher up would be better.
Whatever you do, don’t touch my calves!
That’s really good, thanks!
In the first appointment, those were some of my words. In the second, they were hers (except for the calves thing – that’s just a #meproblem). But what important phrases for a young woman to be comfortable confidently asserting, and how vital for a girl to know how to direct another person to touch her, and how to tell them to stop – free of shame or guilt.
The only caveat I would state is that any spa be researched and visited by the parent first, and that the parent accompany the child until he or she is independent and confident enough to request greater privacy. I would guess that my daughter might be ready to have a massage without a trusted adult around the age of 16, depending on her confidence level and the trusting relationship we’ve built with the therapist. If she requested to go alone any earlier than 16, I would probably ask she have a “couples massage” with a friend instead, as the risk does seem a little too great to go alone (and I think I’d insist upon going with her until she was at least 14).
The awesome mother/daughter bonding time (and mom’s massages) are total bonuses!
Post-script: My daughter read and approved this post prior to publication. Because consent, ya’ll.