Applying Psychological and Sociological Theory to Cetacean Play

Applying Psychological and Sociological Theory to Cetacean Play

Contributed by Marielle Grenade-Willis

Play has a wide variety of positive benefits including increased creativity, confidence, and collaboration for young and old alike who participate. The importance of play to human development, especially in the beginning cognitive stages of childhood, has been well theorized by both psychologists and sociologists. Researchers are now attempting to apply some of these key theoretical frameworks to cetacean play in its many forms. The study, published in Psychonomic Societys Learning & Behavior, synthesized categories of cetacean play, such as locomotive play, object play, bubble play, and social play, using three distinct cognitive development models:

  1. Karl Groos’ Theory of Play
  2. Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Development Stages 
  3. Mildred Parten’s Six Stages of Play

For example, Groos’ theory suggests that any kind of action designated as play in a child’s development is merely training for patterns used later in life. In cetaceans, locomotive play such as a calf learning to swim or object play such as producing bubbles to understand timed air release would fall under this category. Body slapping and breaching can be recognized expressions of Piaget’s sensorimotor stage in which a child learns to use its sensory abilities to detect environmental variation. Parten’s third stage of play, the onlooker stage, could be relevant to a calf learning how to forage and socialize by watching its mother perform these behaviors. Additionally, the scientists affirm that studying play behaviors in cetaceans may allow for less intrusive studies of these magnificent creatures:

Examining play behaviors in wild animals may prove to be a less expensive and invasive way to evaluate the healthy functioning, availability of resources, and stress levels of a population than the current techniques being employed (e.g., health assessment and distribution tracking). Play behaviors that are observed in multiple settings, including both the field and managed care, may elucidate the elements that are conserved across settings for different species’ behavioral repertoires. These conserved behaviors may allow for insights into the function and mechanisms of play.

Thomas S. Hendricks, J. Earl Danieley Professor of Sociology at Elon University, writes in “Play as Self-Realization” that “creatures who play seek to acquaint themselves with the character of the world in which they operate and to evaluate personal standings they can achieve within that world.” For cetaceans and other nonhuman creatures, the importance of play is a paramount capability requiring less human intrusion and more space to simply be expressed.