Why Do We Play?

Why do we play?” asked Sam Wang, Ph.D., at Thursday’s Learning and the Brain conference at Columbia University in New York.

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 Tea party 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

One response

  1. As a nursery school teacher of three year-olds in the early 70’s, I had an open classroom with various areas for truck play, dress-up, art and easel painting, etc. I encouraged the girls to play with trucks and tools but what I didn’t expect was the number of boys who went into the dress-up corner. They progressed from the fire fighter helmets and super hero capes to the dresses, and then back again. Three year-olds explore their sexual identities, trying on one characteristic with the next, as easily as a change of clothes. One afternoon the boys and girls and I were dancing around in dresses when a father of one of the boys walked in the room. It was my own pre-conceived notion that this father might not approve of our play. So, I started immediately chanting, “Toga, toga, toga.” The boys and girls started mimicking my chant plus laughed out loud from the new game we were playing. The Dad had no problem helping his son out of his dress and into his coat. I have to admit I worried that there might be a complaint about my teaching method. But my director nor I never heard one word about this incident. It taught me a lot about the tolerance of parents and my own particular hang-ups. Play can teach a lot!

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