Animals at Play | BBC 2

If you’re after a new TV show packed with cuteness and inspiring insights in the natural world then you have to watch Animals at Play on BBC 2.

As Gordon Buchanan investigates – your kids may run riot when they play but this actually has a proper reason behind it. All animals spend vast amounts of time and energy at play. You may have thought it was a useless and function-less thing but in actual fact it’s vital to everything that an animal learns.

Why don’t they get bored of playing the same games? The answer to this may lie in research. In humans and animals alike, dopamine and endorphins are the body’s natural reward chemicals. They’re also highly addictive. This drives the animals to play the same games over and over again. This repetition can then help to develop the neural pathways in the brain. This is a process called synaptogenesis.

Being young gives the animal time to make mistakes in the hope that they’ll be pros when they’re older. They’ll master the art of leaping, pouncing and all the things which make them the animal they are right up until those actions are hardwired.

Why and how these animals play can be assessed with the power of research. The world of science defines play with a few simple rules.  It’s got to be something the animal engages in voluntarily and the reward has to be the activity itself. In other words, food can’t be a reward! It also takes place much earlier in an animals life than when they’d usually see a serious version  of that behaviour. Lastly, the animal has to be in safe and relaxed state.

The show visits a huge range of the world’s species, from young gibbons that spend 20% of their time catapulting themselves between trees to cheetahs that play. They also take a look at the Komodo Dragon, where research suggests for the first time that reptiles also play.

So next time you see an animal playing – remember that they’re learning some life skills in front of you! Take Elephants for example, once they’ve mastered how to use their trunk it has an unbelievable level of dexterity. It can even pick individual leaves off tree branches! They’re learning depth perception, how to hunt and how to interact with the world around them. 

See the power of play for yourself on Gordon Buchanan’s new show ‘Animals at Play’ on BBC2. 

Baby Elizabeth at Wingham Wildlife Park is one of the most playful chimps I’ve encountered!

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