There are more than 8,000 indigenous sports played across the world and many of them not even documented well, but human society cannot be imagined without them. The purpose of sport is to maintain or improve physical ability and skills, as well as provide entertainment to participants and spectators alike. But what is its role in the animal kingdom? Do animals also play? What is the purpose behind it? Are they following any rules or is their activity just some kind of unruly energy being expended?
In the wild, young animals play and exhibit happiness at various levels. But the play actions are not just to make them happy. Young animals borrow actions and expressions from aggression, hunting, foraging or sexual behaviours, and here, play may serve as a form of practice. Play might help animals become more agile as well as prepare their brains to handle unexpected situations that they will face in the future, both as prey or as predators. Besides, play actions can also better prepare an animal to respond adequately to future aggressive or sexual encounters.
It is always fun to see tiger cubs in a playful mood, but if you observe them closely, it clearly seems that in the process, they are also learning to ambush their prey. For, in their play, one of the cubs stealthily approaches the other unaware cub and pounces like an adult tiger charging on a prey.
It is also interesting to see wolf pups play with each other, pinning down the other and fake biting the grounded sibling. This is how they will hunt in the future. Hyena pups spend hours sleeping and rarely play. In their adulthood, they mostly scavenge, so they save energy and learn this tactic for their future. Primates are mainly tree dwelling species and their gymnastic movements help to keep them safe from falling from a tall tree in adulthood.
It is difficult to fit animal kingdom’s playfulness in a central theoretical framework and conclude a grand reason behind it. Many play actions seem purposeless and they are just for fun, but the fact is that they also strengthen them psychologically. Like raven crows in Canada use wooden pieces to slide from ice like skating and fly back to do it again and again.
We cannot compare our rule-bound games with the free and fun action of animals, but they rarely injure each other even though they have very sharp canines and claws. So, they definitely follow some set rules of the game. Obviously, there is some kind of purpose in all their actions.