By Frances Carlson

Big body play is the very physical, vigorous, boisterous, and sometimes bone-jarring play style many children love and crave. 

Big body play is...

  • When a child throws herself onto a sofa.
  • When children wrestle.
  • When friends jump off climbing equipment.
  • When friends chase each other as they laugh, or race to a finish line.

Why is big body play important for children?

Big body play supports children’s physical development but it also supports the development of children’s social awareness, emotional thinking, and language skills. Research shows that big body play comes naturally to children. Children all over the world play this way, and that is why it's so important that adults, both teachers and family members, understand and support it.

How does big body play support children's learning?

There are many ways big body play supports and enhances children’s learning. 

Younger children gain a lot of information about their bodies through big body play. For example, when a mother kisses or massages her baby’s body, her baby learns about where his body ends and the space around him begins. He also learns how different types of touch feel and the names for those feelings. 

When a toddler jumps into her dad’s lap, or she runs to hug a friend, she learns how to control and regulate her body movements. She also learns that she should adapt the intensity of her movements in relation to another person. For example, she might run to hug her friend with less force than she uses to jump into her dad’s lap. 

When children enjoy big body play they can also build both verbal and nonverbal communication skills. Through big body play, they learn to correctly interpret nonverbal gestures, like when my friend puts her hand up it means I should stop but if she smiles it means I can keep going. Children will apply this skill throughout their lives in different social situations.

When children take turns jumping off a tree stump they practice taking turns. 

And, because most children enjoy the play so much, they learn how to compromise. They might let other children go first and be strongest so that the play can continue. Children are also calmer for longer periods of time following very rowdy play. Greater learning is likely during these calm, focused periods. 

Why does this type of play make some parents and other adults nervous?

Even though I have studied and written about this kind of play, sometimes, it still makes me nervous! As parents and teachers, we are very serious about protecting children and keeping them safe. It’s difficult to watch children engaged in physically rowdy and vigorous play and not fear that someone is about to be hurt. Often adults see children roughhousing and think they are really fighting so they often err toward caution and shut it down. 

How parents can support big body play:

  • Supervise play closely. If your child needs help telling a playmate to stop or to do something in a different way, you’ll be there to help.
  • Talk with your child and set some ground rules for big body play. For example, If your child likes to wrestle, you might set up a Wrestling Zone in your home. Choose an area with enough space to wrestle without bumping into furniture. Make a rule about how long each wrestling bout can last before time is called. You might also have a rule about all wrestling moves being between shoulders and waists, and not around necks or heads.

Five things you should know about big body play

  1. Big body play looks like fighting, but it isn’t fighting.
  2. Big body play is rowdy, physical, and usually loud. It rarely turns into real fighting.
  3. Big body play is a vital component of children’s growth and development. Children all over the world play this way.
  4. Big body play gives children sustained moderate-to-vigorous physical exercise. With our current obesity epidemic such a growing concern, it can help children stay fit and healthy.
  5. The quickest way to distinguish big body play from real fighting is by looking at the expressions on children’s faces. Their big smiles let us know the play is okay. 


Frances Carlson is the author of Big Body Play: Why Boisterous, Vigorous, and Very Physical Play Is Essential to Children's Development and Learning.