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What We Learn from Animals: How to Play

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Whenever I'm feeling blue or stressed, I drag out the cat toys or toss the squeaky ball with my neighbor's husky. Watching my Siamese and Tuxedo cats leap, pounce, and pirouette mid-air, I am suddenly smiling -- and, most importantly, not taking myself so seriously.

I have always placed a high value on play. Once, a friend decorated my birthday cake with the inscription: "I play, therefore I am."

I've always considered my decades of studying and encountering wild dolphins, as an apprenticeship to play, learning the lessons of another intelligent species that spends three-quarters of their lives playing. What are our big-brained mammal cousins learning during all that playtime that might teach us how to better survive the stresses of our lives?

Dolphins, like many other species, learn vital survival skills from play -- astonishing navigational teamwork with their family "pods," communication abilities that at times seem almost telepathic, and a buoyant resilience. We humans respond to dolphins with a surge of pleasure and sometimes joy. In Hawaii, I watched even a boat of scientists burst into laughter when a pod of spinner dolphins flew over our bow, twirling like silver corkscrews.

Our frivolity reminded me of the recent research by Jaak Panksepp, a professor of psychobiology who documented that animals laughed before humans. Panksepp has studied the happy chirps of rats when playing or tickled. "Human laughter has robust roots in our animalian past," Panksepp said.

In a National Geographic article on "Animals at Play," physician Stuart L. Brown concluded that play is an indicator of psychological health, well-being, and even survival. He also theorized that humans have much to learn about play from other animals. Brown cited primatologist Jane Goodall's decades of chimpanzee research in Tanzania's Gombe National Park. Dr. Goodall has often described chimpanzee as champions of play. She noted that a sure sign of depression in infant orphaned chimpanzees was that they stopped playing at all.

Play doesn't end in childhood or in the animal kingdom. Play is also about developing a lifelong imagination that is flexible and responsive to one's environment. True play calls forth from us, animals and humans alike, the highest creativity and inventiveness.

Visionaries of all species are often champion players. They don't win finite games, they imagine infinite possibilities. Visionaries look over the next hill; they find a new way of swinging from a tree to ford a river that one day might rise to a flash flood; they mate in new ways. They do not support the status quo. This play is often risky behavior for many animals, because while a dolphin is spinning, a monkey is pirouetting, a lion somersaulting or making love on the open savannah, that individual is at risk from predators -- and sometimes even at risk from his or her own species.

When we play, we give up our wariness and our walls and our old structures. Some scientists believe that those who play the most in any species are also those who most advance evolution. If play were not somehow essential to evolution, why would natural selection have permitted, even promoted, such unabashed, unprotected play?

A New York Times article on personal health cites two researchers who conduct play workshops to help people recover from addictions. The researchers explain "many people who succumb to life's stresses have forgotten (or never learned) how to play."

And yet we cannot structure play as a means to an end; we can't teach ourselves to play simply as a chore or a prescription, because "it's good for you." Play that is goal-oriented will soon become tiresome and just another kind of work. Play, as any apprentice to animal play will affirm, is the most rewarding when it is pure fun.

In The Comedy of Survival, Joseph Meeker says, "Play allows us to most easily cross boundaries between human and animal, between male and female, even between enemies." For example, witness the predator-prey relationship turned into predator-PLAY in the recent viral video of the polar bear and husky sled dog deciding on playtime instead of blood fest.

Meeker always assigns his students the homework of writing a "Personal History of Play." He asks for daily details of our play that is timeless, pleasurable, nourishing, and restorative. "In at least a dozen species," Meeker explains, "the ratio of play to non-play in a day is the same as the ratio of REM sleep -- and you know what happens when humans are deprived of those deep sleep rhythms of REM. We literally go crazy."

I could go on and on about the value of play in one's life. But my cats are already jumping on my desk looking for that elusive birdie; and the dog is restless, eyeing her squeaky ball as if it were all that mattered in the world. Time to get outside, to enjoy this little hiatus from Seattle's rain. And as we walk along the Salish Sea, I'll look out for the happy rise and dive of dorsal fins. Playtime.

Brenda Peterson is a National Geographic author. Her new memoir, I Want To Be Left Behind:Finding Rapture Here on Earth was just named among "Top Ten Best Non-Fiction Books of 2010" by The Christian Science Monitor. http://www.IWantToBeLeftBehind.com

For more:
Huffington Post, "The Key to Happiness: A Taboo for Adults?" http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joe-robinson/why-is-the-key-source-of-_b_809719.html

National Geographic, "Animals at Play," December, 1994 issue. http://www.nationalgeographic.com

National Geographic News, "Animals Laughed Long Before Humans, Study Says," http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/03/0331_050331_animallaughter.html

Polar bear and husky dogs at play, Stuart Brown Institute for Play video at: http://vimeo.com/282517

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