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Why do animals play?

The fact animals play is something we all know. However, have you ever wondered which is the main objective of play for animals? Do all animals play? Is play something exclusive for the youngest ones?

Keep reading to find out the meaning of play for animals. Because play is so animal!

If you ever had a pet, you have probably noticed that you aren’t the only one who likes to play. Although the sense of play for animals is a bit different from ours, it seems that their origin and objectives are close related. But, first of all, let’s see what “play” means for animals.

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Two dogs (Samson and Dora) playing (Foto de Ben Askins en Flickr, CC)

What is “play”?

In psychology and ethology (the science of animal behavior), play is defined as a range of voluntary and internally motivated activities (spontaneous actions), normally associated with enjoyment and recreational pleasure, which aren’t usually related with a direct and immediate increase of survival (or fitness) of the organism.

Due to its complexity, play is considered as an activity almost exclusive of mammals (it’s known that almost 80% of mammals show differents expressions of play), mainly as a consequence of a major development of their nervous system in contrast to other organisms. Play has also been observed with less frequency on birds, and its existence in other animal groups, such as reptiles, amphibians or even fishes shouldn’t be ruled out, because some of them have shown rudimentary forms of play (mostly in captivity).

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Some studies suggest that some reptiles (such as crocodiles and iguanas) play with objects, specially in captivity (Picture by Rex Features).

On the other hand, as far as we know play has been considered an activity exclusive of young individuals, but the truth is that some animals (specially primates) keep playing during adulthood. We’ll see the explanations the experts give us to justify this curious behavior.

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Adults of different animals (as we humans) keep playing when they reach adulthood. Why? (Picture by Jorge Royan, CC)

But, what is the main difference between play and any other typical animal behavior, such as the exploration of the environment or even the discovering of the objects they’re surrounded by? Its creativity. When playing, an animal usually tries to manipulate objects or maybe to make new combinations of movements always in a controlled environment; that is, the main objective of play is not to improve directly its survival, but to learn about its own limits and abilities. So, play differs from any other action or behavior essentially due to its context and the existence of limits and rules.

Thus, for example, we can consider bitting as an aggressive behavior unless it takes place within the context of a recreational and controlled activity. An only growl would be enough for wolverines to make it clear to their opponents they have gone too far with the play!

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Young coyotes of the species Canis latrans mearnsi (Picture by g’pa bill, CC)

Forms of play and their function 

Play has a wide range of variability and objectives according to its context: its meaning changes from youth to adulthood, and it can be accomplished individually or in group along with other individuals, so in this case play becomes more complex.

Parental-bonding play

During the early months of an animal’s life, the establishment of emotional bonds between parents (especially mothers) and their offspring is an essential fact to assure both cognitive and emotional development. Despite being rudimentary, some gestures or actions which mothers and their youths stablish (tickling, vocalizations, gazes) can be considered as different forms of play which allow offspring to react and develop.

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Chimpanzee mother and her baby (Picture by derekkeats, CC)

Chimpanzees’ mothers touch and tickle softly their young since the moment they born, despite the fact they do not begin to respond to these stimulus until 6 months later. Primatologist Jane Goodall observed that chimpanzees’ mothers let other young chimpanzees to approach and interact with her baby (by vocalizing and hitting the ground) after these 6 months.

Movement and body play

Jump, run, stretch the body or even vocalize (e.g. by singing or growling) are all of them activities more beneficious than you think. The body play allows organisms to test the limits of their own body and of their surrounding environment (How far I am able to jump? Which effect has the gravity on my own body? Am I flexible enough to stretch my body and reach the next branch?).

Movement and corporal play produce a feeling of joy on organisms. In addition, they help organisms to earn self-confidence and they seems to have an important effect on brain organization.

Object play

Using objects during play is a usual fact in primates, but there exist other animals that also use them. The selected object acquires different and unique characteristics for the organism, which essentially use it to have fun. Some studies propose that the greater the level of manipulation of the object is, the bigger is the development of neural connections.

For example, dolphins enjoy creating rings of bubbles, as we can see in the following video (from the Youtube cannel cyberchiwas):

Manipulation and use of object in play are well correlated with the ability of adults to solve problems.

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Polar bear playing with a wheel (Picture by Norbert Rosing)
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Experts claim that ravens are very intelligent birds that like to test themselves by differents forms of play (Picture by Jens Buddrich).

Social play

Playing with friends is always funnier. However, is not only the enjoyment of playing with other organisms the main benefit of social play, but the acquirement of abilities and behaviors that will be of a major importance during adulthood.

Some social play allow organisms to develop social skills (interaction) by the stablishment of different codes of conduct and rules. At the same time, in some organisms (whether wolfs, primates or deer, carnivorous or herbivorous) social play prepares them to face a wide range of situations that will take place in adulthood, but in a safe and controlled environment: fights, bites and tests of strength are only a few examples.

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Young deer performing a test of strength (Public domain)

Many animals in captivity that haven’t a partner to play with or maybe that play in non-natural conditions are deprived of establishing healthy relations with other conspecifics and incapacitated for living in their original environment (to know more about animal captivity, you can take a look to these two entries about marine mammals in captivity and primates in captivity).

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Captive animals usually have serius difficulties to show healthy social behaviors when meet with other conspecifics (Picture by Александр Осипов on Flickr, CC).

Imaginative, creative and narrative play

Among all animals, primates are the most playful animals with no doubt; or, at least, the ones that have developed play in a more complex way.

Imaginative play (ability of creating an imaginary universe and an own sense of your mind), storytelling-narrative play (development of a story with a main narrative thread, giving us permission to expand our own inner stream of consciousness) and creative play (drawing, music, sculpture) are only a few examples of the most complex forms of play. The maximum expression of all these forms of play takes place in humans. According to different hypothesis, “fantasy” and “imagination” could have been the door to a greater language ability and a greater intelligence in hominids.

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Narrative play is one of the most complex forms of play (Public domain).

Play makes us feel younger

Who said play is childish?

Although play has been always related with early stages of life, scientific research has proven the existence of play behavior during adulthood in some animals. It seems that expression of play during mature stages could be a way for adults to evade reality and release tension accumulated over days.

Nevertheless, not only primates keep playing when grow up: otters have fun sliding down natural slides (e.g. rocks eroded by water), some sea lions enjoy throwing starfishes each other and ravens love sliding down in the snow. Scientists haven’t found out any evolutionary or immediate survival sense for all these behaviors apart from a mere recreational objective.

Now, enjoy watching a video of ravens having fun in the snow! (Video property of ARKIVE, BBC; Click the image below to watch the video):

ARKive video - Ravens playing in snow.          .         .

Play is a door onto learning, relaxation and enjoyment. Play makes us healthier, mainly by having a better consciousness of ourselves (and, of course, of other conspecifics) and of the environment surrounding us. From an evolutionary point of view, play is considered an essential activity to assure a healthy development of organisms both mentally and physically. So, after all: Do you need more reasons to keep playing?

REFERENCES

Main picture property of Ellen van Deelen.

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