Animals and Play

Spent a lot of this holiday trying to find some new cat configuration that works in the household–nothing like a new feline to completely throw the established crew for a loop.

New kitten (still haven’t named her–the boys and I can’t agree on a name) is finally starting to get muscle tone back in her hind legs. I don’t know what the heck happened to the little muffin–if it was just starvation or if she had to hide for prolonged periods of time. Our idiot neighbors alternate between over-kenneling/neglecting their dogs and letting them run amok, and an abandoned eight-week-old kitten in this neighborhood would likely have to hide to survive.

I’ve spent some time playing with her the past few days in ways that encourage her to use her hind end, and I was struck once again by what a bonding experience play is. I’ve been playing with cats for most of my life–I can even remember my dad (typical engineer) giving me pointers on how to best play with cats when I was really little.  One of Dad’s favorite tactics was to cut the corners off a paper grocery sack and tip it on its side. Then all you need is a pencil or a ruler to wiggle in the holes. Guaranteed fun for cat and human alike–there is nothing like the adrenaline rush of not knowing where the cat is going to strike next.

I was shocked last night to realize that this little 9-10 week old kitten has already figured out that I am responsible for making interesting things happen. She hopped up on me and meowed, but after a couple of minutes it was clear she didn’t want to be petted, and I knew she’d just been fed. Finally I figured out she wanted me to play with her.  Smart little muffin indeed.

It’s also been very interesting to see the way my horses have matured as they’ve grown older, and I was thinking about the mental leaps that animals make while growing up that we either don’t notice or take for granted. I’ve written before about how I can sense the young mares are starting to feel responsible and protective of me in a way they haven’t been before. That’s a really nice feeling. Horses  enjoy play, too, and most horses seem to love having new and interesting things to do.  I’ve started to turn over some of the responsibility to them to see what they’d like to do when we’re together, now that we have good ground manners established. Sometimes their responses have been quite illuminating, like Friday trying to “open” the gate with her nose (after making sure I was watching what she was doing).

One of my biggest challenges the past few years has been to learn how to have a good time again. I had to be so directed and “on” all the time when I was raising the boys and running the newspaper that I forgot what it was like to have fun.  When I’d finally get the chance to have some time off,  I’d often feel like I was stuck in some kind of an unpleasant physical therapy session. “Having fun” had become a completely foreign concept to me. It was exactly like trying to lift something heavy with atrophied muscles.

Much has been written about the importance of play in brain development (I love Temple Grandin’s book Animals Make Us Human), but I’m not sure how much research has been conducted about how important play is for mental health.  Those of us who have had to work two or three jobs to make ends meet and/or who have been out of work know how awful it feels to not have time for play (or worse, how it feels to feel guilty about the fun we do manage to have).

And what is “play,” exactly? Well, for me, it’s doing something that enables me to completely forget about myself for a little while. Something that makes me forget my worries and feelings of inadequacy. Something that makes me live in the moment–when I am so completely absorbed that I don’t notice time passing.

I wonder how some of you other folks would define “fun” or “play” and what part you think it plays in your lives.  I’d be interested to hear what you think.






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8 responses to “Animals and Play

  1. I think this is one of the nicest things about clicker training, you can turn almost anything into a game and have fun. Gwen’s favorite thing to do is target because it can become a really good game. I just have to make sure that whatever she’s targeting on has a long handle so I can hold it away from my body. When you’ve got a horse galloping at you it’s nice to know they’re aiming for two feet over there 😉

    I trend towards being blue (or clinically depressed, whatever) so I make an effort to infuse fun and joy into my life as much as possible. It’s much too easy for me to get dragged down.

    • I like targeting, too. Re happiness–it’s easy for people to forget that we have a responsibility to be happy. I think folks like me who were raised with a gold-standard work ethic have trouble wrapping our little heads around that concept. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the Hyperbole and a Half website, but she recently posted a hilarious (and very scary) story about her latest bout with depression, and she captured the self-loathing that goes along with it perfectly!

