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Play is easier to define with examples than with concepts. In any case, in animals it consists of leaping, running, climbing, throwing, wrestling, and other movements, either alone, with objects, or with other animals. Depending on the species, play may be primarily for social interaction, exercise, or exploration. One of the problems in providing a clear definition of play is that it involves the same behaviors that take place in other circumstances – dominance, predation, competition, and real fighting. Thus, whether play occurs or not depends on the intention of the animal, and intentions are not always clear from behavior alone.
Play appears to be a developmental characteristic of animals with fairly sophisticated nervous systems, mainly birds and mammals. Play has been studied most extensively in primates and canids (dogs). Exactly why animals play is still a matter debated in the research literature, and the reasons may not be the same for every species that plays. Determining the functions of play is difficult because the functions may be long-term, with beneficial effects not showing up until the animal's adulthood.
Play is not without considerable costs to the individual animal. Play is usually very active, involving movement in space and, at times, noisemaking. Therefore, it results in the loss of fuel or energy that might better be used for growth or for building up fat stores in a young animal. Another potential cost of this activity is greater exposure to predators since play is attention-getting behavior. Greater activity also increases the risk of injury in slipping or falling.
The benefits of play must outweigh the costs, or play would not have evolved, according to Darwin's theory. Some of the potential benefits relate directly to the healthy development of the brain and nervous system. In one research study, two groups of young rats were raised under different conditions. One group developed in an "enriched" environment, which allowed the rats to interact with other rats, play with toys, and receive maze training. The other group lived in an "impoverished" environment in individual cages in a dimly lit room with little stimulation. At the end of the experiments, the results showed that the actual weight of the brains of the impoverished rats was less than that of those raised in the enriched environment (though they were fed the same diets). Other studies have shown that greater stimulation not only affects the size of the brain but also increases the number of connections between the nerve cells. Thus, active play may provide necessary stimulation to the growth of synaptic connections in the brain, especially the cerebellum, which is responsible for motor functioning and movements.
Play also stimulates the development of the muscle tissues themselves and may provide the opportunity to practice those movements needed for survival. Prey species, like young deer or goats, for example, typically play by performing sudden flight movements and turns, whereas predator species, such as cats, practice stalking, pouncing, and biting.
Play allows a young animal to explore its environment and practice skills in comparative safety since the surrounding adults generally do not expect the young to deal with threats or predators. Play can also provide practice in social behaviors needed for courtship and mating. Learning appropriate social behaviors is especially important in species that live in groups, like young monkeys that need to learn to control selfishness and aggression and to understand the give-and-take involved in social groups. They need to learn how to be dominant and submissive because each monkey might have to play either role in the future. Most of these things are learned in the long developmental periods that primates have, during which they engage in countless play experiences with their peers.
There is a danger, of course, that play may be misinterpreted or not recognized as play by others, potentially leading to aggression. This is especially true when play consists of practicing normal aggressive or predator behaviors. Thus, many species have evolved clear signals to delineate playfulness. Dogs, for example, will wag their tails, get down their front legs, and stick their behinds in the air to indicate "what follows is just for play."