Social play has a significant role in everyone’s childhood and is found throughout many mammalian species. While it may just appear to be a way of having fun, it has also been shown to have important developmental consequences.
Many parallels can be found between humans and our cousins, the great apes, with regards to social play. For example, in both groups social play is experienced during the infant stage with the mother, with games such as peek-a-boo being found to occur. Similarly, non-human primates have also been seen to bounce, throw and swing their infants, in much the same way that human infants seem to enjoy. Interestingly, the quality and quantity of the mother-infant play seems to be a good prediction of the quality and frequency of the infant’s play with members of its own age group. Additionally, playing with peers can remediate any deficits in play with the mother and contributes to social development in monkeys, great apes and human children. Thus, playing with group members of the same age is important for becoming socially competent and developing bonds with other individuals within the group.
The function of social play varies according to different stages of development. In older immature primates (including humans) it has been found to establish a dominance order among individuals, who can gain information about the strength and weakness of other group members through rough and tumble play.
A recent study conducted by Cordoni & Palagi (2011) investigated the biological roots of human play behaviour through the study of play in chimpanzees. They found that like humans, chimpanzees use playful facial expressions to communicate and build social networks. Indeed, laughter which is found universally in humans has previously been found to have derived from non-human primate play and pant-like vocalisation. They also found that both infant and juvenile chimpanzees showed play faces during solitary play, which suggested that, as in humans, playful facial displays can be an expression of emotional state. This finding implies that the infants of both species have the capacity for self-reflection or self-awareness. The study also observed that both humans and chimpanzees will prefer to play with members of the same age group. This may be because they can match the level of play, as playing with a younger individual may not be challenging enough, and playing with someone older may be too dangerous.
There are many advantages in engaging in play during infancy: it advances socialisation as well as developing motor and psychological skills. Furthermore, it allows opportunity to gain information on the opponent’s skills, which may be useful during potential fights in the future. Thus, it is clear that play has important implications for development in the juvenile stage of primates. Perhaps it’s not so surprising then that children behave like little monkeys!
Image credit – jinterwas
Reference: Giada Cordoni, Elisabetta Palagi. Ontogenetic Trajectories of Chimpanzee Social Play: Similarities with Humans. PLoS ONE, 2011; 6 (11): e27344 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0027344