A day in the park with your best four-legged friend. You toss the Frisbee. Fido snatches it in his jaws and dutifully returns it to you. But wait, there’s a catch (so to speak). Suddenly, Fido becomes very possessive and refuses to relinquish the plastic. A tugging match ensues. Tugging escalates into growling, chasing, and even a nip or two on the hand. All done in good fun. And how do you know it’s just fun? Because somewhere in the course of this rough-and-tumble play session, Fido sent you a clear signal of his good intentions. He did the famous canine “play bow.” He put his muzzle to the ground between his front paws, raised his hind end and energetically wagged his tail. It is a ritualized gestured used by dogs and other canines to show that they want to play; not fight. It is important that this message be conveyed clearly and effectively otherwise the growling, chasing, and biting could be mistaken for real aggression and fun could degenerate into a dangerous brawl.

Superficially, rough-and-tumble play (RT play) looks a lot like real fighting. The intentions behind the two, however, are diametrically opposed. In a fight, each combatant wants to quickly and decisively defeat the other. By contrast, players want to extend their interaction for as long as possible, which requires that winning be as ambiguous as possible. Combatants must be ferocious. Players must be restrained.

Rough-and-tumble play may be nature’s way of teaching self-restraint. This is so because RT play shares many features in common with ritualized fighting. In ritualized fighting, certain aggressive acts – lethal ones or ones that might lead to serious injury – are forbidden. In addition, rules must be followed and clear signals are used to terminate the session. Think of two stags wrestling with their antlers or two buddies exchanging shoulder blows.

Rough-and-tumble play has its own set of rituals and rules. Typically, a session is initiated with a clear signal. So Dad dons a devilish grin and announces “I’m gonna get yoouuuu…” – the parental equivalent of the play bow. Once engaged, good play requires that stronger, faster players self-handicap. In other words, they must not use all their strength or speed so as to give weaker, slower players a “fair chance.” If rules are broken – if someone “goes too far” – then apologies or “make-ups” must be rendered. So big sis lets little sis smash a water balloon right in her face rather than have her bolt into the house crying to mom. All these rituals and rules help promote play’s prime objective: Keep the encounter going. And in order to keep things going, everyone has to consciously hold back somewhat. Everyone has to practice restraint.

Evidence from the animal world suggests that more play means more peace. Tonkean macaque monkeys are generally more egalitarian and socially harmonious than Japanese macaques. They also play more. The same is true for bonobos compared with chimpanzees. Rats raised without RT play are often hyper-reactive, misinterpreting causal contact for a vicious attack. Similar findings are present in the human world. Children deprived of RT play are less skilled socially and are more hyper-reactive compared to their more playful peers. More RT play as a youngster has been associated with increased social competence later in life.

Increasingly, modern childrearing is marked by an abundance of adult-imposed structure and control over children’s play. As well-intentioned as this might be, it may also be depriving kids of important developmental experiences. Nature’s way – letting them play – may be the best way to teach critical skills in self-restraint.

For more see: D. Narvaez et al (eds), Ancestral Landscapes in Human Evolution: Culture, Childrearing, and Social Well-Being, 2014, Oxford Press. Chapters 7, 8.


Let's play. It's good for us!

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