Little boys as young as 2 use play fighting, crashing, and even pretend killing in their play, without anger or intentional destruction or injury. Is this a very bad thing? I was challenged this week three separate times to explain why I would initiate physical play that can look aggressive (think crashing cars or our ninja pictures fighting each other) with younger boys that struggle with behavior issues in daily life. These little boys aren’t good at managing aggressive impulses, at using words to express thoughts, or handling all the excitement that physical play brings out in them. Their teachers often have to stop all aggressive play at school if the administration has a zero-tolerance policy. But someone has to help all the little guys figure out how to express their desire to get physical without getting into trouble or injuring someone.
I told the parents of the boys I treat that I want to provide a safe space for them to learn how to express their aggressive tendencies, and to witness an adult modeling how to be physical, have fun, and do it all with respect and affection. To learn all that, they needed an adult who was not automatically forbidding aggressive physical play.
If I forbid all pushing, grabbing, growling, shouting in fun, then those aggressive behaviors are almost certainly going to come out as defiance and even destructive behaviors that will require a loss of a privilege or even a time out. Feelings and impulses don’t evaporate. They go somewhere, and they can go to places that are much less constructive than crashing cars together on a warm spring day.
For little boys who have issues like sensory processing disorder or autism, it is absolutely essential to teach them how to manage aggressive play in order for them to succeed in the wider world. That is everyone’s goal, to be able to play happily in a mainstreamed environment and without adults controlling the events. These kids often don’t manage any of their emotions well, becoming overwhelmed very quickly. They can have difficulty following what other kids are doing once the wilder play gets going. They can’t stop their actions when another child says “stop” or change to another game. And they don’t read subtle cues that the game is changing or that their behavior is not appropriate for the current game.
Teaching specific strategies and practicing them with trusted adults can go a long way to building success on the playground. Pediatric occupational therapists who trained with the amazing occupational therapist Patricia Wilbarger and her crew of therapists that pioneered sensory diets know about “play wrestling” for deep pressure input. That is the kind of physical activity that calms kids down and helps them gain positional awareness. Modeling specific safe ways to engage someone else physically, what to say when you have had enough, what to do when the other guy is saying “STOP”, and demonstrating how to be silly without being physically intrusive are all important. Simply instructing a child without modeling the behaviors and playing with them isn’t as effective. Adults have to get in there and communicate using kid’s play, speak about emotions and interests, and have fun!