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CBC The Nature of Things (2019.01.20) s58e12 The Power of Play

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Children attempting to escape from their jobs at an Apple factory are thwarted by a trip wire.

From youngsters fooling around to adults having a laugh, playing is a fact of human life. However, new findings in animal behaviour show us that play is no laughing matter. In fact, evolutionary biologists believe it’s one of the keys to survival. And, as they’re learning, it’s not just people and pets that play, but reptiles, amphibians and insects, too.

The Power of Play takes us around the world to meet the people who are turning play science into one of the most promising areas of research today. One scholar we’re introduced to is Stuart Brown, a California psychiatrist known as the “grandfather” of play research. Brown recognized play was essential to human nature as far back as 1966, finding that playing freely as a child is key to being mentally healthy as an adult.

Animals that play

It was another veteran of play science, Gordon Burghardt at the University of Tennessee, who defined exactly what play behaviour is. He was inspired after observing one member of the largest lizard species in the world, the Komodo dragon, walking around with a bucket on its head.

Another surprisingly playful creature is the giant Pacific octopus. In this documentary, we witness one of the great loners of the deep sea interacting with humans in an unexpected way, making a game of spraying water with its human carers.

The new Canada 150 Research Chair at McMaster University, Jonathan Pruitt, takes us inside the bizarre world of social spiders, offering a close-up look at these tiny creatures at play. He found that young female spiders that play produce more offspring and live longer.

Living longer may be appealing enough, but there’s evidence play also helps us live better. We join primatologist, Elisabetta Palagi, who’s studying bonobos, our closest living relatives. These primates are renowned for their love of play and their ability to get along peacefully in large, complex groups. Could there be a connection?

At the University of Lethbridge, Sergio Pellis suggests play-deprived rats develop poorer social skills as well as depression. Then there are play-deprived hamsters — they demonstrate a whole other kind of problem. In experiments at the University of Tennessee, they didn’t handle defeat well.

MORE:
From bonobos to sheep, lots of animals enjoy play as much as we do
Risky play for children: Why we should let kids go outside and then get out of the way
Unstructured play can create mentally healthier kids

Riskier play for safer kids

With all we learn about the importance of play, it’s no wonder that there’s a growing number of experts, like Vancouver researcher Mariana Brussoni, who are pushing for more play for children — specifically, more “risky play.” Brussoni argues that letting our kids engage in freer, outdoor play is one of the best things we can do to keep them safe.

Safeguarding children by encouraging them to take risks may seem counterintuitive, but you may be more convinced after you meet the children at an outdoor daycare centre in Trondheim, Norway. These preschoolers wander into caves, climb onto rocky outcroppings and tumble down hills. Psychologist Ellen Sandseter offers these children as evidence of the emotional benefits of risky play. Her mission is to turn Norwegian playgrounds back into the adventurous spaces they once were.

The Power of Play sheds light on the hidden benefits of doing one of the most fun, and often undervalued, activities: just playing around.