Playing can mean many things, such as shooting a basketball, sitting down with friends for a game of Pictionary or beating your own high score on Tetris.
Humans aren’t the only ones who play. A dog loves to chase after its favorite ball and cats enjoy swatting feathered toys. Bears, squirrels, lizards, turtles and foxes have been spotted playing.
Ravens appear to get satisfaction from playing, too. These brainiac birds have been seen “snowboarding” down roofs in winter. When they reach the bottom of the slope, they return to the top and do it again. And again. And again. Just like a child on a playground slide.
Even underwater animals play. Intelligent octopuses use their many arms to wrestle with or examine objects. Fish jump and chase each other.
When scientists observe animal behavior, they sometimes use the word “play” to describe anything that doesn’t seem to have a survival purpose. In other words, it seems pointless, or “just for fun.”
But an activity such as sliding down a snowbank requires energy — energy that could be spent searching for food or watching out for predators. If play doesn’t contribute directly to those outcomes, it must have other benefits.
If playing didn’t promote survival in some way, it couldn’t have been preserved through generations of evolution in so many different animal species.
Therefore, there must be advantages to play that outweigh its risks. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what those advantages are, but scientists have suggested many interesting hypotheses.
Play as practice: Playing is a way to explore the world and figure out what your body can do. All animals need this kind of practice, especially when they are young.
Goofing around sharpens natural instincts. A prey animal, such as a mouse, is likely to dart into a tube as a form of play, while a predator such as a cat is likely to climb on tall objects. Even when these activities are just for fun, they mimic natural behavior in the wild.
Plus, an animal’s muscles get stronger after all of that darting and climbing. The same is true for you when you run, jump, swing, slide, wiggle or use your body in any way.
Romp to relax: Another possible benefit is that “mindless” play activities help reduce stress. Without some down time, we can get cranky and tired. Most wild animals lead stressful lives, too, because they must constantly work to find food or avoid predators.
Being silly is a way of communicating that you feel safe and protected enough that you don’t need to be serious in that moment — because that there’s no danger nearby.
Social element: Imagination is an important element of human play. When we pretend to be somebody else, we are practicing thinking from someone else’s perspective. That helps us understand how other people think.
Playing with others helps animals develop social bonds. In other words, it helps us feel close to others in our group. Wolves bond with their pack mates through playful romps and chases, which may be similar to the feeling you get by being part of a sports team.
Brain games: Not all play involves other people. Sometimes we play alone. Whether it’s social or not, play helps us develop our brains so that we can solve problems and communicate.
Your brain is like a computer with wires that you can arrange yourself just by thinking and choosing your activities. The more you practice an activity, the stronger your brain’s connections become.
That’s true for all kinds of animals, too. For example, scientists have found rats with lots of toys develop bigger brains than rats with no toys.
Perhaps one of the most important types of play is outdoor exploration, where you can let loose, be yourself and learn how you fit into this wonderful, beautiful world.