As your loving Scoopy runs out of your hands in the park when you take him out for an evening walk, it is no less than 2 full rounds of the park before you finally catch him. Your best friend catty always plays with your woollen balls, when you need them the most to finish your work/education project given by your teacher. Your cuckoo always has a good time imitating you, no matter how irritated you are!

Nothing can actually stop them from playing. Tell me the truth! Don’t you enjoy playing with them? A few days back, I saw a video over the internet that in western ghats, a baby elephant calf came walking towards the slope of the hill, sat down and went skiing. Wheee! Such an adorable site was to find him happy and playful. It was no less pleasure looking at a baby elephant enjoying carefree time than looking at a baby boy playing in the park. And, why only elephants? It is well known that Babu, the chimpanzee has remained one of the most successful crowd-pullers with his playful attacks. And, who can forget the marine parks and the dolphins playing there?

Why do animals play ?

From siblings pelting each other with snowballs to chimpanzees wrestling over a banana, playful behaviour is usually easy to spot. For most creatures, their lives consist of a never-ending, bitter struggle to avoid predators, find food and escape the elements. Yet, many of them also take time out to indulge in needless, mindless tasks purely for their own amusement.

Scientists are rather serious about ‘play’. Behavioural biologists have always tried to answer this question for quite a long time. They work in groups and come up with new hypotheses to answer the observations. Some believe that it is a mere amusement for the animals as infants ‘play’ more than the adults. Perhaps, this is just because age does not allow adults to play and lead a carefree life. Is that so? Doesn’t it look a bit childish? Well. Many others do think so. They are of the opinion that this field still remains uncultivated which perhaps hides answers to many complex, open-ended questions to date.

Rats were made to wrestle with each other and observed closely, parrots were provided with sticks and octopuses with balls to play with. Sometimes, they braved to record the wild and fierce to map the behavioural change based on the change in surroundings.

The biggest question: What do these creatures get out of playtime? Could it be just for diversion or is it providing something more substantial? Clarifying the motivations and benefits of play could tell us much about behaviour and cognitive development in people and other animals.

Define ‘Play’

A big question: What is ‘play’? When can we say animals are ‘playing’? Scientists, such as James L. Gould and Carol Grant Gould have used the word “play” to describe any behaviour that does not have any apparent adaptive function. According to these schools of thought, animals play for amusement, perhaps. But, there is no such obvious reason. They find this natural world full of examples of ‘purposeless activities’.

Certain types of play are understood well enough to theorize convincingly that there is a particular psychological or evolutionary significance. For example, children’s imaginary play research is grounded in a long tradition of developmental psychology and ideas about its psychological significance. In contrast, adult gameplay is studied in cognitive psychology with increasing evidence that its significance is minimal in terms of cognitive transfer, while its social significance does not seem generalizable across cultural groups.

Research on imaginary companions suggests play to be useful for later adaptive social functioning strikes a chord with research on mammalian social play. The different disciplines share theoretical questions, descriptive limitations, as well as the same diversity of play that make generalizations so problematic.

There is a wide assortment or diversity of play. This includes everything from play in cetaceans, rats, and dogs to board games and imaginary play in humans. Given the diversity of topics and frequency of research, the importance of play behaviour remains elusive. Considering the different species, types of play, and contexts, there is little reason to assume that all play shares the same universal significance.

How to identify ‘Play’

  • The first criterion for recognizing play is that the performance of the behavior is not fully functional in the form or context in which it is expressed; that is, it includes elements, or is directed toward stimuli, that do not contribute to current survival.
  • Secondly, look if everything is okay or not and if the game is in full mood, voluntary, pleasurable, rewarding and done just for the fun of doing it or not .
  • Thirdly, it must differ from serious jobs . Look at least for one aspect, where the animal is carefree.
  • The fourth criterion is that the behavior is performed repeatedly in a similar, but not rigidly stereotyped, form during at least a portion of the animal’s ontogeny.
  • The fifth criterion is that the behavior is initiated when an animal is adequately fed, healthy, and free from stress or intense competing systems. He must be relaxed . So, let’s try to find who’s playing round the corner ?

‘Purposeless’ Play

We play for the sake of the game. Do the animals also do the same? Fun-play?

