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Animals at Play

by Kate Hofmann

Every day, all over the world, kids like you are running, jumping, chasing, hiding, seeking, swinging, tussling, sliding. And you know what? Animals everywhere are doing lots of the same things!

One look at the border collie above tells you that this dog is ready for a game. The "play bow" is a pose that members of the dog family use to invite others to play. The open mouth and relaxed face are other clues that point to a playful mood. Can you spot similar "play faces" in the photos below?

Not all animals play. But mammals definitely do, and some birds do, too. Certain lizards, turtles, octopuses, and other animals also seem to play. And just like us, the youngsters play a lot, while grownups join in only sometimes.

Is play all fun and games? Well, scientists can't say for sure why animals play. But they think the reasons go beyond just having a good time. Let's take a closer look at some of those reasons—and lots more animal shenanigans!

Playtime is fun, but it's also a way for baby animals to learn important lessons. Play helps them to explore the world and see what their bodies can do. It's also a chance to practice skills they'll need to hunt for food, avoid predators, or defend their territory when they grow up.

For animals that live in groups, play may be a way to practice getting along. Animal games may look like free-for-alls, but they have rules, just as yours do. Animals can say, "This is just a game, not a real fight," by nipping lightly instead of biting or by being careful with their claws.

A good toy can make playtime way more fun. An animal that's curious and playful might even pick up something that's edible or useful in solving a problem.

When animals are young, their brains are changing fast. Playing around with objects may also help to develop better thinking skills.

So, maybe playing is a good way to learn how to get food or to get along. But perhaps the whole point of play is that it's just plain fun. The upside-down panda above seems to think so!

Whether you have two legs, four legs, wings, or fins, playtime is simply the best!

"Animals at Play" originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of Ranger Rick magazine. Click here for a close-up view of the photos.

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