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Play, Newness, and You

How our environments help sustain – or squelch – innovation

Pete Souza (Official White House photo) via Wikimedia Commons
KidTribe hula hoopers perform during the Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn of the White House.
Source: Pete Souza (Official White House photo) via Wikimedia Commons

What leads us to try new things? Although there are clear individual differences in our openness to novel experiences, an often overlooked factor that shapes –– and either propels or stalls ­­–– our readiness to explore and to innovate is our day-to-day environment.

The powerful ways in which daily environments can shape responses to newness and innovative behavior are strikingly revealed in the contrasting behaviors of animals living in the wild compared to their zoo-living peers.

Consider the results found by a team of researchers from the Anthropological Institute and Museum, in Zurich, Switzerland, studying innovative behavior in wild orangutans. The researchers placed novel colorful objects on natural-looking platforms high up in the tree canopy along the regular traveling and feeding pathways of two groups of orangutans living in swamp forests in Indonesia. One group of 28 individuals was in a national park on Sumatra and the other group, also of 28 individuals, in a reserve on Borneo. The platforms were hoisted into the canopy within the height range of typical orangutan travel and looked much like the night nests that the orangutans build for themselves.

Placed in different tree species, each platform contained a number of colorful objects that the animals had never before encountered: yellow, white or pink plastic flowers, a small red Swiss flag with plastic fruits, and a small plush orangutan doll.

The researchers then recorded when and if any orangutans approached the platforms. At some of the platforms this was done in person; at several other platforms the responses of the orangutans to the objects were recorded using small hidden infra-red-motion-detection video cameras.

Over a total of 145 days in Sumatra and 251 days in Borneo, only twice was an orangutan ever seen to approach and physically handle the novel objects. Even though there were over a hundred occasions on which orangutans passed by the platforms within clear viewing distance they virtually never approached the platform.

The two exceptions both included adolescent animals, and occurred after the adolescents had passed by the platforms many times. At the Sumatra site, a female adolescent (Shera) approached the platform only after her attention had been inadvertently drawn to the platform when she noted a human restoring the platform and handling the objects. Immediately after the human climbed down, Shera moved onto the platform: "picked up a plastic red apple and tried to bite in it. After several biting attempts she made a tool out of a small twig and poked at the plastic apple with her twig tool. After unsuccessful attempts with the twig tool she picked up a second red plastic apple and tried a third processing technique by striking it back and forth onto a branch." At the Borneo site, the only observed physical interaction was when a male adolescent (Jerry) approached and physically explored the plastic flowers.

A rather different picture

Two sets of observations make this nearly complete lack of exploration by the wild orangutans highly remarkable.

First, when the researchers carried out a similar study with zoo-dwelling animals the results were drastically different. Both when testing orangutans in a group in the Zurich zoo, and when testing each animal individually in the Frankfurt zoo, Sumatran orangutans approached all novel objects that were tested within only a few minutes. Indeed, the zoo-living orangutans approached the new objects as quickly as they did highly familiar objects that they had often interacted with, such as cardboard boxes.

Second, other research, such as an observational field study conducted by an interdisciplinary team of Canadian and Indonesia scientists, shows that orangutans living in rehabilitation facilities are highly exploratory and innovative. Over 20 months, researchers systematically observed and recorded the water-related behavior of a group of 43 previously captive Bornean orangutans being rehabilitated for release back into the wild on a seasonally inundated island in the Rungan River in Indonesia.

The island-dwelling orangutans were found to produce all kinds of innovations that had never before been seen in the wild and that were highly unusual for animals that normally avoid deep and flowing water. Among the innovations: finding and making a rake tool to hook and rake in an object floating on the water out of reach; dipping sugar cane into water, allowing it to absorb water, and sucking out the absorbed water and sugar; using sticks to probe for items sunk in water; using a stick as a ruler to see how deep the water was at a given point (this was done by two female orangutans when carrying their infants); traveling on a log across water; and engaging in many types of "tool play" with cups, splashers, sponges, and diggers or scrapers. Zoo-living orangutans thus show far larger and much more varied innovation repertoires than do wild orangutans.

Why this striking contrast?

Why were the zoo-dwelling and island-dwelling animals so highly innovative and so eager to explore novel objects while their forest-dwelling cousins were such reluctant explorers, keeping considerable distance between themselves and new nearby colorful objects even over many months?

Many factors seem to be part of the picture, and further research is needed to assess how they may (separately or jointly) influence an animal's willingness to explore. Among the important contributors are

  • social learning
  • ample opportunities for play and experimentation –– including varying our cognitive and physical behaviors as we interact with objects or each other
  • greatly reduced risks linked to such play.

In the wild, young orangutans are adept and keen social learners. They follow and watch their mothers and other experienced role models, and direct especial visual attention to them when they are feeding on rare food items. In the zoo, this avid learning from others is accelerated as they can watch humans as a source of information about what is implicitly "approved" for exploration. In the zoo, there is also abundant time for playful experimentation with minimal to no risks of predation and with little or no consequences for their daily food supply (given regular feeding by humans).

Whereas in the wild, novel objects may prove highly dangerous (snakes, crocodiles) or toxic, most of the novel objects zoo-dwelling animals encounter are likely positive and explicitly introduced to invite play. Avoidance of novelty and of particular contexts can be highly adaptive: in the wild, water brings with it real risks of predation. But in other contexts the risks and possible benefits may be tremendously shifted.

Innovations snowball –– new ways of doing and acting cumulatively change the further possibilities for action that we and others have. Creativity enlarges and expands upon creativity (snow upon snow) in part through the new opportunities for making and exploring that it uncovers. The newly afforded opportunities may be physical or cognitive: offering us new ways of acting or novel directions in our thinking. Some innovations lead to comparably "minor" adjustments or tweaks in how we act and think. Others fundamentally change our action possibilities: these are "cusps" (think of our world without air travel, or without the internet, or without electricity).

Some questions to think about

  • Does your day-to-day environment, and the people around you, encourage you to experiment and play?
  • Are you curious and alert to newness or the unexpected?
  • When there is something "strange and new" that you could explore in your creative domain (music, art, theater, science) or daily life (food, leisure, culture), how do you, and those around you respond?
  • Do you return to and experimentally test out new variations to fully learn what goes with what and why?
  • Do you intentionally vary your actions to uncover new opportunities for learning?
  • Are you an adept and keen social learner –– or as adept and keen as you might be?
  • How might you create new "environmentally enriched" safe spaces of time and of place, to better allow your (and your team's) full creative potential to emerge through ramping up your purposefully playful experimentation?