Animals at Play: rules of the game

Setting aside the fact that Marc Bekoff is a Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Fellow of the Animal Behavior Society, Guggenheim Fellow, recipient of the Exemplar Award from the Animal Behavior Society for major long-term contributions to the field of animal behavior, ambassador for Jane Goodall's Roots & Shoots program, member of the Ethics Committee of the Jane Goodall Institute, cofounder, with Jane Goodal, of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals: Citizens for Responsible Animal Behavior Studies, let's contemplate his even more significant contribution - his children's book, Animals at Play: rules of the game.

For me, the beginning of his book is the most revelatory part. This is where he not only makes his assertion that animals do, in fact, play; but, furthermore, that play is actually good for them. "Their play is for exercise, gaining strength," writes Bekoff, "and developing muscles for when they grow older, so they can travel long distances and run fast. They are the prey and must run away to avoid being a meal. Or they are the predators, trying to catch their meals. Playing is also a time for learning. Learning how to fight, hunt and mate - social skills they need when they become adults. In their games, young animals learn the rules of the group - and how to communicate or 'talk' with each other. They learn to cooperate and play fair. Life in the wild is tough. It's even tougher when you're alone, so play helps to create bonds and a sense of community." And then he goes on to make an observation which effectively bridges the empathy gap between child and animal: "And," he writes, "...playing is fun!"

That's exactly why kids play, why we all play. Not because it's good for us. But because it's fun. And that's also why we play together - adults, children, animals - because we have more fun together, with each other. And therein lies the profundity and importance of the wisdom contained in this lovely little book.

"Animals," notes Bekoff, "even follow rules!" He exemplifies:
1. Everyone has to want to play.
2. Everyone has to cooperate - they work together - to keep the game from becoming fighting.
3. Everyone needs to communicate and pay attention to each other's movements, sounds, and smells.
As for rule number 2, he observes: "Animals also become very excited when they play. Sometimes they don't realize how strong they are compared to their friends. A nip turns into a painful bite. Shoving becomes ramming, knocking a smaller friend over onto his back. What do they do? They apologize, of course, just like you!"

He takes this observation even further: "If you have little sisters, brothers, or cousins, you know how to play with them. In a race, you don't run too fast. When playing catch, you don't throw too hard. During a board game, you help your younger sister take her turn....When grown up red-necked wallabies - cousins of kangaroos - box with younger wallabies, they punch gently or just slightly touch. They don't push hard or move too quickly. The older wallabies make playtime last longer by not frightening or hurting the little ones."

So much wisdom. So many lessons. So clearly, compassionately written. So accessible. Such a loving gift for our children, for our species.

from Bernie DeKoven, funsmith

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