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Why Do Young Animals Play

Lisl Moolman, a South African photographer, loves watching animals to study their behavior. She particularly likes to photograph animals at play. She never drives past hyenas, squirrels, baboons or impalas. These animals and particularly members of the big cat species can all get extremely silly. Below are some examples of her playful animal observations.

Why Do Young animals Play

You’ve seen the videos of young elephants having water “fights”, lion cubs wrestling and monkeys playing what appears to be games of tag.

Why Do Young Animals Play Elephants 1

If you’ve been lucky enough to see this in person you may have marveled at how much the young ones of all species seem to resemble that of human children at play. This comparison to human children is important in understanding why young animals play because in many ways play serves the same functions, although on a different level in some cases. Let’s take the young of two vastly different species, the lion and the elephant, and explore the role play serves to help them grow physically, mentally and socially.

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The main purpose of play in young animals is learning. They practice skills they will need as adults, but there is much more. Young animals need to learn where their limits are. How fast can I run? How far can I jump? What happens when I bite too hard or leap on someone? As the young lion observes the adults, he will play with his siblings in the same way in order to practice the things he knows he must do one day.

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That isn’t all, however. Just as a young child who has learned to walk will try running or jumping, the young cubs learn what they can and can’t do by trying. They need to test their limits. He plays with his paws to see what they are capable of doing. He sees his tail and tries to discover what that thing following him does. Is it part of him or another living thing?

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As the brain is forming, it creates pathways that help with things like problem-solving. The more a young animal learns and explores, the stronger those neural pathways become. In this way, as he grows to adulthood, his ability to solve a problem he encounters for the first time will be stronger and he is more likely to succeed.

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Survival depends on being able to think quickly and react even more so. By building those essential neural pathways while young, survival becomes more likely.


All young learn how to behave within the society through play. Not only do they learn which acts are acceptable and which are not they also learn where they fit into the large family.

Why Do Young Animals Play Elephant Mud

Elephant herds illustrate this concept well. Even adult females play in an elephant herd. These large creatures are very social and the bond between females can last fifty years or longer. This bonding is strengthened by play. Mother elephants will tickle their young and the young love water play.

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All young animals learn where they fit into the overall scheme of life by experimenting through play. What is acceptable behavior may be fine for siblings, tolerated by adults females and be corrected by the adult males. Survival of the entire family unit depends on each member knowing his or her role and this is learned while young.
Why Do Young animals Play

Stress Relief

Community living can be stressful at the best of times. When the weather is bad or food is scarce, stress can and does create conflict. The young learn that play produces a feeling of well-being and this transfers over to their adult lives. When stress is rising, you will find both the young and adult members of the family playing in order to reduce the stress. This creates an atmosphere that allows all the members of the family to live together and not turn on each other.


Let’s face it. play is fun! Some species play more often than others, such as elephants and hippos, and others rarely play, such as some types of birds, but all species have some form of entertainment that comes through at times. Even members of a species will differ in the amount of time spent playing.

Why Do Young animals Play Elephants in Water

Every member has their own personality. If you watch a family long enough you will be able to pinpoint the more playful members and those who are more serious. Sometimes play is simply play.

Final Thoughts

Play serves so many purposes in a young animal’s life. It helps him learn, grow and become who he is meant to be. Play helps develop problem-solving skills, determine family roles and alleviate stress.

Why Do Young animals Play Sitting Elephant

Play also helps develop lasting bonds between members of individual animal families, bonds that will follow the members throughout their lives and give them a sense of familiarity and safety wherever they go. It seems animals have learned through instinct what it takes to survive in both the smaller world of their family and the larger world as a whole.

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Izak Van Heerden
Izak is a writer, photographer and wildlife enthusiast. When he moves on from this world, he does not want to leave his grandchildren a planet without lions, rhinos and elephants.

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