Play for fun and learning

Playing on the beach at Old Harbor, Kodiak Island.

Today, I was woken up by the sounds of playing children. There is a lot of shouting and screaming involved, a lot of stomping of running feet, doors opening and slamming shut, and a lot of energy. As the kids were outside in the snow, I spent some time watching as they were totally engulfed in their play, sliding down an incline and trying to run through deep snow that pulled back on their snow boots. Their play got my dog excited, and as she jumped around she made her Husky bark-talk sounds.

Kids and dogs like to play. When you ask the kids about what they consider fun, the answers rarely have anything to do with silent study or concentrated observation, but with physical engagement and play. Many scientific studies have looked into the purpose of play, and often we look to animals to explain our own development and behaviors.

Play is defined as any activity for enjoyment and recreation that does not serve a serious or practical purpose. In animals, we consider serious purposes those of finding food, shelter and mates, and engaging in some stage of making, protecting or raising offspring. In our society we usually consider all those serious activities work — perhaps with the exception of making the offspring. The purpose of play in children and young animals is learning and development of their bodies and minds, and the exploration of their surroundings. I have heard play called the “work of children,” meaning that it is their job to prepare for adult life. Sadly, that view suggests that play is a privilege that we somehow lose when we grow up. I think it also undervalues play; there are many kinds of play, and when imagination and creativity come into play, the world loses its confines and everything becomes possible. 

There are many examples of animals playing. Several kinds of seagulls, crows and ravens can be observed picking up clams, mussels or snails, flying high and dropping them on pavement. If the shell breaks, the bird gets a snack. By the above definition this would be work, because it ends with the acquisition of food. However, if another bird swoops in and catches the clam before it hits the ground, flies up and drops it only to be caught by yet another, this quickly turns into play. I saw an article where someone watched herring gulls engaged in this behavior and recorded how many times they ate the snack and how many times it was just caught again. They noticed on blistery and windy days the birds were doing this much more than on calm days, and more birds engaged in the activity, which led them to think it was a sport. 

Octopus are the subject of many studies on invertebrate behavior. They have been found to be very intelligent and capable of learning. When given new objects, they also start to play with them, or in scientific words “perform activities that have no serious or practical purpose.”

While I think most people would agree that some animals play, it seems to be important that said animals have an advanced level of intelligence. It would be difficult for us to see play in animals like jellyfish, sea stars or crabs. I can not think of any example in fish, either. However, in whales I am certain there is play — just think of dolphins and their exuberance!

Kids play, animals play, but what about adults? I recently read an article about rediscovering the beauty of having an open schedule after retirement. The article went into how most adults forget how to fill their time with playful and open-ended activities, something that seems to be natural for children. The pressures of our lives and of the goals we set ourselves seem to put so many constraints on our time that play is often the last thing, and usually eliminated during our working years. A young person who does not set themselves these societal goals of making a lot of money and buying a house, starting a family and going on vacation twice a year is considered an underachiever in our society. Many of us have trouble finding the right balance between the demands of work life, family life, maintenance of our belongings and dwellings, chores and paperwork that needs to be done. Play is usually put last, and often there just doesn’t seem to be time for it. 

There are some tricks to getting some play time as a working adult:

1. Play with your kids. Before you know it, they will be too grown up for the worlds of fantasy.

2. Play with your pet. If taking the dog for a walk has become a chore for you, you should rethink why you wanted an animal in your life. Take the animal as an excuse for yourself to play with him or her.

3. Schedule a set time for play. Like to dance, play sports or play bridge? Find a group and sign up, then go and do it.

I think that play is not just to keep our minds active, it is also a reset button: Play can release tension, play can energize us, play can strengthen social bonds. When I need to calm my mind and seek peace, I often imagine a group of Dall’s porpoises playing in the bow wake of a ship. Life is amazing, and it is more fun with play.

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