Episode available within Canada only.

From youngsters fooling around to adults having a laugh, playing is a fact of human life. However, new findings in animal behaviour show us that play is no laughing matter. In fact, evolutionary biologists believe it’s one of the keys to survival. And, as they’re learning, it’s not just people and pets that play, but reptiles, amphibians and insects, too.

The Power of Play takes us around the world to meet the people who are turning play science into one of the most promising areas of research today. One scholar we’re introduced to is Stuart Brown, a California psychiatrist known as the “grandfather” of play research. Brown recognized play was essential to human nature as far back as 1966, finding that playing freely as a child is key to being mentally healthy as an adult.

Animals that play

It was another veteran of play science, Gordon Burghardt at the University of Tennessee, who defined exactly what play behaviour is. He was inspired after observing one member of the largest lizard species in the world, the Komodo dragon, walking around with a bucket on its head.

Another surprisingly playful creature is the giant Pacific octopus. In this documentary, we witness one of the great loners of the deep sea interacting with humans in an unexpected way, making a game of spraying water with its human carers.

The new Canada 150 Research Chair at McMaster University, Jonathan Pruitt, takes us inside the bizarre world of social spiders, offering a close-up look at these tiny creatures at play. He found that young female spiders that play produce more offspring and live longer.

Living longer may be appealing enough, but there’s evidence play also helps us live better. We join primatologist, Elisabetta Palagi, who’s studying bonobos, our closest living relatives. These primates are renowned for their love of play and their ability to get along peacefully in large, complex groups. Could there be a connection?

At the University of Lethbridge, Sergio Pellis suggests play-deprived rats develop poorer social skills as well as depression. Then there are play-deprived hamsters — they demonstrate a whole other kind of problem. In experiments at the University of Tennessee, they didn’t handle defeat well. 

From bonobos to sheep, lots of animals enjoy play as much as we do
Risky play for children: Why we should let kids go outside and then get out of the way
Unstructured play can create mentally healthier kids

Riskier play for safer kids

With all we learn about the importance of play, it’s no wonder that there’s a growing number of experts, like Vancouver researcher Mariana Brussoni, who are pushing for more play for children — specifically, more “risky play.” Brussoni argues that letting our kids engage in freer, outdoor play is one of the best things we can do to keep them safe.

Safeguarding children by encouraging them to take risks may seem counterintuitive, but you may be more convinced after you meet the children at an outdoor daycare centre in Trondheim, Norway. These preschoolers wander into caves, climb onto rocky outcroppings and tumble down hills. Psychologist Ellen Sandseter offers these children as evidence of the emotional benefits of risky play. Her mission is to turn Norwegian playgrounds back into the adventurous spaces they once were.

The Power of Play sheds light on the hidden benefits of doing one of the most fun, and often undervalued, activities: just playing around.



Credits (Click to expand)

Written & Directed by
Christine McLean

Created & Produced by
Erin Oakes

Executive Producer
Edward Peill

Director of Photography
Becky Parsons

Director of Photography, B Unit
Paul McCurdy

Warren Jefferies

Christine McLean
Erin Oakes

Field Director, B Unit
Matthew Dyer
Kelly Guenther
Nathan Skillen

Sound Recordist
Zan Rosborough

Additional Sound Recordist
James O’Toole
Keith Henderson

Research Consultant
Gordon Burghardt

Visual Research
Gina Cali

Online Editor/Colourist
Doug Woods

Blain Morris

Assistant Online Editor
Robert Carrigan

Graphics Design
Robert Carrigan

Re-Recording Mixer
Matt Dawson

Audio Post Coordinator
Brian Power, CAS

Narration Recording
Sound Kitchen

Production Manager
Victoria Germain

Production Co-ordinator, B Unit
Lisa Cameron

Post Production Manager
John Feron

Production Assistant
Taylor Loughran

Business Affairs
Ann Flemming

Production Accountant
Denise Vickers

Stock Footage
Aquila Films
Dallas Zoo
Getty Images
Jukin Media
Pond 5
Sheldon Plentovich / USFWS

With Thanks To
John Batt, Aquatron Laboratory, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Candace Burke
Angela Chuang
Axel and Zane MacPhedran
Jennifer Mather
Monterey Bay Charter School, Pacific Grove, California
Queen Maud University College of Early Childhood Education, Trondheim, Norway
Seattle Aquarium, Seattle, Washington
Rachel Stark
South Shore Waldorf School, Blockhouse, Nova Scotia
Anna and Mathias Sully
TjØnnstuggu Friluftsbarnehage, Trondheim, Norway
University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia
University of Lethbridge, Lethbridge, Alberta
University of Tennessee. Knoxville, Tennessee
Wilhelma Zoo, Stuttgart, Germany
Zoo Knoxville, Knoxville, Tennessee
Halifax Regional Municipality, Nova Scotia

Jonathan Briggins
Pamela Cameron
Tracey McGee
Leanne Oakes

Close Captioning
Meghan Woods

Video Describe
Jim Swansburg

Extra’s Casting
Hennessey Casting

Ingrid Tollefsen

Legal Services
Rob Aske

Financial Services
RBC Royal Bank

For the CBC

General Manager, Programming
Sally Catto

Executive Director, Unscripted Content
Jennifer Dettman

Senior Director, Documentary
Sandra Kleinfeld

Director of Production, Unscripted Content
Alexandra Lane

Executive in Charge of Production
Sue Dando

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