Play is Serious Business

Otters are cute and extremely playful. Kids are cute and extremely playful.  Guess which sentence is untrue?  If you guessed kids you are antisocial. If you guessed otters you are baby_otter-206352a zoologist. Just a brief foray here into the fascinating world of the otter without stealing any thunder from National Geographic. Otters are highly intelligent animals and they live in extended families. They are very social with one another but not only because they love each other (cute as that sounds). Like humans they rely upon one another for survival. They’d be lost (and dead) without interaction. We look at their behaviour and think “how cute!” and they are.Large families of otters hold each other’s paws when napping belly-up near a shoreline. It’s adorable to see yet vital to their survival. Holding “hands” prevents lone otters from drifting out to sea and becoming shark bait. And don’t lose sight of the fact that otters are also vicious and extremely apt hunters; they will kill a large dog on land if they have to and not to eat it. The dog in this video wisely keeps its distance. In spite of the narrator’s comment, s/he isn’t bored. 

You’ve seen otters using water slides, sliding  downward on their backs, their tummies exposed, their little arms out.  It’s cute when they enter the water and just otterroll around and around for what seems like no particular reason. Here’s a shocker: it’s not mere play. They aren’t having an otter party. They aren’t kids in a sandbox. They are learning and practicing vital survival and hunting skills. “It’s part of their social behavior and it provides the kinds of exercise needed to hone their hunting skills and their ability to escape from potential predators,” a zoologist stated in a Geographic article. There really is no communication method or behaviour in any animal that is strictly for play. Play is too multi-faceted for that.  In this video, the cameraman mistakes an otter’s possession of a rock as play. Actually, the otter is learning how to handle a rock in order to break open mollusks on its belly for food. 

The same is true of humans. Play is serious business with us too. Play is integral communication between peers and between parents and their children. Joking with our successwork colleagues is play and displays socially adequate behaviour. Something as laid back as kicking a football around the backyard with our children is spending quality time with them. Children suffering from failure to thrive are neglected children. failure to thrive involves many factors besides communication, however this is essential in producing healthy, happy children. Children who don’t thrive live in families that don’t bond. They don’t show any interest, particularly not in play and enjoying their offspring. A child in this household can hardly be expected to thrive, enjoy life and feel wanted. I researched a 5-year-old girl who seriously injured her arm at school and her teacher brought her to the emergency ward of a hospital. After a number of phone calls, her mother finally appeared at the ER. Most of us would rush to our child and throw our arms around the little one. This mother ignored her daughter, lit a cigarette, and loudly inquired where she could get a coffee. Accustomed to this apathy the child barely glanced at her mother. This disturbing non-interaction was routine. 

Adult-child play displays sincere interest in the child’s joys and needs. It strengthens family bonds. It also releases chemicals in both the adult and the child’s brains that strengthen the ability to bond with others inside and outside the family. There is a small window in a child’s life where care and play strengthen this bond and ensure it follows the child throughout life. When this opportunity is missed during that vital stage in a child’s life, bonding becomes a serious obstacle that is almost impossible to overcome.  In fact, failure to thrive and a missed opportunity to learn how to bond is often discovered in the early lives of criminals and delinquents. 

sad girlOne serious condition that may develop from a lack of acceptance and love in a person’s early life is known as Avoidant Personality  Disorder, also known as Anxious Personality Disorder. Individuals afflicted with the disorder are generally ill at ease, anxious, lonely, and feel unwanted and isolated. Of course there are multiple factors that are present in a person with APD, many of which pertain to physical and medical needs. A more extreme syndrome, Reactive Attachment Disorder results from a combination of lack of emotional bonding, as well as early childhood sexual abuse. Safety, affection, reassurance, acceptance and play are among many needs good parents meet in their children. 

Play in an infant-parent relationship looks silly. I witnessed a father pretending to playfully spit in the air in front of his baby (that sounds gross but it wasn’t real spit). The baby laughed at this and it never got old. Over and over daddy repeated this behaviour, and over and over his son giggled in response until suddenly the baby shrieked loud and long with absolute glee, making everyone smile. Such a silly, simple interaction, yet vital to the development of a healthy, father-son relationship. 

Kids in a play box conduct serious work among their peers. Very young children, such as toddlers and 3-year-olds engage in parallel play. That is, they are immersed in their own toddlers-playingplay and their own activity rather than truly interacting with a peer. Another child’s company however is essential in the development of social skills. On occasion each child wants the same object and each child displays individual social skills in a mutual compromise (or lack of one). In this manner tots are developing vital social skills. They are learning to communicate in a mandatory way. Sharing isn’t just about being nice to one another. Sharing among children teaches bonding, love and befriending others. Play provides the opportunity to share, cementing the ability to make and keep vital relationships. 

Dramatic play refers to children taking on make-believe roles. You’ve seen many of them: a little girl becomes a Princess; a little boy is a firefighter or a boxer. Role play strengthens children’s confidence in themselves and expands their horizons in terms of what they are capable of as adults. Play develops gross motor and fine motor skills. It uses academic inventorskills, such as math, logic, art and literacy. It strengthens imagination, the adult term for “thinking outside the box.” When children use ordinary items, such as a spoon in an unusual manner (eg. a toy catapult, or a fairy wand) many adults miss the creative connection with a condescending, “oh that’s nice, dear. Aren’t you clever?” It’s much more than nice or clever. Many inventions of the 20th century evolved from early imagination and the curiosity to ask “what if I tried this?” Like adults in the working world, play is a child’s line of work.

In the meantime, there is nothing wrong with giggling at the otter’s seemingly playful activity. It’s just as enjoyable to engage with one’s child in play or to enjoy two children interacting playfully. We know it is vital. Mother Nature provides an added bonus; play is fun. We anticipate it. Without the reward of fun, people wouldn’t indulge in play. Fun is nature’s clever reward, ensuring we return to play and social engagement time and time again.  There is nothing wrong and everything right about enjoying ourselves when we interact with our children.


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