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Designing Play

The Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Judy Lee’s videos demonstrate that some people have all the luck! Imagine being able to design toys and games and playgrounds. As a biased scientist, I have to say: Not bad for an Engineer!

One wonders whether Judy could also use her talents to design toys and playgrounds for animals, as well as humans? According to a University of Tennessee psychologist, lots of animals play—not just the ‘usual suspects’ of cats, dogs, and monkeys.

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Gordon Burghardt looked at the behavior of baby and juvenile reptiles for many years and never noticed much ”playtime,” until he saw Pigface, a Nile softshell turtle at the National Zoo in Washington DC. Burghardt realized that reptiles play too when he spotted Pigface (interesting name, I know!) batting around a basketball.

Designing Play-parrotphoto.jpg
Polly wants a basket. (Leonid Mamchenkov)

Writing last October’s issue of “The Scientist,” Burghardt defined his five criteria for play in any species but sums it up as follows: “Play is repeated behavior that is incompletely functional in the context or at the age in which it is performed and is initiated voluntarily when the animal or person is in a relaxed or low-stress setting.”

Even if that is a bit of a mouthful, the Tennessee scientist is one of the first researchers to define play in people as well as species not previously thought to play. He also thinks that looking at play across the whole animal kingdom allows humans to better understand themselves.

“In animals we can evaluate more carefully the role of play in learning skills, maintaining physical and mental fitness, improving social relationships, and so on, than we can in people,” said Burghardt. “We can then develop ideas and apply them to people to see if the same dynamics are at work. For example, the role of play in lessening the effects of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children is being studied based on research in rats.”

Now, could IKEA make a playmat for Pigface?

You can see Pigface playing basketball and other animals at play in this video from “The Scientist”: