Animal Insights into Risky Play

Play it seems is ubiquitous across both cultures and time. The archaeological record supports play amongst our ancestors from at least the Paleolithic era. Much of that record is to be found in physical artefacts like balls, dice, gaming boards and other toys, but some “astonishingly beautiful” children’s footprints preserved beneath the Namibian Sands some 1500 years ago delightfully show a small group of children skipping, hopping and jumping as they shepherded the family flock (Bennett and Reynolds).

And children amongst our ancestors were not accorded the constancy of care so characteristic in today’s society. Footprints found in Southern Ethiopia and probably made by the extinct species Homo heidelbergensis (600,000 to 200,000 years ago) “may have been made by children as young as one or two, standing in the mud while their parents and older siblings got on with their activities” – “[t]his was their school room, and the curriculum was the acquisition of survival skills” (Bennett and Reynolds). The apparently “overwhelming parenting lesson from the distant past … [in which] children had more responsibilities, less adult supervision and certainly no indulgence from their parents” presents “a picture of a childhood very different from our own, at least from the privileged perspective of life in Western society” (Bennett and Reynolds).

It is in the realm of “risky play” that the protectiveness of our modern society is most clearly evident. That area of “thrilling and exciting activity that involves a risk of physical injury, … [but] provides opportunities for challenge, testing limits, exploring boundaries and learning about injury risk” (Carrig).

We know that play is not the sole preserve of the human species, but crosses species boundaries – take Koko, the language signing gorilla whose life captured worldwide interest, once tieing her trainer’s shoelaces together and signing “chase” (McGraw and Warner). So in a society with a heavy focus on limiting risk in children’s play are there lessons that we might learn from our animal kin in the realm of “risky play”?

Risky play in animals

Risky play is found amongst various other animals, and is at the very least enjoyed by many young mammals.

The injury risk of such play may be relatively minor:

Examples include … young macaques swinging on saplings and diving into water, and young polar bears sliding down icy slopes. (Gray, 2018 at 93)

Young mammals of most species, not just ours, spend great amounts of time chasing one another around and play fighting, and they … generally prefer the most vulnerable positions. (Gray, 2014)

Indeed, the experience may be somewhat comical:

… a young dolphin playing with a large crab … [was observed] grabbing the crab with its mouth, carrying the crab for a distance, releasing the crab, and then catching the crab before the crab settled to the bottom. This behavior continued until the overly confident dolphin nonchalantly mouthed the crab and received a pinch on its tongue for its efforts. This was immediately followed by a dolphin yelp and the dolphin hurrying back to its mother. (quoted in Kuczaj and Eskelinen at 117)

However, serious injury is possible, and in rare cases even death.

“[M]any young mammals appear to enjoy the thrill and danger of heights and rapid or unusual movements”, playing in ways “which seem almost designed to produce a mishap” (Gray, 2018 at 93):

Goat kids frolic along steep slopes and leap awkwardly into the air in ways that make landing difficult. Young monkeys playfully swing from branch to branch in trees, far enough apart to challenge their skill and high enough up that a fall could hurt. Young chimpanzees enjoy dropping from high branches and catching themselves on lower ones just before hitting the ground. (Gray, 2014)

In an area of the ocean stretching south of the San Francisco Bay towards the Farallon Islands, adolescent male sea otters frequent an area known as the “triangle of death”, facing dangerous currents and sharp rocks, compounded by the considerable threat of great white sharks and the absence of kelp that otters normally use to hide (Goldman).

So why does risky play continue to exist? Why has its demise not been an outcome of natural selection over time? Why does it transcend time, cultures and even species?

Personality may well play a role, with many animal species besides humans showing that some individuals have a greater appetite for risk-taking behaviour than others (Dugatkin). But personality alone seems inadequate in explanation of the ubiquity of risky play.

It has been commented that given that “[r]isky play has been observed in other animals, and the way it transcends time and culture suggests that despite the risk of injury, it is an evolutionarily essential part of maturation and development: the advantages must outweigh the risks” (Dong).

Certainly, the “evidence indicates that play is evolutionarily quite ancient” (Wenner at 29):

Rats that have had their neocortex removed—a large brain region that is involved in higher-order thinking such as conscious thought and decision making—still engage in normal play, which suggests that play motivation comes from the brain stem, a structure that precedes the evolution of mammals. (Wenner at 29).

It has been suggested that it serves “a major ancestral function” (Spinka et al at 143):

… to rehearse behavioral sequences in which animals lose full control over their locomotion, position, or sensory/spatial input and need to regain these faculties quickly … Besides the development of locomotor versatility in unanticipated situations, we hypothesize that animals in play learn how to deal with the emotional aspect of being surprised or temporarily disoriented or disabled. (Spinka et al at 143)

Proposed as the original function of play (Spinka et al at 163), this “training for the unexpected” (Spinka et al) “encourages flexibility and creativity that may, in the future, be advantageous in unexpected situations or environments” (Wenner 29, quoting Dr Marc Bekoff).

And indeed there is some evidence in animal studies that a lack of play may impede the development of problem-solving skills (Wenner at 28).

Nor is that the only developmental deficiency to be considered:

In research designed as a direct test of the training-for-the-unexpected theory, [researchers] found that young free-living Belding’s ground squirrels that engaged in more social play showed greater improvement, over time, in their coping ability in novel, and therefore frightening, test arenas. They showed less fear, explored more, and were quicker to find a hidden escape route back to their natural environment. In another study, … [it was] found that young marmosets that engaged in more rough-and-tumble play showed reduced cortisol responses (a sign of less distress), over time in repeated stress tests, relative to those that engaged in less such play. (Gray, 2018 at 93-94)

While it has been noted that “the studies just described are correlational, so we cannot be certain that greater play caused the decline in fear, or decreased fear caused greater play (or both)” (Gray, 2018 at 94), other studies do support the conclusion that “when animals are deprived from engaging this social behaviour [risky play], their ability to interact and relate to other animals is severely crippled” (Urquhart), later showing “excessive fear, inappropriate aggression and exaggerated emotional reactions in stressful situations” (Brussoni).

Researchers have developed ways to raise young rats and monkeys in such a way that they experience other forms of social interaction but not play. The result is that the play-deprived animals are emotionally crippled when tested as young adults. When placed in a moderately frightening novel environment, they freeze in terror and fail to overcome that fear and explore the novel area, as a normal rat or monkey would do. When placed with an unfamiliar peer they might cower in fear or lash out with inappropriate and ineffective aggression, or both. (Gray, 2013)

There is arguably further physiological support for these conclusions in the fact that a repeated finding in other studies is that rough-and-tumble play “appears to strengthen neural pathways connecting the prefrontal cortex with emotion-control areas lower in the brain” (Gray, 2018 at 94).

Lessons for human play

So what, if anything, does this have to say of risky play in humans?

There have been numerous developmental and health advantages linked to children’s need for risky play (Brussoni). In addition to benefits such as increasing physical activity and developing social skills, risky play is seen as enabling children to “learn to adapt to their environment and fears” (Dong; see also Sandseter and Kennair).

Our observations and understanding of the benefits of risky play amongst animals supports this conclusion. Animal research on the emotional impact of play deprivation reinforces the concern that children not provided with sufficient risky play opportunities will not learn to cope with fear-inducing and stressful situations (Brussoni). It is thought “speculative, but reasonable … to link the deficits seen in play deprived laboratory manipulated rats with deprivationally driven socialization difficulties in other species, including our own” (Brown). Indeed, Brown concludes that it is at least intriguing that one clinician reviewing incarcerated young male murderers has noted that “none of them in their self-reporting or from family recollections remembered ‘normal’ playground rough and tumble play. Isolation, bullying, inappropriately acted out aggression were their ‘play’ patterns”. For humans, as we have seen with other mammals, risky play is seen as helping children learn how to manage and overcome their fears and so moderate their potential for a future anxiety disorder (Dong; see also Sandseter and Kennair).

“Societal trends limiting children’s access to outdoor risky play opportunities combined with a culturally dominant excessive focus on safety can pose a threat to healthy child development” (Brussoni). “One line of evidence supporting this contention derives from research showing that, as children’s freedom to play in risky ways has been declining in recent decades, there has been a dramatic, well-documented increase in anxiety and decline in emotional resilience among children and young adults” (Gray, 2018 at 93):

Over the past 60 years we have witnessed, in our culture, a continuous, gradual, but ultimately dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play freely, without adult control, and especially in their opportunities to play in risky ways. Over the same 60 years we have also witnessed a continuous, gradual, but ultimately dramatic increase in all sorts of childhood mental disorders, especially emotional disorders. (Gray, 2014)

While it is important that we not “trigger a backlash against proven safety promotion
strategies, … possibly reversing the significant gains that have been made in reducing child injuries” (Brussoni), given that risky play transcends time, cultures and even species, we need to recognise its benefits and maintain an appropriate balance going forward. As Dr Marc Bekoff has observed, our children “must be allowed to ‘get down and dirty’ and learn to take risks and negotiate social relationships that might be complicated, unexpected, or unpredictable”:

… we need to allow kids to be the animals … they are.

