The Genesis of Animal Play: Testing the Limits

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MIT Press, 2005 - Psychology - 501 pages
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In The Genesis of Animal Play, Gordon Burghardt examines the origins and evolution of play in humans and animals. He asks what play might mean in our understanding of evolution, the brain, behavioral organization, and psychology. Is play essential to development? Is it the driving force behind human and animal behavior? What is the proper place for the study of play in the cognitive, behavioral, and biological sciences?

The engaging nature of play -- who does not enjoy watching a kitten attack a ball of yarn? -- has made it difficult to study. Some scholars have called play undefinable, nonexistent, or a mystery outside the realm of scientific analysis. Using the comparative perspectives of ethology and psychology, The Genesis of Animal Play goes further than other studies in reviewing the evidence of play throughout the animal kingdom, from human babies to animals not usually considered playful. Burghardt finds that although playfulness may have been essential to the origin of much that we consider distinctive in human (and mammalian) behavior, it only develops through a specific set of interactions among developmental, evolutionary, ecological, and physiological processes. Furthermore, play is not always beneficial or adaptive.

Part I offers a detailed discussion of play in placental mammals (including children) and develops an integrative framework called surplus resource theory. The most fascinating and most controversial sections of the book, perhaps, are in the seven chapters in part II in which Burghardt presents evidence of playfulness in such unexpected groups of animals as kangaroos, birds, lizards, and "Fish That Leap, Juggle, and Tease." Burghardt concludes by considering the implications of the diversity of play for future research, and suggests that understanding the origin and development of play can shape our view of society and its accomplishments through history.

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About the author (2005)

Gordon Burghardt is Alumni Distinguished Professor in Psychology and in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Tennessee. He is a coeditor of The Cognitive Animal (MIT Press, 2002), past president of the Animal Behavior Society, and editor of the Journal of Comparative Psychology.

Brian Sutton-Smith was born in Wellington, New Zealand on July 15, 1924. He studied education at Wellington Teachers College. He received a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in educational psychology from Victoria University of Wellington. In the late 1940s, he taught at a primary school in a Wellington suburb. In 1952, he traveled to the United States as a Fulbright scholar. He studied at the University of California, Berkeley, and worked with the psychologists Bruno Bettelheim and Fritz Redl. He received a doctorate in educational psychology from the University of New Zealand in 1954. In 1956, Sutton-Smith moved permanently to the United States. He taught at several universities including Bowling Green State University in Ohio, Columbia University Teachers College, and the University of Pennsylvania. He was a developmental psychologist who was one of the first people to bring the study of play into the academic arena and was considered the field's foremost scholar. His books included Child's Play written with R. E. Herron, The Study of Games written with Elliott M. Avedon, How to Play with Your Children (and When Not To), Toys as Culture, and The Ambiguity of Play. He also wrote three novels for young people. He helped found the Association for the Study of Play and received lifetime achievement awards from that organization and from the American Folklore Society. He died from complications of Alzheimer's disease on March 7, 2015 at the age of 90.

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