The Sandbox Summit just wrapped up in Boston, and it’s dedicated to the importance of play in children’s education. Play is closely tied to cognitive development and socialization in children, so much so that learning through play is considered the primary way children learn about the world around them. “Play is a child’s work,” proclaimed influential developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. Put simply, play is how children learn.
Both animals and humans teach their young through play. It’s a big darn deal all over the animal kingdom - and why we’re so excited about it over here at na2ure. That’s why we’re giving you the Q&A all about it:
Why do baby animals play?
While humans aren’t born with the skills they need to survive as adults -- communication, healthy relationships, running a household -- they learn them through play. Babbling? That’s a baby learning speech patterns. Observing and mimicking an older child? That’s an 18-month old learning how to behave around others. Selling blocks as pizza slices? That’s a toddler learning the basics of daily grownup behaviors.
Animals are the same way. Many things they need to learn -- how to find food, how to communicate, or even how to be the animals they’re supposed to be -- aren’t hardwired or instinctual for them. Baby cheetahs chasing each other? They’re learning how to find food. Baby lions pouncing on each other? Learning how to capture food. Baby elephant stepping on its trunk? Learning how to elephant (and control its trunk). All of those behaviors are practice for necessary survival skills.
What does play look like with animals?
Animal play can, and often does, look like more aggressive behavior -- biting, wrestling, pouncing, boxing, growling, pinning, nudging, chasing. But play can also look exactly like it does with human children -- sliding in the mud, sledding over snow, playing catch. Play can look like lots of different things, but there are always cues preceding it that reveal the intent of the behavior. Ethologist Robert Fagen called them specific signal patterns, and psychologist Marc Beckoff discovered one specific to dogs, wolves, and coyotes -- the "play bow." It's a quick duck of the head that the animals use before engaging in mock bites or other fight-like behavior that signals to their partner that they're just playing.
How does play help animals learn?
Play helps animals learn in lots of different ways. Research has been sparse, but there are some conclusive results for the concrete benefit play serves animals. For instance, baby ground squirrels who spend more time at play than their peers both have better coordination and rear more children. Domestic rats are some of the most playful animals on the planet, and if they don't get enough play as youngsters they grow into adults that lash out or cower in a corner during stressful situations... but if you let them play for an hour a day they chill out.
Most beneficial of all is the effect of play on stress. When a baby animal experiences stress, its brain changes in a way that makes them less sensitive to stress hormones -- allowing them to recover more rapidly from stressful situations as adults. Since play consists of fight-or-flight behaviors that activate the same neurochemical pathways as stress, play helps young animals fine-tune their responses to stress.
Does play help animals in other ways?
Yes! Play can also help animals survive longer, even when accounting for other factors like access to food and and the baby animal's (and its parent's) condition. Horse foals that spend more time at play than their peers are more likely to reach their first birthday, and American brown bear cubs who do the same are more likely to survive to independence.
The strongest benefits of play yet may be a finding out of the University of Lethbridge showing that play helps the brain clean up an excess of brain cells in the outer areas of the cerebrum present in young mammals, and result in more efficient brain processing upon adulthood.
Are there any downsides to animal play?
Unfortunately, there are downsides to animal play. Just as children get hurt by playing too roughly, animals can do the same. Plus, since play consists of fight-or-flight behaviors, it is often dangerous and can have serious consequences like injury, expending needed energy, attracting predators, and even accidental death.
Does the need for play go away in older animals?
Older animals, like humans, don't play as much when they get older. Zoologist John Byers discovered that many mammals play right up until puberty, but then spend far less time doing so. That may correlate with the development of the cerebellum, suggesting that the real focus of play is not practicing behaviors, but creating connections in the brain.
The biggest conclusion we can draw from all this data about play in animals -- it looks aggressive but has definitive signals, it helps increase coordination and responses to stress, it increases chances of survival, and it creates connections in the brain -- is that it functions the same way as in humans. And if play does the same kind of good for man and animals, then it's high time we treat it as what it is: important and necessary.
Just don't forget about the fun.