The Benefit of Playing Like Our Pets

Your household, like mine, may be blessed with a furry companion. One that inherently wants to play, be loved, and love in return. These characteristics are shared amongst us two-leggeds as well. Like our pets, we too are born with a sense of curiosity, an innate ability to express our emotions, and eagerness to please. Both species also benefit from a strong sense of resilience, a critical tool that helps us successfully navigate life’s challenges.

I witnessed these shared inherent gifts of life the other week as a friend’s toddler and my dog played together. The game of toss and catch was not new to either of them; playing together was. Eli enjoys throwing balls, though his aim is a bit sporadic. Darby loves to catch and retrieve.

Like any new experience, they both started off a bit timid and eventually got into their groove. Their relationship, trust, and eagerness to play and please blossomed after a few initial foul balls. The experience was richer than I could have ever imagined. The lessons I learned have been emblazed in my mind. Not that Darby (the dog) or Eli (the toddler) would summarize their experience as such, here is what I surmise as some benefits of playing like our pets.

  • Laughter (a.k.a. excited barking) is contagious and feels good.
  • Being pleased feels as good as pleasing others.
  • Relationships require and build trust.
  • We learn and grow from setbacks and successes.
  • Resilience strengthens through a diversity of experiences.
  • It’s fun to live and play like there is no tomorrow.
  • Being perfect is not important, trying is.
  • Play keeps us active and healthy.

Child psychologists, pediatricians and pet trainers alike are in agreement: play is crucial to healthy social, emotional and cognitive development*.

Weeks later I ventured out with Eli again. I marveled at the growth this little guy exhibited. His sense of the world and confidence in it has expanded. His willingness to risk, fail and learn has become part of his being. He marvels at the ordinary and unusual alike, and laughs and plays like there is no tomorrow. His ball arm has even improved. Darby too continues to unabashedly seek playmates and play opportunities. And though she may gain a few more grey hairs before her two-legged friend, they are both born to play.

(* For more information on the importance of play in child and pet development, visit: www.scientificamerican.com ‘The Serious Need For Play’; www.gooddogsrule.com ‘The Importance of Play’.)

Bobbi Geise has been professionally playing and exploring outdoors with children, families (and 4-leggeds) for over 20 years. She owns Learning By Nature, which provides professional development, consultation, and site design emphasizing outdoor learning and play. For more information and resources visit www.LearningByNature.org

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