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Understanding play in mammals

Updated on November 7, 2013

By Michelle Liew Tsui-Lin

Dolphins at play

“A little nonsense now and then, is cherished by the wisest men.”

Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator

The great progenitor of macabre children’s fiction is a good advocate of the benefits of nonsense.

Yes, animals do play. Our animal friends might have to survive in the harsh environs of the wild, but they certainly do make the necessary time for a bit of horsing around and rough housing.

For play has specific functions for an animal’s survival, much as it does for us. Knowing why and how our friendly furry buddies play can help us relate to them and teach us a few things as well.



Play is defined as a series of voluntary, intrinsically motivated activities designed for enjoyment.

Higher functioning animals, such as dogs, horses or dolphins, do indulge in play for the same purpose.

Termed by some as mammalian play, it helps animals boost their ability to survive in harsh circle of life conditions.

What do we know about play in mammals?

There are some things we know about play in mammals.

Mammals play because of the complexity of their brains.

The functions of the mammalian brain are more complex than, say, for insects or fish. The higher the complexity of the brain, the more they will tend to play and it is through play that they learn.

Play is typical of young mammals.

Young mammals love to play and this occurs especially during the times their brains are developing. Play decreases dramatically as they grow into adulthood.

Play is adapted from typical behavioral patterns.

What is meant by this is that play is an imitation of the things that happen in reality for mammals. That includes fighting, fleeing,feeding and mating. Our children and other mammals may sometimes fight when they see others do so. We also understand why children love to play “chef” or catch, just as young chimps might.

Play disappears under stress

Just as it does for us, the mammal would play more when not under stress. In the presence of a predator, playing would mean having no chance of having their genes passed to the next generation. Being deprived of necessities like food and water would also reduce the want to play.

Play is fun.

Mammals know when a session is play and that it is fun. A dog knows play when it sees an owner throwing a frisbee at it because it looks enjoyable.


A grizzly and wolf cub playing

Why animals like to play

As said before, the play of mammals mimic realistic situations. Play enhances natural, specific functions for mammals.


Fleeing and catching

Play in mammals imitates their need for survival. Chase or tag mimics the situation of an animals fleeing from its predator from the wild. Play would teach mammals necessary survival instincts.

Our pets love toys that are like their natural prey. Dogs, for example, like toys in the shape of mice because they squeak and appeal to their natural affinity for trapping and chewing.

Territorial disputes

Mock fights, too, imitate situations where animals fight over territory in reality. Dogs might get into playful rough housing for that reason.


Mammals must learn how to feed, so what is the best way to do that except through play? Dogs learn this through chewing on mock bones while their human counterparts might play at being chef in the kitchen, cooking food made of play dough.



Mammals might play mating games that imitate their need to call for or attract a mate. This could explain why girls enjoy sessions of dress up or boys love showing off to girls on their newest skate scooters.

Gender roles

Play might be in preparation for the gender roles mammals are to adopt. Girls might groom their dolls in preparation for the roles of motherhood they might adopt later. Boys, on the other hand, might engage in a little rough housing in preparation for more sophisticated, power play tussles in the workplace.


Mammalian poll

Which of these have you observed?

See results

Games mammals play

Play is fun engagement for our animal friends, although it is done for practical reasons as well. They indulge in a variety of antics to express their need for a little down time and have logical impetus to do so too.

Horse play

Our equestrienne friends have been seen playing just two hours after birth. They love a gallop chase and nipping their mothers during their early days. They chase each other and toss around playfully any objects they can find. In preparation for the gender roles they will take on later, colts and fillies take on different play styles. The colts spend their time rough housing while fillies engage in locomotor play such as galloping and mutual grooming activities.

Give him a wallop!

Kangaroos love to rough house as soon as they can leave the pouch. The joeys start by sparring playfully with their mums. They paw instead of throw punches and communicate the intention of play by a shake of the head. In preparation for their social roles, males play fight far more than females and this plays a part in establishing leadership of their groups.

Do the locomotion with mice

Mice engage in a variety of playful twists, shakes and other physical actions. Researchers have found that they start playing at about 15 days of age, with activity peaking at 19 to 25 days. This timing coincides closely to the development of brain synapses. We know that play enhances the development of the brain, so whether this is true of mice is ripe for exploration.