      I’m so glad that we have our horses–they are truly nature’s Prozac.

  2. Like you I was raised with the gold standard work ethic. To this day if I don’t do something that needs doing I feel guilty. You are so right that we need to learn how to forget our responsibilities and play and have some fun. We all need to take a mental health day once in a while or even better a few mental health hours a day.

    The kitty sounds so adorable. I think you have found the perfect name for her “muffin”. How cute would that be. Our animals are truly nature’s Prozac and I do appreciate them more than they know.

    • I’ve thought about “Muffin” but I think the boys would put the kibosh on that. I’ve also been calling her “BK” for “Baby Kitty,” but she won’t be a baby forever! She’s currently doing her best to distract me from my grading.

  3. Huh. I actually had to stop and think about what is “fun” for me lately. I used to do a lot of artsy-crafty stuff, but I lack an area where I have enough space to work with enough light to see what I’m doing. It’s a pain to have to set stuff up and tear it down everytime I want to do something. Also reading, but like the arts/crafts, it’s hard to get enough light these days. (My eyesight’s going fast) The last time I experienced pure “fun” was on that trip to Silverwood last spring with Christina, and that was probably because I didn’t have to deal with any freakouts or meltdowns. You know what I’m dealing with over here, Asperger’s and autism suck a lot of the fun out of your day. 🙂

    • Oh, Pam, you and me both (vision-wise). I feel like someone turned a switch off behind my eyeballs. Plenty of light really does help–you should ask for one of those task lamps for Christmas!

  4. Couz

    Interesting question!
    Gretchen Ruben, in her amazing book, “The Happiness Project” says that there are three types of fun: “challenging fun” –e.g. climbing a mountain “accommodating fun” –e.g. dinner out with family or friends and “relaxing fun” –e.g. watching tv, and that only challenging fun and accommodating fun really help build our overall happiness.

    As a person who has touched a horse but once, and lives in a very suburban house with a family of people who are allergic to animals of all fashions I have to speculate a little, but taking care of animals (at least some parts of taking care of animals) sounds like a really distilled version of accommodating fun, without some of the overhead issues of interpersonal conflict (I think it was Jerry Seinfeld who said, there is nothing that is “fun for the whole family”)

    My latest discovery with fun has been that I even though I like cooking, I need to stop feeling like my family owes me a debt of gratitude when I cook for them. I make breakfasts for the family every morning. Rarely do I get even a thank you, and even smiles are not present until the meal is done. Once I reframed making breakfast as something I do for me, I did not resent their not being effusive with praise and I really started to appreciate my family’s morning quirks. I got to do something I enjoy this morning and people I love will have a better day because they are well fed. Wins all around!

    • It’s weird, but I don’t seem to differentiate “fun”…some people think that “fun” only can stem from stuff that you don’t HAVE to do (like if you’re not at work or fulfilling some sort of other obligation). I don’t care where I am when I have that sense of time loss–it’s all good.

      Interesting what you say about cooking. A cook is like a writer (you’ve always got to be considering your audience) and so I doubt you make things that YOU’D like to eat that the rest of your “audience” doesn’t want to eat. (And yes, I know it happens all the time with kids, but most parents try to avoid that.) So a good cook always has his/her “audience” in mind, even if they cook to enjoy themselves, and even if they’re a crabby audience. But I know what you mean. Teenagers bring the whole morning sullenness thing to an entirely new level.

      And yes, animals are very relaxing to be around, except for there are still plenty of conflicts (I don’t want you to pounce on my head while I’m asleep, you must not take off when you’re haltered and on a lead rope). What’s really the most fun for me is the level of concentration it takes on my part for the whole interspecies communication thing. You really do have to learn how to THINK like they do. Maybe it’s because I’m neurotic, but getting out of my own head is the absolute best kind of vacation for me.

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