Nature Wants to Play With You

[I’m writing this on a snow day, stuck indoors, in between episodes of work and playing with my kids].

A few years ago, Ed Yong started a tongue-in-cheek blog titled Nature Wants to Eat YouPlaying off that idea, I wrote a blogpost citing several examples of altruistic behavior in various animal species, adding that “sometimes, nature may even want to hug you.” The point was that nature isn’t all bad. Nature isn’t nasty or nice; it’s indifferent. Out of that indifference, life has even evolved to allow some species to engage in play. Maybe, nature wants to play with you.

I quoted the primatologist Frans deWaal, who explained why it is problematic to focus solely on the colder, cruel side of evolution:

“The error is to think that, since natural selection is a cruel, pitiless process of elimination, it can only have produced cruel and pitiless creatures. But nature’s pressure cooker does not work that way. It favors organisms that survive and reproduce, pure and simple. How they accomplish this is left open”  (2009: 58).      

An evolutionary perspective properly emphasizes the importance of survival and reproduction. However,  not every moment is filled with life-and-death-and-mating situations. For long-living species like ourselves, there is a lot of time to spend responding to life’s challenges, before, during, and after making it to the age of reproduction. All of those moments surely count for something, and they’re probably better spent when they are pleasurable, when we can find meaning and happiness, and when our relationships with those around us are cooperative rather than antagonistic. Somewhere in that calculus, nature has allowed several species to engage in play.

Example A. Goats playing on a metal sheet (source).


University of Colorado Professor emeritus Marc Beckoff wrote that one of the reasons that play might exists among other species is that it’s exploratory, to help them prepare for future environmental challenges:  

my colleagues Marek Spinka, Ruth Newberry, and I proposed that that play functions as training for the unexpected by increasing the versatility of movements and the ability to recover from sudden shocks, such as the loss of balance and falling over, and to enhance the ability of animals to cope emotionally with unexpected stressful situations. To obtain this training, we suggested that animals actively seek and create unexpected situations in play and actively put themselves into disadvantageous positions and situations.

Beckoff added that play was likely pleasurable, not just for people, but for other animals as well. It’s hard to know exactly what an animal is thinking, and it’s somewhat risky to anthropomorphize and assume that just because something looks like play to us that is exactly what is going on.

DeWaal noted that we are often torn when looking at animal behavior because of two different forms of parsimony. On the one hand, scientists shouldn’t go beyond the evidence, or suggest other species are using higher mental processes when simpler ones may suffice (e.g., conditioning). DeWaal referred to this as “cognitive parsimony.” On the other hand, we have “evolutionary parsimony.” We also know that evolution is a gradual process, so it makes sense that related species should have similar genes, anatomy, and possibly behavior.

Therefore, maybe it’s not such a big leap to expect that something like play might exist in other species.  There seem to be plenty of examples. Now, to go play with my kids in the snow…

 A gibbon teasing tiger cubs (source)


Monkey playing with cat (source)


A gorilla playing in leaves (source


A crow sledding down a roof (source)


An otter playing with a kid (source)


A panda playing with a snowman (source)


A dog playing in a home-made ball pit (source)

dog balls.gif

A young gorilla playing with a kid (source)


Pandas enjoying a slide (source)



De Waal F. 2009. Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. Princeton Books. (Link)


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