Child’s Play : Roughhousing: Does It Breed Chaos or Courage in Kids?

Times Staff Writer

She’s wild, she’s furious, she’s a lithe little 8-year-old in a mint-green jogging suit and long ponytail, wielding a foam-filled bopper as if her life depended on it.

The girl, whose name is Rian, is in the roughhouse corner of the Rainbow River child care center in Manhattan Beach, where if she were wound any tighter, she would explode. She has already battered another little girl off the play rug and onto the sidelines. Now she’s standing, eyes fierce and nostrils flaring, daring someone else to challenge her.

The boys have suddenly managed to find other things to do, but another girl picks up a bopper and steps giggling into the arena. Although she is bigger than Rian, she’s also softer and less intense and Rian whacks her with forehand wallops, backhand smashes-- WHAP! SNAP! BLATT! --hitting her opponent three times for every time she gets hit herself. But because the clubs are filled with soft foam, none of the blows really hurt.


Offering a running commentary on the battle is Rick Porter, executive director, ringmaster and chief referee of the day care center.

“No hitting in the head,” he says, laughing. “Hitting in the butts only. . . . This hurts just watching.”

‘You Almost Wasted Her’

Finally, Rian runs down and Porter, calling it a day, sends all the children off to get ready for a trip to an ice skating rink. At first, Rian just stands there, feet planted wide, chest heaving. Then as she walks off the rug, a boy comes up in awe: “You almost wasted her!”

“There was so much she needed to get out,” Porter says later of Rian. “If we had stopped her she’d probably have been a little crazy child ready to explode. But do you know what the teacher would have said if this had happened in the typical child care center? ‘You’re too wild! You need to calm down!’ ”

And that is exactly the problem, Porter says. In the last 20 years, child care centers have have gone overboard in their aversion to physical contact.

“You would be astounded,” Porter says, “at the number of centers that have no-touching policies because touching leads to poking, pushing and shoving and before you know it--'We’ve got a full-scale riot on our hands.’ ”

Instead, he says, “kids get rewards for sitting quietly behind their desks for six hours a day. And that’s not normal.”

To Porter, who runs three child care centers in Manhattan Beach (one of which is nationally accredited) and is in the middle of writing a book on roughhousing with Kevin MacDonald, a Cal State Long Beach psychologist, roughhousing is a much misunderstood activity. Many people just assume that roughhousing--which Porter defines as activities like wrestling, shoving, tugging, punching, pulling and tripping--is an early kind of aggression that creates adults who sit in bars “smashing beer mugs over each other’s heads.”

But, says MacDonald, co-author of “Roughhousing: A Guide for Parents and Teachers,” research shows that such play in humans breeds sociability, group cohesion, confidence, leadership and a sense of limits--just as it does for wolf pups, lion cubs and other social animals.

The problem is getting teachers to understand that this is normal behavior for kids, Porter says, noting: “A child who will sit quietly behind his desk and do the spelling words is abnormal. . . . The normal thing is to want to lean over, poke the person next to him, grab him, pull his shoes off, whatever.”

Enforced Politeness

One problem is that parents unwittingly force their kids to grow up too fast. Even parents who would never dream of trying to force their kids to read at age 3 or master multiplication tables at age 5 see no contradiction in trying to force them to shake hands and say hello.

“I’d rather have a kid kick me in the shins and run out the door,” Porter says. “At least that would be a real kid rather than some oversocialized robot.”

Some child care experts, in fact, believe that America has made a great leap backward in child care in recent years.

“The people who run most schools are very controlling,” says Catherine Ryan, 1989 program coordinator for the California Assn. for the Education of Young Children.

The highest goal isn’t letting kids run around and be themselves but rather keeping the classroom quiet and clean “so the adults will feel comfortable,” says Ryan, who supports Porter’s roughhousing views and has often arranged for him to offer workshops at educator conventions.

With the rise of the feminist movement, says Porter, there has been a commendable emphasis on freeing children from stereotypes and letting them be themselves.

The problem, Porter says, is that the movement didn’t follow through. Instead of letting girls run around--yelling, screaming and causing mayhem, as boys always did--educators encouraged boys to participate in the quiet, indoor, docile activities that girls had so often been relegated to.

“A lot of the curriculum development has been to lower the level of competitiveness and physical play,” Porter says.

