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The University of Tennessee, Knoxville


The Origins and Biology of Play

Gordon Burghardt, Professor College of Arts and Sciences - Department of Psychology

Why do animals play? Why do we play? What, really, IS play? Our understanding of the evolution and phylogeny of playfulness in animals is surprisingly minimal, largely because the function of play in both human and nonhuman animals remains controversial. Consequently, biologists and even many psychologists have largely ignored play. After all, something frivolous and fun cannot be too important as compared to feeding, mating, fighting, and rearing young. An even greater problem, perhaps, is the difficulty of identifying play in species where play is not already acknowledged to exist. In other words, play is usually defined with vague or problematic terminology that often leads to unproductive debates rather than good science. Furthermore, the many kinds of activities that are considered play such as competitive sports, pretense, joking, manipulating objects and ideas, wrestling, and chasing seem very diverse and perhaps unrelated. This talk will explore the concept of play, how to identify it with improved criteria, show how play is distributed in a modern phylogenetic framework, and with videos, the surprising and ancient origins of play in turtles, lizards, frogs, fishes, and even invertebrates. Recently, there has been a resurgence of scientific interest in play, its importance in our lives as well as those of other animals, the role of the brain, and modeling play.​

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