How Defining Boundaries With Children Creates Freedom

by | May 19, 2021

“Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me.A boundary shows me where I end and where someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility gives me freedom.” – Henry Cloud

At Forest School, we delve deep into the concepts of boundaries, consent and space and the meanings behind these big and often unknown words and ideas. We search for a way to best set and utilize boundaries, consent and space as a community of people and strive to make sense of our needs, the needs of others, and the needs of the world around us. 

Boundaries and consent play key roles in all relationships with others and that’s why it’s vital, in any healthy relationship, to honor and respect the boundaries set by others and to set your own boundaries. At Forest School, we utilize the Platinum Rule rather than the Golden Rule, as the former understands that you should do unto others as THEY want done unto themselves. This concept brings in the idea of consent and personal boundaries, as one person may like roughhousing, while another learner may not. 

“Roughhousing is play that flows with spontaneity, improvisation, and joy. It is free from worries about how we look or how much time is passing…roughhousing releases the creative life force within each person, pushing us out of our inhibitions and inflexibilities.” – Anthony T. DeBenedet and Lawrence J. Cohen

As we know, children learn best through play and what better way to experiment with boundaries than by doing just that, playing! Here in the woods, we have all the space and time to provide our learners the opportunity to take charge of their play to allow the learning process that it involves to flourish. Roughhousing is indeed a type of play and has been underestimated for quite some time. Anthony DeBenedet, M.D, the author of the book, “The Art of Roughhousing,” speaks of at least six different benefits to children who are provided the chance to rough and tumble with each other.

  • One of these benefits include the physical exercise it entails to be able to wrestle, run, jump and climb through these different rough and tumble movements.
  • There is also the social and emotional intelligence involved in being able to read and tell the difference between someone else’s body language and facial expressions.
  • If the learners divide themselves into teams then things like teamwork, leadership and problem solving shine through.
  • Roughhousing also helps to build on moral and ethical characteristics where stronger children will learn that it is more fun to play with someone if they hold back and control their strength than to overpower and hurt the other person repeatedly.
  • There are also mental and cognitive benefits to rough and tumble play. Because it can be unpredictable, roughhousing invites the brain to make connections with neurons in the cerebral cortex that help with logical thinking and advanced cognitive skills.

Overall, the benefits of this type of play outweigh the risks and therefore we, at Forest School, see roughhousing (with predetermined consent and boundaries) as a valuable tool for our learners and invite them to experiment and play in this manner. 

hammock aishling forest schoolIn keeping with our dynamic and ever expanding community agreements, when our learners play rough, they set up their own set of boundaries that they wish to put forth in order for this to be fun and enjoyable for all of those involved. There is “turn taking”, where the learners change the one who is “it”, chasing and roaring at the rest of the group. There is fun in smashing and crashing into each other, but one person may wish to be the one charging and the other may enjoy the sensation of getting knocked into. There are social cues to clue into and agreements to be made on how this type of physical play can occur. We often utilize “Forest School Theater” to showcase consent, boundaries and giving space and also play a game called “The Stop Game” where we check in with a learner if they shout the word “STOP” in the middle of play. If the learner says they’re ok we can continue, if the learner is not ok we ask them what they need. Sometimes they need a hug, sometimes they need to say something, sometimes they need space.

Learners have made agreements that range from things like “stop means stop and if someone tells you to stop and you don’t know why then you must ask what to stop doing,” to “take space from someone if you need it and give space to someone if they ask for it”. We have heard the learners tell each other to stop and heard responses back that respected those words and looked to play elsewhere or do something different. And we have also observed the learners play rough and realize they hurt another learner, then stopped what they were doing and asked if that learner was ok before continuing on. What wonderful ways to practice continual consent and boundaries!

As adults who often don’t engage in roughhousing with other adults, rough and tumble play can be understandably uncomfortable to watch. However, it’s important to know that there is much to be said for allowing this play, as the learners have put much effort, time and consideration into forming their relationships with each other and that there is consent and boundaries involved.  It’s not to say that there aren’t times when the learners have had to approach the mentors due to an agreement not being followed and we’ve have had some agreements amended that included getting an adult to help if a learner continues to ignore an agreement. Our aim as mentors is to facilitate this community and to support the learners through their journey of finding their own boundaries and the boundaries of others. And often, the children have more compassionate ways to solve problems amongst themselves than the adults. We must simply be there to honor their relationships and to give them the space they need to explore, trust in, and value their own strong choices and voices. They’ve got this and so do you!


Ways to roughhouse and practice consent and boundaries at home:

  1. Let your child choose who can hug, kiss or get close to them (doctors and caregivers included!) Model asking for consent for them i.e. “May I give you a hug or a kiss?” Give children options for physical touch i.e. “would you like a hug or high five? If neither, that’s totally fine too.”
  2. Playing and roughhousing is wonderful for adults as well! It helps reduce stress and anxiety by being physically active and playful with our children. It helps to form a stronger bond with your child as you help them release some of their fears and anxiety and feel loved and connected through this type of physical play.
  3. Ask your little if they’d like to play pillow fight, have a wrestling or sumo match and/or have a dance party. If they say yes and give consent with their words and through their body language, move forward with setting up boundaries for this more physical play. Ask them what’s ok and not ok and then reverse roles. For example, shoulder barging is ok but kicking is not. Let them know that if either of you says “STOP” or begins to back away, that you’ll both stop and check in. Let them know that at anytime it’s ok to walk away from play. It’s always their choice. 
  4. Check out these books, “The Art of Roughhousing, Good old Fashioned Horseplay and Why Every Kid Needs it,” and “The ABCs of Body Safety and Consent
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