Polar bears “play fight.” It’s a way for young siblings to learn how best to defend themselves and for males to tune up hunting skills. ©Eric Rock

In a fourth grade science unit, I can remember my teacher telling the class that making and using tools was one of the most significant things that set human beings apart from all the other animals on the planet. But that was before YouTube (or even the Internet, for that matter!). Now, thanks to such websites, we can see crows using cars to crack nuts and monkeys fashioning rocks and twigs to make knives and probes.

As recently as the summer of 2009, I read about another behavior that is supposed to distinguish humans from other animals. Peter Gray, a research professor at Boston College specializing in developmental and evolutionary psychology, posted six articles on his blog at Psychology Today postulating that we alone have the ability to play purely for play’s sake.

Play as work

According to Gray, play holds a limited role for most nonhuman animals. It occurs almost entirely among the young and serves to help them learn necessary skills for survival and for ensuring they’ll reproduce. For example, young male polar bears may play at fighting, pinning each other and practicing getting out of pinned positions. Tiger cubs will stalk bugs and pounce on each other. Zebra colts will dart and dodge through the herd in a game of tag. Young females of some species might play that they are caring for babies, practicing nurturance.


While there’s no scientific answer about why dolphins jump, some experts believe it’s purely for fun.

I will guess, however, that this theory of play will soon be blown apart, just as the tool theory was. Now, with the wide availability of motion cameras that can capture the secret lives of animals while we’re not around, footage of nonhuman animals playing for what appears to be the sheer fun of it abound.

Play as play

My favorite animal-play video right now is that of an elk playing in a mud puddle. The elk doesn’t seem to be practicing any skills or learning any aggressive tactics. It looks to me like he’s playing in the puddle—as explorer George Mallory put it—“because it’s there.”

Just this month in Audubon Magazine, photos of captive belugas blowing rings for fun in a tank of water showed up (it’s likely this behavior happens in the wild, too, although no one has caught it by camera lens yet).


Tiger cubs are very playful. They will chase each other, climb on things, knock each other over with paw swipes and stalk bugs.

The unexpectedness of nature

If you’re an adult past the age of 30, you probably remember getting home from school around 3:00 p.m., putting on your “play clothes,” and then heading outside to the backyard, nearby park, woods, creek or field to see what was up. After school, our generation’s children, however, were likely transported to a structured activity conducted indoors: a dance class, sports practice session or music lesson. After dinner, distractions from computers, TVs and cell phones completed their day—a day spent almost devoid of the outdoors.

According to the Children & Nature Network, a national nonprofit organization that encourages people and organizations to help children reconnect with nature, studies show that kids are smarter, more cooperative, happier and healthier when they have frequent and varied opportunities for free play outdoors. The National Wildlife Federation concurs: its just-released study titled Whole Child: Developing Mind, Body and Spirit through Outdoor Play highlights how unstructured playtime in nature may alleviate childhood asthma, diabetes, ADHD, vision problems, depression, anxiety and obesity.

Some think the reason for these benefits is that playing freely in nature allows children to make up their own games, experiments and stories and come to their own conclusions—at their own pace. And, unlike playground equipment and structured activities, nature is in a constant state of change. As one researcher put it, “An overturned log may reveal a mouse nest one day and a huge, spongy mushroom the next.” A creek might harbor a never-before-seen dragonfly on Monday and a small fish on Tuesday.


Zebra colts will run through the herd in a fast game of tag.

Nature is fun

When it comes to playing, I wonder if using it to pinpoint what makes us humans unique is the wrong way to think about it. Perhaps it’s not playing for play’s sake that separates nonhuman animals from human ones, but rather that the setting—being outside in nature or being inside—might define what “playing” truly is.

Why do you think nature outings make us want to play? Is it because of the unexpectedness of the outdoors; that even if you go to the same place many times, it’s never the same?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,