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.
One aspect of the loss of physical connection comes in the form of replacement. Relating rituals and some aspects of play have been replaced by the two dimensions of screens. The important point here is not the value of screen time, but what is not happening in its place. Time spent on screens is time away from play and social interaction.
Screens will not be going away and the question is not about technology, but how it does or does not influence social-emotional development in the overall picture. While research is in the early stages, some studies have found a negative relationship with the development of executive functions (EF) and social skills. Executive functions (EF) are critical to prosocial behavior and regulating emotions. One study found “television may negatively affect children’s social behavior by directly affecting cognitive functioning, which may, in turn, manifest in poor social behavior.” The study revealed that even watching child-oriented programming was negatively related to executive functions. Simply put: touch, physical play, and relating occur in time and space and are active processes.
What you can do:
- Make touch a part of relationship rituals, such as greetings, good-byes, play, and celebrations.
- Introduce rough and tumble play if it isn’t already a part of relationship building. While you may engage in lose-win interactions (child gets away from you, or tackles you to the ground) it is important to maintain the authoritative stance. This includes maintaining safety, stopping play, setting limits, and teaching appropriate physical engagement.
- Plan the use of technology and place limits on screen time. The addictive quality of screens can no longer be refuted (based on research the American Psychiatric Association has proposed the diagnostic label of Internet Gaming Disorder), and findings suggest the pattern starts earlier than one would expect. Again, technology is neutral and we are empowered by how we use it. If the passive world of screens is the center of attention, real life will seem more challenging and more difficult to negotiate evident in the behaviors we witness when screens are removed. Whenever possible make screen time an active rather than passive process, engaging with children in content appropriate to their developmental level.
- Get outside and move. Playing catch or “stop and go” games like “freeze tag,” not only help develop executive functions, but are opportunities to develop relationships. Give your child a piggy-back ride. Hold hands on a walk.
- Snuggle up with a good book. Younger children can sit in your lap and enjoy a picture book. For older children, reading is a great side-by-side activity. Designate a special place to share space and sit close enough to touch shoulders, share a laugh, pat knees, and rub circles on their back.
- Consider your own beliefs of touch and physical play. When, where and how were these thoughts and ideas transmitted? Are these beliefs based on developmentally sound concepts? Reflect on your own experiences of touch and physical play as a child. Was affection shown by touch? Was rough and tumble play discouraged or encouraged? How has this influenced your present view?
Little things matter and add up over time. Even if touch is not your or your child’s love language, it is still an important expression of love and care.
Fairhurst, M. T., Löken, L., & Grossmann, T. (2014). Physiological and behavioral responses reveal 9-month-old infants’ sensitivity to pleasant touch. Psychological science, 25(5), 1124-1131.
Field, T. (2010). Touch for socioemotional and physical well-being: A review. Developmental review, 30(4), 367-383.
Flanders, J. L., Leo, V., Paquette, D., Pihl, R. O., & Séguin, J. R. (2009). Rough‐and‐tumble play and the regulation of aggression: an observational study of father–child play dyads. Aggressive Behavior, 35, 285-295. doi:10.1002/ab.20309
Flanders, J. L., Simard, M., Paquette, D., Parent, S., Vitaro, F., Pihl, R. O., & Séguin, J. R. (2010). Rough-and-tumble play and the development of physical aggression and emotion regulation: A five-year follow-up study. Journal of Family Violence, 25, 357-367. doi:10.1007/s10896-009-9297-5
Nathanson, A. I., Aladé, F., Sharp, M. L., Rasmussen, E. E., & Christy, K. (2014). The relation between television exposure and executive function among preschoolers. Developmental psychology, 50(5), 1497.