Play and Exploration in Children and Animals

Play and Exploration in Children and Animals

Play and Exploration in Children and Animals

Play and Exploration in Children and Animals


Play is a paradox. Why would the young of so many species--the very animals at greatest risk for injury and predation--devote so much time and energy to an activity that by definition has no immediate purpose? This question has long puzzled students of animal behavior, and has been the focus of considerable empirical investigation and debate.

In this first comprehensive and state-of-the-art review of what we have learned from decades of research on exploration and play in children and animals, Power examines the paradox from all angles.

Covering solitary activity as well as play with peers, siblings, and parents, he considers the nature, development, and functions of play, as well as the gender differences in early play patterns. A major purpose is to explore the relevance of the animal literature for understanding human behavior. The nature and amount of children's play varies significantly across cultures, so the author makes cross-cultural comparisons wherever possible.

The scope is broad and the range multidisciplinary. He draws on studies by developmental researchers in psychology and other fields, ethologists, anthropologists, sociologists, sociolinguists, early childhood educators, and pediatricians. And he places research on play in the context of research on such related phenomena as prosocial behavior and aggression.

Finally, Power points out directions for further inquiry and implications for those who work with young children and their parents. Researchers and students will find Play and Exploration in Children and Animals an invaluable summary of controversies, methods, and findings; practitioners and educators will find it an invaluable compendium of information relevant to their efforts to enrich play experiences.


Since the 1930s, children's play has been the focus of intensive empirical research. Although the specific topics examined have varied with the theories and perspectives of the day, the underlying premise has been that play is a "special" context in which unique opportunities for learning occur. In contrast to the learning in more structured situations (e.g., the classroom), learning during play results from children's active attempts to manipulate, replicate, and experiment with their social and nonsocial environments.

Empirical studies of children's play peaked in the 1970s. As described in Rubin, Fein, and Vandenberg's (1983) frequently cited review, researchers during that period had significant optimism about the importance of play for child development. By the 1980s, however, researchers had become more skeptical about the importance of play, and raised many questions about the meaning of previous findings. This skepticism has continued into the 1990s, and research activity has waned.

The study of animal play has a shorter history. Although biologists have long acknowledged that many young animals play (e.g., Groos, 1898), it wasn't until the 1960s that much empirical research was devoted to this topic. Since then a small but growing empirical literature on animal play has emerged. In 1981, Fagen wrote a book entitled Animal Play Behavior, which summarized the empirical research in the area and provided a detailed natural history of animal play based on naturalists' observations of young animals in various settings. He also set the agenda for the next two decades of research. Much of the research published since the Fagen volume is reviewed in an excellent book edited by Marc Bekoff and John Byers (1998), entitled Animal Play: Evolutionary, Comparative, and Ecological Approaches.

An issue of considerable debate among play researchers has been the relevance of the animal research for understanding the play of humans. Does it help answer important questions about the nature and functions of human play, or is play in animals simply an area of interest in its own right with only tangential relevance? Smith (1982) published one of the . . .

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