Bears at play and why I’m skipping the gym

Some photos just stick with you. Like the one on the front of the New York Times Science section that I saw almost a decade ago. Two adult polar bears stood on their hind legs, with huge paws locked on one another, their nostrils flared wide. But what looked like real fighting was just play. Researchers had watched as the adult male bears played for hours on end. Apparently the bears had time to spare in Churchill in the fall while waiting for the sea ice to form. In pairs, they wrestled, locked jaws and hugged until so tired they plopped down for a rest.

Another scientist, also in Churchill, observed as a curious polar bear investigated a camera lens cap that had fallen out of their all-terrain vehicle. With the slap of a paw, the animal skidded the cap across the ground like a hockey puck. Soon the rest of the bears there joined the game. As scientists puzzle out why polar bears play, they also question what seems to be bad timing from an evolutionary standpoint: At the end of a months-long summer fast, the hungry polar bears should be conserving energy, not horsing around. Sometimes play is that important. Check out Built for the Arctic: The Polar Bear’s Splendid Adaptations.

I found myself collecting stories of animals at play. Fun-loving seals. Sparring pronghorns. Sassy squirrel monkeys. I learned bison prefer late afternoon or early evenings for playdates. In short, I was hooked. As I began to read about human play, I noticed play pundits were espousing that we adults trade in our gym workouts for down and dirty, unstructured play as a cure for anxiety and a host of other ills. Well, I thought, I’m in for that.

Hence this blog, Prof at Play: It’s part exploration of the science of play and part personal. Follow along as I begin a journey to add more play in my life. But first, being the methodical journalist that I am, I’ll begin by observing animals and humans at play. (But, geez, that’s not much of a playful start; should I go paddleboarding instead?) In any case, I’m not ready for play fighting. Yet.

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