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There are at least 2 distinct questions within the general question “why do animals (including humans) play?”

What is the neurological explanation for why juvenile and adult animals play?

What is the evolutionary biological explanation for why why juvenile and adult animals play?


Neurologically, animals play because doing so releases neurochemicals that reinforce the behavior by making it feel good. In short, we play because it’s pleasant. It’s pleasant because of how our brains are made, which is determined mainly by our genes.


We inherit our genes from our progenitors, so for us to have genes that make our brains make us feel good when we play, these genes must have not prevented our progenetors from reproducing, and better, increased the probability that they would. Play describes a wide range of behaviors, so there are many explanations for why the traits that give rise to play are evolutionary advantageous. An obvious and much cited one, especially when describing non-human animals, is that play is important to physically and mentally train juveniles for adult tasks. For example, when kittens engage in rough-and-tumble play with adults and each other, they learn hunting skills that they use as adults.


Another question is why play continues in adult animals that have presumable learned the skills they need to survive and reproduce. Why is there not a “genetic switch” that “turns off” at a certain age the neurological mechanisms that makes play pleasant?


There are lots of explanations, which I’ll leave to others, with one more question: Is the commonness of play in juveniles vs adults much different between different animal species? Has this difference made some species more successful than others?


Answering the OP’s specific questions...

Why do kids play?

Because it feels good.


And what is the adult equivalent?

In humans and many other animals, many adult play activities are the same as juvenile ones. Because adults are mentally and physically capable of activities juveniles are not, some play is unique to adults. Because adults lose some juvenile mental and physical capabilities, some play is unique to juveniles. In social animals like adults, our behavior is constrained by our interpretation of social norms. Most human societies have some norms forbidding adults to engage in forms of play permitted to juveniles, and vice versa, so play is constrained in this way.


Why do kids enjoy play even if the themes are repetitive?

Because it feels good.


When play themes are too repetitive, the play ceases to feel as good as other play, we stop doing it.

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