The Nature of Play

Great Apes and Humans

Edited by Anthony D. Pellegrini and Peter K. Smith

December 6, 2004
ISBN 9781593851170
Price: $59.00
308 Pages
Size: 6" x 9"

This uniquely integrative volume brings together leading experts in developmental psychology and animal behavior to provide a new perspective on the nature and functions of play. In an introductory chapter, distinguished ethologist Patrick Bateson describes how youthful exploration and games contribute to both individual development and group survival—not only in humans, but in other species as well. Parallel chapters then examine social play, object play, and pretend play in humans and great apes, providing a broader context for understanding why human children behave the way they do. While much of the knowledge on human play comes from industrialized Western societies, the book also features important chapters on hunter-gatherer and pastoral cultures. Throughout, a rich array of black-and-white photographs and other illustrations enliven this authoritative work.

“Makes a tremendous contribution toward advancing the current state of knowledge about the similarities and differences in play between great apes and humans, and demonstrates that there is much to learn about children's development from studying psychological processes in higher primates.”

The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease

“This is a comprehensive and broad book, which deals with the vast majority of aspects related with play in animals and humans. It covers distinct cultures and perspectives. It is a multidisciplinary work....It is an international book because of the authors and the cultures researched and, most of all, because of the global perspective that it is a fascinating book to read.”


The Nature of Play provides a broad, interdisciplinary examination of play in primates, incorporating comparative, evolutionary, ecological, and cultural perspectives. Questions about what play is; how, when, and where animals play; how play develops; and why it has evolved are given detailed, scholarly attention by experts in the field. This book is a fascinating read, and one thing is clear—play is very serious business for players and researchers alike. This book would be an excellent text for a graduate seminar on the topic, and is also suitable for advanced undergraduates. Very thoughtful and valuable.”

—Marc Bekoff, PhD, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder

“Written by highly respected experts, this up-to-date volume yields enlightening comparisons of the play of children and our closest animal relatives. In addition to comparing humans and great apes, the book also examines play across a wide range of human societies, distinguishing universal aspects from those that are culturally variable. This book should be required reading for students and scholars of child development, play, and the evolutionary analysis of behavior.”

—Thomas G. Power, PhD, Department of Human Development, Washington State University

“Although there have been previous books on play in nonhuman primates, this is the first one devoted to play in the great apes and humans. In chapters by leading researchers, different types of play are covered both in apes and in humans from a variety of cultures. The relationship between physical or behavioral play and 'mental' play—involving fantasy, imagination, pretense, and symbols—is systematically addressed as well. It is this latter form of play that has been considered strictly limited to humans, and the fascinating examples in apes discussed here are, for me, a highlight of this stimulating volume. This book would be a fine text or supplement to courses in evolutionary, developmental, and comparative psychology; ethology; and animal behavior, as well as courses on play.”

—Gordon M. Burghardt, PhD, Departments of Psychology and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville; author of The Genesis of Animal Play

Table of Contents

I. Background and Theory

1. Play in Great Apes and Humans, Anthony D. Pellegrini and Peter K. Smith

2. The Role of Play in the Evolution of Great Apes and Humans, Patrick Bateson

II. Social Play

3. Social Play in the Great Apes, Kerrie P. Lewis

4. Rough-and-Tumble Play in Humans, Douglas P. Fry

III. Object Play

5. Object Play in Great Apes: Studies in Nature and Captivity, Jacklyn K. Ramsey

and William C. McGrew

6. Boys' and Girls' Uses of Objects for Exploration, Play, and Tools in Early Childhood,

Anthony D. Pellegrini and Kathy Gustafson

IV. Fantasy

7. Fantasy Play in Apes, Juan-Carlos Gómez and Beatriz Martín-Andrade

8. Social and Pretend Play in Children, Peter K. Smith

V. Hunter-Gatherers and Pastoral Peoples

9. Play in Hunter-Gatherer Society, Yumi Gosso, Emma Otta, Maria de Lima Salum e Morais,

Fernando José Leite Ribeiro, and Vera Silvia Raad Bussab

10. Farming, Foraging, and Children's Play in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, John Bock

VI. Conclusion

11. Play in Great Apes and Humans: Reflections on Continuities and Discontinuities, Peter K. Smith and Anthony D. Pellegrini

About the Editors

Anthony D. Pellegrini, PhD, is Professor of Psychological Foundations of Education in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. His primary interest is in the development of play and dominance. He also has research interests in methodological issues in the general area of human development, with specific interest in direct observations. His research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Spencer Foundation, and the W. T. Grant Foundation. Dr. Pellegrini is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association and has been awarded a Fellowship from the British Psychological Society.

Peter K. Smith, PhD, is Professor of Psychology and Head of the Unit for School and Family Studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London. His research interests are in social development, play, bullying in school, and evolutionary theory. Dr. Smith is coauthor of Understanding Children's Development and coeditor of The Nature of School Bullying and the Blackwell Handbook of Childhood Social Development. He has written widely on children's play, particularly on pretend play training and rough-and-tumble play. Dr. Smith is also a Fellow of the British Psychological Society.


Patrick Bateson, PhD, Department of Zoology, Kings College, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom

John Bock, PhD, Department of Anthropology, California State University, Fullerton, CA

Vera Silvia Raad Bussab, PhD, Department of Experimental Psychology, University of São Paolo, São Paolo, Brazil

Douglas P. Fry, PhD, Department of Social Sciences, Abo Akademi University, Vaasa, Finland, and Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ

Juan-Carlos Gómez, PhD, School of Psychology, University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, United Kingdom

Yumi Gosso, MS, Department of Experimental Psychology, University of São Paolo, São Paolo, Brazil

Kathy Gustafson, MS, Department of Educational Psychology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN

Kerrie P. Lewis, PhD, Department of Anthropology, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, MO

Beatriz Martín-Andrade, MS, School of Psychology, University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, United Kingdom

William C. McGrew, PhD, Departments of Anthropology and Sociology and Gerontology, Miami University, Oxford, OH

Maria de Lima Salum e Morais, MS, São Paolo State Health Department, São Paolo, Brazil

Emma Otta, PhD, Department of Experimental Psychology, University of São Paolo, São Paolo, Brazil

Anthony D. Pellegrini, PhD, Department of Educational Psychology, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN

Jacklyn K. Ramsey, BA, Department of Anthropology, Miami University, Oxford, OH

Fernanco José Leite Ribeiro, PhD, Department of Experimental Psychology, University of São Paolo, São Paolo, Brazil

Peter K. Smith, PhD, Department of Psychology, Goldsmiths College, University of London, London, United Kingdom


Developmental psychologists; also of interest to comparative psychologists and animal behaviorists, evolutionary psychologists, and anthropologists, as well as students in these areas.

Course Use

Serves as a text in advanced undergraduate- and graduate-level courses on play in child development.