Play is a “fairly universal biological impulse,” explained Wang, a professor of molecular biology at Princeton University. It’s a kind of memory that is passed along biologically through generations, which prompts young animals (including humans) to practice skills and scenarios they may face in life.
A Komodo dragon playing tug-of-war with its handler. Kind of like a dog, but in slow motion.
Of course play is not only a learning tool—play is fun! As Wang explained, play activates certain systems in the brain, including the substantia nigra, which through the release of dopamine leads people to experience feelings of reward.
Forms of play are adapted to the needs of a species, said Wang. For example, kittens play with string to hone their mouse hunting skills, while children may opt for more complex social play, such as a tea party. Complex social play allows young children to learn from and influence one another, explained Wang, as a way to build self-control.
Studies suggest that gender can also influence play preferences, said Wang. Many people believe girls’ preference for dolls and boys’ preference for trucks are due to societal influence, but a growing body of scientific evidence shows that toy preference may be biologically based. Wang recounted a story about a Harvard professor who gave her daughter trucks and her son dolls, only to find her daughter engaged in a tea party with her trucks.
Although we may inherit play impulses to some degree, we are not slaves to our genetics. Wang reminded the audience that our brains are plastic and can be shaped throughout life. As we age, our awareness of beneficial and socially acceptable behavior increases (e.g. a preschooler should outgrow a biting tendency), and through practice and repetition we can learn and refine new skills.
--Ann L. Whitman