Why play? Childhood and play go together, and most parents and teachers have a vague intuition that play is a Good Thing. But if play really makes you smarter, or more focused, or more empathic, why not just aim to be smarter or more focused or more empathic directly? Why go through the elaborate detour of play?
So in spite of this intuition, time to play is increasingly under pressure, especially when parents and policymakers lean on children to “perform” even in preschool. And, in fact, there is not much evidence that play makes children do better on IQ measures or academic tests.
Young human beings play, but so do young chimps, wolves, and dolphins, rats, crows, and even octopuses. From an evolutionary perspective, play is ubiquitous; surely it must be doing something important. Play is especially common in social animals with relatively long childhoods, lots of parental investment, and large brains—animals like us. Almost any animal with a long childhood spends a lot of that childhood playing.
What exactly is play, anyway? Biologists who try to define animal play point to five distinctive characteristics. Play is not work. It may look like fighting or hunting, digging or sweeping, but it doesn’t actually accomplish anything. The kitten doesn’t really eat the string, the fledgling crow who plays with a twig doesn’t dig out any insects, and the wrestling rat doesn’t actually hurt his brother, just as playing house doesn’t leave the living room any neater—quite the opposite, in fact.