I’m A Wrestler, Not A Fighter

By Dawn Velez

“Facing risk helps children assess the world around them and their place in it. Over time, they see their abilities grow, and they become ever more confident about stretching their boundaries and taking appropriate chances. They also learn about their limits and the consequences of going too far beyond their limits.”

~Joan Almon

In this week’s post, one of our amazing teachers, Dawn, addresses the importance of trusting kids to handle risky play, finding a way to balance the needs of everyone involved and how beneficial this practice ultimately is.


Wrestling on the tumbling mats

There have been many requests by children to take out the tumbling mats to wrestle on. This is one of those activities that is not viewed as very valuable in the world of ‘getting ready for kindergarten’.

I beg to differ.

I understand the reluctance to facilitate such rough play because of the high chances of children getting hurt…where limbs are flying and bodies are rolling around. I also understand that, when it’s not facilitated, play fighting will happen inevitably, and the need for self control in a simple game of tag will come in handy. With guidance and agreements, it can be a lesson in boundaries.

What am I ok with? What am I not ok with? How do I tell that person to stop & explain what I didn’t like? What is my partner ok with and not ok with? Can I stop my body when they say stop, and hear their point of view?


What is Wrestling?

The way I view wrestling is as a form of rough housing that involves two children at a time on a tumbling mat with a teacher’s guidance. They either start standing or on their knees and try to get the other person down on the mat. Most of the time they have no goal, it’s just simply rolling around or it can turn into dancing or gymnastics. My goal as a facilitator becomes that no one gets hurt. Sometimes, when it seems they need a goal, I give them more information about traditional wrestling & they can try to pin their partner’s shoulders to the mat. I use my personal knowledge of Jiu Jitsu to give tips to those children who frequently get pinned down about ways to get out.

How do you facilitate wrestling?

In line with my goal of no one getting hurt, I start off asking what is not ok with each person. This begins the process of children making a list of agreements that come from them, rather than an adult’s predetermined list of rules. The one guideline I give them is that if their partner does something that they don’t like they can say “stop” and then tell that person what it was they didn’t like. The other person’s job is to stop and listen.

Why Wrestle?

The reaction I get the most from on-looking parents is, “You let them wrestle?” Or just amusement, as if it’s some kind of baby fight club. The obvious answer to why I ‘let’ children rough house at all seems to be to test their physical strength. What I found out in my own martial arts training is that most people think karate is too aggressive and the assumption is made that I must do it because I want to beat somebody up. The truth is I hate hurting others, although I do love the physicality of punching and kicking a heavy bag.

I guess what I’m saying is I can relate with these children who have a need to be physical. The greatest benefit I gained from receiving my black belt was learning about myself, my tendencies, my emotions, my fears and how to practice control in so many ways. In order to wrestle, children have to practice restraint and ultimately learn to control aggression. The benefits of wrestling also involve social awareness. When one child doesn’t want to wrestle their partner anymore (because that partner is too rough), the person who is too rough builds empathy when they learn to adjust their roughness in order to meet the other child’s need for safety. The benefits of this kind of play can be building emotional intelligence when expressing not only how they feel when something is too physically rough, but those times when it’s mentally rough…and they are frustrated that they cannot get a person down, but are constantly being the one who is brought down.

Taking risks like these may be physical, but it can translate into how children respond to other academic or social risks, such as answering a teacher’s question about what they just read, taking on a math problem in front of the class, or approaching a classmate to ask them to play at recess. I believe that is what gets them ready for kindergarten, far beyond recognizing sight words and writing their name.

What are children’s reactions to Wrestling?

After doing a late afternoon of wrestling with a big group of children who surrounded the mat waiting for their turn, Elliotte approached me the next day proclaiming, “Remember that day we wrestled?” as she giggled and asked, “Can we do that again?” I’ve seen both joy and apprehension in children after experiencing wrestling. I’ve seen a variety of approaches as well: from a child not knowing their own strength resulting in pushing someone who flies across the mat, all the way to two children wrestling so lightly that they end up dancing. Some get competitive and keep their own score announcing they’ve won. Those who hold back learn how to build confidence & power, those who don’t hold back learn restraint and control. Whether children fight back hard, cry, give up, or stop to rest they find out how they handle challenges and can decide if they want to handle it differently. It is part of our Little Owl mission to help build a child’s sense of self.


Ethan’s 1st Agreement: “Not to do Anything Bad”

Children were attempting to pull the tumbling mat that was placed under the tree, down the hill . I asked Ethan and Colin, “Do you want me to get other tumbling mats down here?” They both replied “yes” and said they wanted to wrestle. I set the stage by informing children it would be two children at a time and if it wasn’t their turn, to wait outside of the mat. Ethan and Colin were ready to run toward each other full blast, until I held out my arms to stop their bodies and told them I wanted to ask each of them something first.

I asked Ethan, “What do you want to make sure Colin doesn’t do?” In response Ethan simply states, “Not to do anything bad!” I ask for clarification on what something bad would be. He replies, “Like hit me.” I clarify again, “Like punching with a fist?” He nods and pats his tummy. I clarify further, “What part of your body do you want to make sure he doesn’t hit?” Ethan says, “My tummy.” More clarification on my part, “Is it ok if he punches your face?” Ethan revises his answer, “my tummy & my face.”
“How about you, Colin?” I ask. Colin replies, “Don’t kick me. Don’t hit my belly.”

We start with that. I give the signal to begin. Ethan hugs Colin around his neck with both arms and they tumble down to the mat slowly. Ethan twists down to land on his back with Colin on top of him. Colin softly says “stop” and I pull them apart and repeat to Ethan that Colin said “stop”. Ethan attentively observes Colin as I talk, and I point out that Colin is holding his back and it seems like he was hurt. I asked Colin if something hurt or if there was some move Ethan did that he didn’t like. Colin is quiet. Ethan is not moving, with his eyes glued on Colin.

Colin answers my question by saying, “I want to do tricks.”
I turn to Ethan, “Do you want to wrestle someone else, Colin wants to do tricks.”
Ethan plainly says, “Fine, I will do tricks.”

They flop around one at a time trying out some types of somersaults and attempted cartwheels. Naturally they take turns without any suggestions from me. Then they go on the boulders and start taking turns jumping off onto the mats doing their new ‘tricks’. All the children waiting to join in on the wrestling begin making a line behind Ethan & Colin to take turns jumping off the boulders.

Wrestling is not about fighting, and sometimes it can turn into a compromise to do tricks, or take turns to jump off the boulders.




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