One of the presumption hypotheses was that play helps animals learn important skills. But experiments haven’t borne this out. A 2020 study talked about Asian small-clawed otters of various zoos which were taken under observation. It was discovered that most rock jugglers weren’t any better than the non-jugglers at solving food puzzles that tested their dexterity.

Bernd Heinrich and Rachel Smolker of the University of Vermont have observed Corvus corax and report their behaviour. In Alaska and Northern Canada, Ravens are well-known for sliding down steep, snow-covered roofs. Reaching the bottom, they walk or fly back to the top, and repeat the process over and over again. In Maine, ravens were observed tumbling down small mounds of snow, sometimes while holding sticks between their talons.

The scientists argue that there is no such natural requirement or urge that should be the main reason to make the birds do this repetitive activity whatsoever. It is more analogous to a human kid enjoying his afternoon in the urban public park while returning from school in the evening.

The drop-catch game

Jennifer R. Gamble and Daniel A. Cristol from the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia also made some independent research in this regard with Herring gulls. Normally, the birds drop the clam fruits to open the soft and juicy edible inside. However, continuous observations show that there are quite a few instances where there is a deviation from the usual act of dropping the fruits on a hard-rock surface to dropping on soft surfaces and sand beds.

Many times, it has also been noticed that the flying birds again catch the fruit preventing them from breaking up. This raises the question: WHY? Since the breakage of the food could have easily provided the birds with nourishment, it is most unlikely for them to ‘waste’ their energy in ‘playing’ with the fruits.

The researchers found that younger gulls played drop-catch more often than mature gulls. Drop-catch behaviour was far more likely to occur when the gull was carrying an object that wasn’t a clam. And drop-caught clams were less likely to be eaten than dropped ones. Drop-catches were more common when the wind was stronger, indicating that gulls enjoy the challenging task. It may be that drop-catching gulls are simply having fun. No ‘benefit’ at all !! At least biologically speaking!

‘Purposeless’ ! Then why ? And how ?

Some scientists tried to analyze the problem from the other way. What if the so-called ‘purposeless’ activity becomes important to us? They tried to map the playing nature of the animals with that of humans.

In past studies, researchers have observed in mice how the brain learns to repeat patterns of neural activity that elicit the all-important feel-good sensation. However, the brain mechanisms that guide this type of learning have not been measured directly. Researchers at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, and the University of California at Berkeley came together to study mice as model mammals and discover how redoing things comes up as an immense source of pleasure.

Doing something enjoyable triggers neurons, a type of brain cell, to release a chemical called dopamine. This release causes that feel-good sensation, evoking the desire to repeat an action again and again.

Our brain remembers everything that leads us to pleasure. It remembers how to execute that action, which neuron gets initiated and activated to which pattern. So, the dopamine is released and awaits for the same incident to happen again, and perform the same way. When you are doing something, where you are the master, you are bound to repeat it. Like a kid moving down a slip in a park!

So, why don’t we move a little more?

Can we train our mind to identify the ‘right thing’; the action of our own choice and release dopamine at our own will? It would make us able to enjoy ourselves more and lead our own life on our own terms. And, why only us? Our guests of honour, the speechless animals, perhaps can also do that. Or else, why would ravens and gulls repeat the action and ‘play’?

The researchers developed a computer program for a series of regular experiments that connected the neural activity in the animals’ brains to musical notes. When one group of neurons switched on, a corresponding musical note played. Different patterns of neural activity yielded different combinations of notes. When neural-activity patterns triggered the right arrangement of musical notes, the scientists could manually release dopamine in the animals’ brains. The mice quickly learned which musical arrangement that, when played, caused a dopamine release and the feel-good sensation. Their brains then began to rewire themselves to play that song more often, thereby triggering the pleasure hit of dopamine.

Artificial hormone is released manually so that it becomes easier to measure the amount and effect of dopamine released. And, the experiment gave some great results! The mouse could actually regulate its neurons to repeat the action.

Thorndike’s Law

A long-held principle of psychology stating that actions that lead to positive reinforcement are repeated more frequently. This example of mice, and perhaps, all the examples are given further before are all just practically proven results of the law. However, these findings likely represent the first time that this principle has been directly observed in the brain. Let’s progress a little further. Let’s bring humans into the picture!

