CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom – Early interactions between parents and their children are critical in shaping physical and mental development. While most research focuses on mothers and their kids, a new study suggests that father-child playtime may enhance a child’s ability to regulate their emotions and behavior later in life. Researchers at the University of Cambridge and the LEGO Foundation reviewed 78 studies examining the frequency and characteristics of play between fathers and their children. The report only reviews studies involving children three years-old or younger.

The benefits of playing with dad

The study has three major findings. First, father-child play is often more physical than mother-child play. For young infants, physical play includes things like simply picking an infant up or gently raising their arms and legs. For toddlers, physical play includes rough and tumble activities, like chasing. Second, the study authors say fathers begin to play more with children as they get older (from infancy to about preschool age), but once children reach the age of six, play decreases. Finally, father-child play improves emotional and behavioral outcomes. Researchers say more father-child play results in less hyperactivity and fewer emotional and behavioral problems.

Children who play more with their dads are also better able to control their aggression. The study reveals these children are less prone to emotional or physical outbursts when disagreements arise at school.

“Physical play creates fun, exciting situations in which children have to apply self-regulation,” lead researcher Paul Ramchandani says in a university statement. “You might have to control your strength, learn when things have gone too far – or maybe your father steps on your toe by accident and you feel cross! “It’s a safe environment in which children can practice how to respond,” Ramchandani continues. “If they react the wrong way, they might get told off, but it’s not the end of the world – and next time they might remember to behave differently.”

Mom can help too

The researchers also stress that physical play is not exclusive to dads. Children that grow up without a father may not necessarily be at a disadvantage. “One of the things that our research points to time and again is the need to vary the types of play children have access to, and mothers can, of course, support physical play with young children as well,” Ramchandani explains.

“Different parents may have slightly different inclinations when it comes to playing with children, but part of being a parent is stepping outside your comfort zone. Children are likely to benefit most if they are given different ways to play and interact.”

The study is published in the journal Developmental Review.