- Evolution has preserved an in built drive to play
- Research has shown the play helps mammals survive more successfully
- Play provides the variety of experiences that leads to more flexible behaviour and adaptation to a constantly changing world
As humans we are always trying to figure out why we do the things we do. One of the western world’s burning questions in the fields of education and health over the last decade has been – Why do humans play? The answer to this question has become increasingly important as children engage less in play, certain health problems such as obesity, anxiety disorders and ADHD have risen and a desire to understand how we can best equip the next generation. There is still much to learn. But scientific evidence is definitely starting to paint a very clear picture as to why we play and the answer is simple – because it helps us survive more successfully.
Play and evolution
Evolution is a gradual process. Over a very long period, certain traits of an organism are eliminated or made more prominent depending on whether they increase or decrease the chance of survival. Play has been preserved in humans over millions of years for good reason despite the fact that there is risk involved and it uses up valuable time and energy that could be put to use elsewhere - Play in childhood helps us survive better in the future.
Evidence for play
1. In a 2004 study, it was shown that free ranging brown bear cubs in their first summer that played the most had the greatest chance of survival to the end of their second summer (1). This study was followed up by one released in 2009 that demonstrated that the more young bears played, the more chance they had of surviving through to independence (2).
2. It has even been shown that rats denied of typical play experiences suffered a serious neurological deficit at puberty. The important part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for functions including well adapted social behaviour, complex cognitive skills and decision making were more immature than those rats that engaged in play.
Just think that every play experience you facilitate, whether it free or purposeful play, you are actually impacting kids' brains to be able to flexibly adapt their behaviour in the future which will give them a better chance of being successful.
But how does play actually help us survive better?
All types of play are generally underpinned by variety. It is this diverse range of experiences that ultimately leads to the players developing a flexible behaviour repertoire. The more play, the more experiences of adapting behaviour whether it physical, social, cognitive or emotional to suit the environment. Survival is based on an individual being able to adapt to the environment. Whether it is a bear hunting, a teenager playing football, or business leader, success relies on effective adaptation to the constantly changing environment. From a brain development perspective, flexible behaviour becomes possible as complexity and integration of different brain areas emerge. Remember our study above that showed mammals that didn’t play during childhood had more immature brains.
The drive to play
Humans, like other mammals, are born with an in built drive to play. A behavioural neuroscientist by the name of Panskepp has identified in the lower brain, brain areas responsible for this play drive. What this means is that over millions of years of evolution, the drive to play in childhood has been preserved because those who play the best survive the best.
Different types of play teach kids different things - rough and tumble and sport based play helps motor skills develop, art based play creativity, problem solving play patience and complex reasoning skills, and explorative play inquisitiveness. It is this variety of play experiences that builds the flexibility of behaviour.
The take home message for anyone nurturing the development of children is that a variety of play experiences in childhood result in brain changes that allows for increasingly flexible and adaptive behaviour that is required to successfully negotiate a constantly changing world.
(1) Fagen, R., Fagan, J. (2004) Juvenille survival and benefits of play behaviour in brown bears, Ursus arctos. Evolutionary Ecology Research, 6, 89-102.
(2) Fagen, R., Fagan, J. (2009). Play behaviour and multi year juvenile survival in free-ranging brown bears, Ursus Arctos. Evolutionary Ecology Research, 11, 1-15.