Meantime, Porter says, important values have been lost. It took a lot of courage, for example, for Rian’s second opponent to challenge her, especially when none of the boys were willing to.

“But bravery, strength and fortitude are things you never see mentioned in the literature” of education, Porter says. “All you hear is compassion, kindness, how to share and learning how to be quiet.”

Quiet, in fact, Porter observes, is considered the greatest good by teachers and day care staffs.

“They have 50 different tricks for keeping the kids quiet. . . . In the process, they forget that (kids) need some corner of their day when they can just let loose.”

And it’s not just because it’s fun--it’s an important component of their social development, he notes. Boys and girls get pulled in so many different directions that they hardly know each other before they’re ready to start dating. By roughhousing when they’re younger, Porter says, kids can get “to know each other physically in a fun and healthy way.”

“OK, take off your shoes,” Porter says, standing on the grass in front of the day care center, where he has put out some exercise mats. He matches up the boys and girls, then lets them wrestle in groups of two.

Then he gets down on all fours himself and calls out: “OK, all the girls.” Shrieking and screaming, they jump off a nearby picnic table and attack him, en masse. Then he calls out for all the boys. Then the boys and the girls, who swarm over him like like wolf pups on a caribou. All the while he gives off sound effects: “Uhhh! Oh, whoa! Aggrrhh! Uhhhnn!”

Helps Self-Esteem

Porter later explains that wrestling with boys is great for girls. On the athletic fields, boys are often better at throwing and kicking than girls. But on a wrestling mat, they are pretty evenly matched up through age 7, 8 or 9.

“It builds up the girl’s self-esteem when (she) can pin a guy who can out-throw her on the baseball field,” he says.

More than that, he notes, the play is just plain fun. Kids love to wrestle. They love to roughhouse. When kids first learn they not only can but are encouraged to roughhouse at his day care center, they go into shock, Porter says. They ask, “Are you sure I’m not going to get into trouble for this?”

Porter, who has given more than 100 workshops on roughhousing throughout the state and around the country, is outgoing, effervescent and colorfully well-spoken. He would have a great career as a stand-up comic if he ever gave up his early childhood and elementary teaching credential; he reverts to childhood attitudes at the drop of foam ball.

“Aren’t these great?” he says, pelting a hapless visiting journalist with about 20 pink and powder-blue foam balls from a Rainbow River game. In the game, kids sitting on opposite sides of the room each get a bag of the foam balls, which they get to throw back and forth for 10 minutes; the winning side has the fewest foam balls on its side when time is called.

Such games are so much fun they wouldn’t seem to need much more justification, but Porter notes that many reading specialists suggest that youngsters with some sorts of reading problems throw objects at targets to build their hand-eye coordination. So when a parent drops by in the middle of a foam ball battle and is stunned at the apparent chaos, Porter just tells her: “Oh, we’re doing pre-reading development.”

Porter, 38, went into child care right out of college. But even then, active physical play with kids was only tolerated, never encouraged.

“I was very successful in my interaction with children,” he says. But professionally he felt awkward because his view of roughhousing seemed at odds with that of other educators.

Porter decided to do something about it after he first began teaching Lamaze classes and later Daddy & Me classes 12 years ago.

Fathers Tossed Babies

At a six-month reunion for one class, he says, all the new fathers were flipping, tossing and hanging their new babies upside down and otherwise showing off when in walked a new father gingerly holding his baby.

“Well, look what all everyone else is doing,” he protested to his wife.

“I don’t care what the rest of the foolish wives are letting their husbands do,” she responded. “You are not going to jeopardize our child’s health and safety.”

That was the moment, he says, when he understood that when it came to roughhousing, men and women had different attitudes: For men it came naturally; women, on the other hand, generally only tolerated it within certain bounds--not in the kitchen or in front of the fireplace or on the asphalt drive. As Porter sees, the role of the roughhousing movement is to give the father permission: “The guys need to be given some encouragement and the mothers need to back off.”

One problem, he says, is that recent revelations concerning child abuse and child molestation also have made many child care staffers leery of permitting physical contact among kids, let alone between adults and youngsters. At the same time, many fathers are increasingly afraid to roughhouse with their own children.

That’s too bad, says Porter. “When the kid is laughing hysterically and begging for more, you got to think to yourself, ‘How bad can this be?’ ”