Dog rough housing

Dogs love play fighting too and indulge in sessions of rough housing. One dog will playfully try to become “top dog’ by getting on top of the other. This prepares them for pack survival;the one who wins is usually top dog.


What we can learn from mammalian play

Mammals place a high value on play, and so should we. They embody the phrase, “I play, therefore I am.” They pick up survival skills from play and develop a keen sense of happiness. We can learn from them several important life lessons as well.

Sheer joy

We have forgotten, as we grew, the feeling of simple pleasure that a seemingly purposeless activity can bring. Animals teach us that play is not purposeless; in fact, they express the pure happiness when they play that we should.

They make a conscious choice to be happy, as should we.


Play allows for the development of imagination. It is this sort of imagination that allows animals to be responsive to the environment and foresee things that could happen, like a predator coming by. They learn how to be inventive in through play and see new possibilities.


Playtime for mammals is when they explore and shift from old paradigms. The horse learns what to do with the bucket in front of him, as does the mouse who encounters obstacles in its way as it plays. Humans can learn from their ability to grow and change.


Play In mammals is not a mere purposeless, fun activity; animals play in a variety of ways that teach them about life. We too can learn from simply just having fun.

Original work by Michelle Liew

All rights reserved


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    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      6 years ago from Singapore

      They should, cyndi! Yes, play in mammals is fun with a purpose!

    • cclitgirl profile image

      Cynthia Calhoun 

      6 years ago from Western NC

      So what you're saying is, "we should let our children play!" Hehe. I love it! I think even as adults, "playing" is fun: card games, mind/brain games, and the like. However, after reading this, play has a greater purpose for children: they're learning but as they get older, it becomes more about relaxation. Awesome!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Rebecca! Always love watching them play!!

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 

      7 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      This is a great explanation of why animals play. I have watched dolphins play. And I just love watching my dogs play. Voted interesting and awesome!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Jackie! Animals are fun to watch!

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 

      7 years ago from the beautiful south

      What a fun hub, love it. So true and you know I got three little chicks this summer and they are hens now and they play too! They fly and race for food and take turns, it is just so much fun to watch them. Of course my favorite thing in the world to watch is kittens! ^

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, My Cook Book!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thank, Who, that they do indeed!

    • My Cook Book profile image

      Dil Vil 

      7 years ago from India

      An informative hub this is, very good topic and a well written article.

    • Eiddwen profile image


      7 years ago from Wales

      Interesting and very useful Michelle.


    • whonunuwho profile image


      7 years ago from United States

      Well it is so nice to hear from you my friend. Yes, animals as well as the human kind, love to play, and isn't it such a wonderful diversion and lesson maker. Thanks for this nice work. whonu

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      7 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Great information Michelle! I love animals and can't get enough information about them. Well done!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, Kidscrafts! The kids need to learn how to play, it will benefit them greatly!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks for sharing, Janine! Play has the same function for both animals and humans!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thank you Craftytothecore, I'm glad you like it.

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, alastair!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, MHatter!

    • midget38 profile imageAUTHOR

      Michelle Liew 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Thanks, DDE!

    • kidscrafts profile image


      7 years ago from Ottawa, Canada

      What a powerful message, Michelle! "Play in a variety of ways that teach them about life. We too can learn from simply just having fun. ". It's so true and very profound! I never thought of it that way! I am thinking of kids at school who are under stress; it's harder for those kids to enjoy play and so to learn through play as well!

      Very interesting, useful and beautiful hub, Michelle!

      Have a great day!

      PS : thanks for sharing the pictures and video as well! It's fun to watch the dog and the bear play together! I love also the picture of the cat at the top :-)))

    • Janine Huldie profile image

      Janine Huldie 

      7 years ago from New York, New York

      Never quite thought of animal play like this, but you make some great points, as well as share some wonderful insights on this, Michelle. Thanks for sharing and have shared, too!

    • CraftytotheCore profile image


      7 years ago

      Oh, I love this Hub! Great job. I love animals, and your pictures are so awesome. I love the way you designed your page dividers. Amazing presentation. So informative and educational!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Like the way of playing

    • Mhatter99 profile image

      Martin Kloess 

      7 years ago from San Francisco

      This is the first time I stopped to think about this, thank you

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      7 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Understanding play in mammals such useful tips on mammals most useful, and informative. So much to learn from this hub


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