It is well known that we repeat things we enjoy. And it contributes to a child’s sense of security. As Karin Borland, administrative coordinator of youth services at the Winnipeg Public Library puts it, children know what is coming next. They are able to predict the upcoming events and turn master in the activity.

Repetition is the foundation of many aspects of learning. A baby needs 1,000 repetitions to learn a word; by the time he’s a toddler, he might need 50 repetitions; and lesser in kindergarten because the brain connections have been laid out.

It is the same dopamine, which guides a human as in animals.

We find the same hormonal function, same neurotransmitters, and same mode of reactions and effects. Play can be a tool in the hands of scientists to frame up evolutionary relationships between humans and others. If we cultivate this process with deeper strength, there is a fair chance a new arena of biology may open before the newer generations of researchers.

Possible ‘Purposeful’ Play

So, it looks like animals ‘play’ just for its sake and there is no further biological benefit of playing. Just a game of ‘dopamine rush’ and its control.

But, is it so? The practice of playing or performing repetitive actions have developed over long periods of time within them and thus, a part of behavioural biologists are of the opinion that, though not in volunteer fashion and perhaps the individual animals are not aware of the effects, the play actually develop them, especially the babies, to better organisms.

Some are proposing that the playful attitude of the organisms is actually the result of an evolutionary process. Young ones have an innate need to explore and experiment, a trait that could be useful for discovering food sources. This thirst for novelty can tip over into playful behaviour for animals that have the brainpower, the extra time, and the resources to think about anything other than their immediate survival.

Though it may be too risky at this stage to assume that play actually has no role in evolution, still we can accept it for the time being and think beyond the revolution. The surge of dopamine is intense in younger animals – explaining why youngsters are more playful than their elders.

Just like…

  • The dog that lives to chase tennis balls has discovered a way to exploit that reward system again and again. Because dogs have been bred over generations to act like puppies, that rush and the joy never really goes away. Perhaps it may fall under evolutionary studies too !
  • Lives of kittens tend to revolve around lots of pursuit and stalking and leaping and biting. They seem hell-bent on eradicating their siblings as quickly and brutally as possible. This play fighting stops before anyone gets seriously hurt, but what is its purpose? Having a litter-mate innocently slumbering and then leaping with claws drawn, trains the kitten to react to life’s uncertainties.
  • Baby kangaroos, known as joeys, are often seen play-fighting with their own mothers. The mums lightly paw at their offspring and they both shake their heads to indicate that it’s all for fun. This boxing is a vital element in establishing hierarchy later in the kangaroo’s life.
  • Fish have been spotted leaping over obstacles in the water. It’s thought that the fish gear up for a time when a predator may provoke such a reaction.

  • Incredibly, young female chimps in Uganda have been observed playing with dolls. These are rather rudimentary dolls, but the chimps care for them exactly as their mothers would have done. It’s believed they are practicing for the time when they are parents. While monkeys in captivity have been seen playing with toys, this play changes depending on sex. The females gravitated towards more traditionally-minded ‘female’ toys, such as dolls, while the males favoured things like trucks and balls.


Wow! Amazing animal world! Some play for fun, some play to learn!

In conclusion, we can all agree that there is no definite answer to why animals play. Evolutionary biologists try to figure out things in their own way. Behavioural biologists have their own notes. And, molecular biologists come with various rigorous procedures to investigate. It is comparatively easier to justify some of the acts with respect to the others. While some other acts are really a hard nut to crack with naked human eyes.

It is always possible that some evolutionary relationships are established. Perhaps it may turn out to be easier in the case of primates and Homo sapiens. So, next time you play with the neighbourhood dogs or visit some wild, venture out to follow their behaviour, without hurting yourself and them too. You may be the next one to discover something remarkable and gigantic!


  1. The drivers and functions of rock juggling in otters
  2. Why Do Animals (Including Humans) Play? A Chicago Researcher Explores
  3. All Fur and Games: Why Do Animals Play?
  4. Dopamine and gamification: the neurotransmitter of the pleasure that makes play
    motivate us
  5. The neurobiology of social play and its rewarding value in rats

About the author

A student of 3rd-semester IISER KOLKATA, Swarnendu Saha is a pass-out of South Point High School and is a travel enthusiast, who loves to travel anywhere, below the sky. Rather than saying which subject I like, let me say, I do not like Chemistry at all.

Read other blogs by Swarnendu on TQR here.

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