Notes and Bibliography

In the development of this post, my friend, writing colleague and parent, Ms Marianne Schmidt, kindly shared with me her thoughts and insights on the topic.

Internet citations were current as at 17 December 2018.

I have referred to humans in this post as distinct from animals, though technically of course humans are biologically also animals.

On the opening remarks as to the history of play, see Dr David Whitebread, The Importance of Play (written for Toy Industries of Europe, April 2012) (available at http://www.importanceofplay.eu/IMG/pdf/dr_david_whitebread_-_the_importance_of_play.pdf)

Bekoff, M., Psychology Today: The Need for ‘Wild’ Play: Let Children Be the Animals They Need to Be (25 February 2012) (available at https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/animal-emotions/201202/the-need-wild-play-let-children-be-the-animals-they-need-be)

Bennett, M. and Reynolds, S., The Conversation: What ancient footprints can tell us about what it was like to be a child in prehistoric times (13 February 2018) (available at https://theconversation.com/what-ancient-footprints-can-tell-us-about-what-it-was-like-to-be-a-child-in-prehistoric-times-91584)

Brown, S.L., “Consequences of Play Deprivation” (2014) 9(5) Scholarpedia 30449, doi:10.4249/scholarpedia.30449 (available at http://www.scholarpedia.org/article/Consequences_of_Play_Deprivation)

Brussoni, M. et al. “Risky Play and Children’s Safety: Balancing Priorities for Optimal Child Development” (September 2012) 9(9) International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 3134-48, doi:10.3390/ijerph9093134 (available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3499858/)

Carrigg, S., Challenge and risk in children’s play – Is it worth the Risk? (26 October 2016) (available at https://www.earlylearningservices.com.au/2016/10/26/challenge-risk-childrens-play/)

Dong, L., The Importance of Risky Play for Physical, Social, and Emotional Development (16 August 2017) (available at https://sirc.ca/blog/importance-risky-play-physical-social-and-emotional-development)

Dugatkin, L., The Evolution of Risk-Taking (1 January 2013) (available at http://www.dana.org/Cerebrum/2013/The_Evolution_of_Risk-Taking/)

Goldman, J., BBC Future: Why animals also seek teenage kicks (12 December 2012) (available at http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20121211-animals-that-seek-teenage-kicks)

Gray, P., “Evolutionary Functions of Play: Practice, Resilience, Innovation, and Cooperation” in Smith, P. and Roopnarine, J. (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Play: Developmental and Disciplinary Perspectives (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology) (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2018) 84-102, doi:10.1017/9781108131384.006

Gray, P., Psychology Today: Risky Play: Why Children Love It and Need It (7 April 2014) (available at https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/freedom-learn/201404/risky-play-why-children-love-it-and-need-it)

Gray, P., The Play Deficit (Hains B. Ed.) (18 September 2013) (available at https://aeon.co/essays/children-today-are-suffering-a-severe-deficit-of-play)

Kuczaj, S. and Eskelinen, H., “Why do Dolphins Play?” (2014) 1(2) Animal Behavior and Cognition 113-127. doi: 10.12966/abc.05.03.2014 (available at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/262934183_Why_do_Dolphins_Play/download)

McGraw, P. and Warner, J., Do animals have a sense of humor? New evidence suggests that all mammals have a funny bone (26 March 2014) (available at https://slate.com/culture/2014/03/do-animals-have-a-sense-of-humor-new-evidence-suggests-that-all-mammals-have-a-funny-bone.html)

Sandseter, E.B.H. and Kennair, L.E.O., “Children’s Risky Play from an Evolutionary Perspective: The Anit-Phobic Effects of Thrilling Experiences” (1 April 2011) 9(2) Evolutionary psychology, https://doi.org/10.1177/147470491100900212 (available at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/147470491100900212)

Spinka, M., Newberry, R. C. and Bekoff, M. (2001) “Mammalian play: Training for the
unexpected” (2001) 76 Quarterly Review of Biology 141–168 (available at https://animalstudiesrepository.org/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com.au/&httpsredir=1&article=1028&context=acwp_ena)

Urquhart, V., Kindergarten Connections: The Benefits of Risky and Rough Play (available at https://kindergartenconnections.ca/2017/10/08/benefits-of-risky-play/)

Wenner, M., “The Serious Need for Play” (February/March 2009) 20(1) Scientific American Mind 22-29 (available at https://www.bowdoin.edu/childrens-center/pdf/ProfResource_SeriousNeed.pdf)

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