Playtime! It's Seriously Important

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My dog Lexi is a ten year old Jack Russell terrier who had a rough childhood. Lost in an Indiana blizzard at six months of age, she was brought into rescue with double pneumonia. She spent two months in the hospital before going to a "forever home" that had some human problems with alcohol and violence. Back to rescue. She was a nervous little gal when we brought her home, quick to find a hiding place but also gregarious, liking to mix it up or to cuddle, especially with other dogs. But there was one sure way I could engage her, and that was by playing the imaginary game of hunting my fingers as they acted like mice across the bedspread. She'd crouch and pounce, growl and shake her head sideways, in the manner that dogs break the necks of other animals, for as long as I could sustain being a mouse.

Play is one of the seven fundamental emotions (more properly affects or instincts) discovered and described by neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp. All mammals play. And so when we ask the question about how we can possibly understand one another across species boundaries, one of the many answers is that we all understand the language of play. All mammals like to play. Why? Because it's fun!

In the lab, Panksepp found that young mammals who were given the option of social play took it. In fact he came to enjoy tickling rats who enjoyed being tickled. He learned several interesting things about the nature of play in animals: that sessions last about twenty minutes, that they are rough and tumble physical activity, that males and females play in the same way and for the same amount of time, that they break up naturally when someone gets hurt or someone gets mad, or most often both. Play is fun until it isn't, as any five year old who has been allowed to play naturally with a group of other kids can tell you. One way to understand the depths of the simple idea that play is fun is to say that play has been selected by evolutionary force to be experienced as rewarding. Play, in other words, is an expression of biological values: it feels good to play. Nature wants us to play.

Young animals deprived of play behave as if they have ADHD. But when allowed to play and the play period is over, the young animal is able to focus his attention. Animals consistently deprived of play as youngsters continue to behave as if they have ADHD, and continue to crave play, even as adults.

Panksepp suggested the obvious and elegant interpretation that young animals learn to form groups and hierarchies, to sense where their own individual temperaments fit in, to acquire strategies for being themselves in groups, through play. He also suggested that play allows for getting the wiggles out so that the mind can focus. And seriously, nature made play rewarding to get us to do it. So play, because it allows you to function in social groups so necessary for all of us mammals. Play, because it allows you to then focus on your work. Or just play because it feels good!

And if you want to have some rip-roaring fun, play with other kinds of animals. But beware: when someone gets bit, the play session is over!