Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Target Article

Does play matter? Functional and evolutionary aspects of animal and human play

Peter K. Smitha1

a1 Department of Psychology, University of Sheffield, Sheffield S10 2TN, England


In this paper I suggest that play is a distinctive behavioural category whose adaptive significance calls for explanation. Play primarily affords juveniles practice toward the exercise of later skills. Its benefits exceed its costs when sufficient practice would otherwise be unlikely or unsafe, as is particularly true with physical skills and socially competitive ones. Manipulative play with objects is a byproduct of increased intelligence, specifically selected for only in a few advanced primates, notably the chimpanzee.

The adaptiveness of play in pongid evolution is traced through the probable changes in selective pressures that occurred in hominid evolution. It is argued that fantasy was an emergent property in hominids, made possible by symbolic intelligence and language, and serving to make play complex enough to continue to provide useful practice for increasingly complex later skills.

The advent of organised instruction and education has meant that play's unplanned, intrinisic goal-setting could be replaced by extrinsic goal-setting in the systematic development of particular skills. However, the need to ensure adequate motivation has continued to give play educational value. In addition, its capacity to enhance innovative behaviour seems to be a residual function of play which has acquired a new cultural importance.