Listen to part of lecture in an animal behavior class.
All right—I hope you all had a chance to finish the assigned readings about animal play— because I want to spend some time discussing the different viewpoints presented in those articles.
Let’s start with the “play-as-preparation” hypothesis. Jerry, can you explain it?
Yeah, play as preparation:
Young animals play in order to get really good at certain specific things they’ll need to do when they’re adults; things like chasing, pouncing, climbing.
In other words, they play in order to practice survival skills … like movements used in hunting and fighting … .
That hypothesis makes a lot of sense … like, maybe, the most sense of all of the theories we read about.
And what leads you to that conclusion?
Well, like wolves… the young pups. They fight a lot, and bite… you know, not to hurt each other, but … It just seems obvious why those wolf pups play like that— It gives ’em practice with skills that’ll make ’em better hunters or fighters as adults.
Oh, I don’t know about that. I mean, some of the things a young animal does while playing are totally different from the things it’ll do as an adult.
There was a really good example in the second article— I can’t remember what it was called exactly—uh, self-…
Right…self-handicapping. Like during a fake fight, uh, a play fight— if one of the animals is winning, the winning animal might just stop and give up its advantage.
Yes, and often it shifts to a submissive posture too.
Of course, self-handicapping hardly ever happens in a real fight— because in a real fight— well, the point is to win.
So this self-handicapping… it’s important to take this into account before just deciding to go with that first explanation.
And in fact, there really isn’t much in the way of solid experimental evidence to support the play-as-preparation hypothesis.
What about the other one … the flexibility hypothesis?
Ah, yes, let’s talk about that.
As you say, play is much more than just pretend fighting or practicing other adult behaviors.
Apparently, it also contributes to the development of a brain that’s flexible, a brain that’s quickly able to get a handle on unfamiliar situations— this notion, the flexibility hypothesis … well, many of my colleagues find it quite persuasive.
So like, with kids, a little kid might play a game with a friend, and then they might race each other across a field…
so they’re switching from one type of play to another… there’s a lot of variety? I mean, they’re-they’re learning to respond to whatever happens?
Well, that’s the general idea. But let’s hold off on talking about human behaviors for now.
OK. According to the flexibility hypothesis—yes—the diversity, the variety in play can lead to a broader behavioral vocabulary.
A broader behavioral vocabulary? Can you explain what that means?
Well, sometimes playing results in an animal doing something it would not normally do.
That can lead to the animal learning to adapt… to come up with new behaviors that can help it cope with major problems later on, like staying safe or finding food.
Yeah, and there was that brain study you had us read about too.
Oh, the one on how play affects development within the brain?
Right, that’s it… uh, about the animals raised in an environment where they did not get opportunities to play.
Yes, wasn’t the conclusion interesting?
That playing literally stimulates growth, creates connections within the brain? We need to do further studies, but …
Uh, excuse me. Can we go back to play fighting for a minute? I’m wondering, can the flexibility hypothesis really explain that?
Play fighting? Actually, that’s something the flexibility hypothesis explains very well.
Since play fighting includes variations in speed and intensity, and quick role reversals involved with self-handicapping, an animal that’s play fighting is constantly responding to changes.
So it’s learning to be flexible.