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05 24/05/2017

The importance of play behaviour

When we think of playing we think of young animals or children keeping themselves amused; but playing is one of the most important behaviours, especially in the early stages of life.

Play can influence physical and psychological development and so has an impact on an individual’s future.

When you think of play behaviour what comes to mind? Perhaps playing with toys, out on the local play area, or even play fighting with friends or siblings?

Sumatran tiger cubs play fighting

Many species of animals are not so different from us when it comes to play behaviours. When describing these behaviours they can be categorised in three ways; object play, locomotor play or social play.

Object play is really important to animals that learn to hunt or use motor skills such as next building and foraging. Chester Zoo’s Asian short clawed otters demonstrate an exceptionally amusing example of object play as they often juggle stones - this behaviour hones their dexterous skills which come in handy when foraging for food, like molluscs.

Asian short clawed otter pups

Perhaps surprisingly, object play has been displayed in many species of birds as well. Bird species like crows, ravens, jackdaws and magpies (corvids) have incredible problem solving and cognitive abilities. They develop and stimulate these abilities by playing with inedible objects found in their surroundings. It’s believed that this play behaviour and investigation of objects is the link between using tools to forage, build successfully and problem solve.  The Javan green magpies at Chester Zoo often play with objects that they later use to build their nests. This behaviour may lead to better socialisation and nest building which increases their courting capabilities and reproductive success.

Jackdaws using onager fur to build nests

If you have a pet dog or a cat you may be familiar with your pet running frantically up and down the garden or stairs and call it a ‘mad half an hour’. This is locomotor play, and many animals will display this type of behaviour when they have a moment of pent up energy. You might see the newest member of our giraffe family, Narus, running around his habitat here at Chester Zoo. This can influence his future and development by developing his running skills which, in the wild, would assist his ability to out run predators.

Social play is a category we can associate with most easily. When we think of our children playing, we picture them with other children. This type of behaviour is not just important to social species, but also to solitary species such as our Sumatran tigers or Andean bears, who will play with their litter mates until they are old enough to disperse by themselves.

These opportunities give them the ability to practice hunting skills such as stalking, or learning to socialise which is needed for an animal to breed successfully. Social species that live in groups need plenty of play opportunities while they are young to learn from each other, and from the adults of the group.

Social play allows them to develop skills such as communication, the ability to bond, foraging, and predator avoidance or defence. There is evidence of this is many family orientated species. A good example of this is our HiWay family the Asian elephants. Nandita often plays with the younger elephants and copies the adult’s behaviours towards the babies. This behaviour allows her to build on the skills she will need to raise her own young in the future.

Nandita playing with elephant calf

The positive emotions that are experienced at the time of playing, as we have learnt from studies on children’s play behaviour, are what result in these beneficial outcomes. Playing has a major impact on survival for both animals and people. Children that are given plenty of play opportunities can develop a better understanding of social and cultural structures that will affect their social capabilities later in life.

Benefits in both children and animals also extend to physical development such as improving reactions to novel situations or increasing the ability to tolerate different environments. These are essential skills to develop for the wellbeing of children and the wellbeing of their futures as adults. These skills are also impetrative for animals to be able to cope with many of the challenges in the ever changing world.

Come and PLAY! at the zoo – we have a brand new Madagascan themed play space now open and ready for you to explore!

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