by Sergio M. Pellis and Vivien C. Pellis
Reviewed by Janet Jamieson

The Playful Brain, by play researchers Sergio and Vivian Pellis of the Canadian Centre for Behavioural Neuroscience at the University of Lethbridge (Alberta, Canada) is an erudite exploration of the science and mystery of play. The book is targeted to a general audience – but an educated one – with a strong interest in the adaptive nature of play in human and non-human animals.

The book synthesizes decades of research on animal play, with several chapters devoted to research on mice and rat play, their particular area of study and where the most extensive research exits. The richness of the topic as the complexity of play unfolds is clear, making it difficult to understand why play has not received the systematic and serious attention of research. It is clearly so integral to development – and competence – in so many species.

One of the most engaging aspects of the book, is the Pellis’s clear love for their subject and appreciation of the joy and value of play as they try to untangle its many purposes, evolutionary functions and mechanisms in living creatures. This couple is fascinated by play – at one point telling an anecdote about how they experienced an epiphany while watching children play freely in a Parisian park, the adults present as a secure base but remaining outside the play, underscored the lack of play in children’s oversubscribed, overprotected lives in North America – a theme familiar to early childhood educators.

The authors put forth a ‘layer cake’ model to try to reflect the complexity of information about rat and mouse play reflecting its multifaceted nature. As amazing as the little rodents may be, this reviewer was more engaged by the sections on other species, especially ‘human primates’. Here are some examples of information I found intriguing which provide an admittedly superficial sense of the content:

  • Play, like much of experience, seems to ‘get under the skin’. For example, rats reared socially (with normal opportunities for play fighting) had a less prolonged stress response to an anxiety-induced situation than those reared in isolation who were unable to calm themselves.
  • Big brains do not necessarily predict playfulness. However, bigger brains allow for more complex play given the right conditions. For example, a child, who progresses from banging a block on the table to pretending it is a car is engaging their larger cortex that has this potential. Rats may actually play more than some primates, but their scope of play is limited.
  • We have heard more about the importance of play fighting in recent years but it remains a largely ignored subject, often discouraged. It is the dominant form of play across species and the major theme of the book. Becoming competent with social ambiguity is an interesting and important function of play fighting. Reading subtle social cues, understanding the nuances of aggression vs. playfulness and responding appropriately seem to be skills that lead to social competence and often dominance, in human and nonhumans alike. The Pellis’s call it ‘how to be good at being ambiguous’ and I have found myself observing children’s (and dogs!) play with new eyes since reading this section.
  • An extension of this topic discussing on how humans have evolved verbal forms of ‘play fighting’ including barbed comments, social manipulation, skills in differentiating between bantering and barbs on the climb to social dominance is fascinating. Again, skills in navigating social ambiguity are key. It might give one ‘new eyes’ at the next social gathering!
  • Gender differences in play raise interesting questions: why do male species engage in more play fighting than females? If play fighting leads to social competence, why are females, (who play fight less) more socially competent than males? The suggestion is that as female reproductive success depends on social competence and males less so, the female brain is already ‘hardwired’ with more social competence than the male brain and is therefore less dependent on experience to develop these skills.

‘The Playful Brain’ draws on examples from so many species highlighting the complexity of the research findings. The result is a steady affirmation of the importance of juvenile play that is affirming to all of us who cherish children’s play. It’s not an easy read but is very worthwhile.

Janet Jamieson is the Chair of Community Services at Red River College in Winnipeg, where she manages the Early Childhood Education program. Janet was one of the lead authors of ‘The Science of Early Child Development’, an onlinemultimedia educational resource designed to bridge the gap between neurodevelopmental research and front line practice in early childhood.