The Genesis of Animal Play

The Genesis of Animal Play

Testing the Limits

By Gordon M. Burghardt

Foreword by Brian Sutton-Smith

A Bradford Book




Open Access


In The Genesis of Animal Play, Gordon Burghardt examines the origins and evolution of play in humans and animals. He asks what play might mean in our understanding of evolution, the brain, behavioral organization, and psychology. Is play essential to development? Is it the driving force behind human and animal behavior? What is the proper place for the study of play in the cognitive, behavioral, and biological sciences?

The engaging nature of play—who does not enjoy watching a kitten attack a ball of yarn?—has made it difficult to study. Some scholars have called play undefinable, nonexistent, or a mystery outside the realm of scientific analysis. Using the comparative perspectives of ethology and psychology, The Genesis of Animal Play goes further than other studies in reviewing the evidence of play throughout the animal kingdom, from human babies to animals not usually considered playful. Burghardt finds that although playfulness may have been essential to the origin of much that we consider distinctive in human (and mammalian) behavior, it only develops through a specific set of interactions among developmental, evolutionary, ecological, and physiological processes. Furthermore, play is not always beneficial or adaptive.

Part I offers a detailed discussion of play in placental mammals (including children) and develops an integrative framework called surplus resource theory. The most fascinating and most controversial sections of the book, perhaps, are in the seven chapters in part II in which Burghardt presents evidence of playfulness in such unexpected groups of animals as kangaroos, birds, lizards, and "Fish That Leap, Juggle, and Tease." Burghardt concludes by considering the implications of the diversity of play for future research, and suggests that understanding the origin and development of play can shape our view of society and its accomplishments through history.

The open access edition of this book was made possible by generous funding from Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262025430 520 pp. | 7 in x 9 in 46 illus.


$50.00 X ISBN: 9780262524698 520 pp. | 7 in x 9 in 46 illus.


Brian Sutton-Smith.


  • A sign of our scientific times: The study of play (a process we value as a society) has lagged far behind the study of fear (a process we abhor). Burghardt now puts matters back in perspective with his critically open-minded and exquisitely detailed excursion through the evolutionary spectrum of playfulness on the face of the earth.

    Jaak Panksepp

    Distinguished Research Professor, Emeritus, Bowling Green State University, author of Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions

  • Burghardt's book breaks new ground in the long and distringuished study of animal play. Using surplus resource theory, he proffers a new definition of lay and extends it to the study of variety of species, such as reptiiles, fish, birds, as well as mammals.

    Anthony D. Pellegrini

    Professor of Educational Psychology, University of Minnesota

  • The Genesis of Animal Play is the most comprehensive interdisciplinary study I've seen on this most mysterious behavior. It will be a keystone work for all those interested in the evolution and development of play, but it covers a remarkably broad range of other topics. Do octopi, turtles, or fish play? Read this book and find out. I did, and learned much even after three decades of studying carnivores at play.

    Marc Bekoff

    University of Colorado, author of Minding Animals and editor of Animal Play and Encyclopedia Of Animal Behavior

Funding provided by:
Arcadia Fund


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262025430 520 pp. | 7 in x 9 in 46 illus.


$50.00 X ISBN: 9780262524698 520 pp. | 7 in x 9 in 46 illus.