Symbolic (also labeled fantasy, imaginative or pretend) play is a human universal. Its role in ontogeny, especially childhood, is essential to cognitive and social development. A child’s capacity to utilize objects, actions or ideas in symbolic play scaffolds cognitive flexibility/ creativity, tempers emotional regulation, and may impact language development.
This presentation explores whether our nearest living relatives, the great apes (chimpanzee, bonobo, gorilla, and orangutan) evince a capacity for symbolic play. Before examining such evidence, an overview of play is presented. Suggested functions of play include practice, coping with extremes, and extending the period of learning. Behavioral cues to play include: open-mouth play face, exaggeration, repetition, and restraint but context is crucial and these cues are not always present. Köhler’s “serious play” is characterized by deliberate movements, compressed mouth and other facial signals. Thus, rather than viewing play as frivolous or lacking practical purpose, an evolutionary perspective argues that play is critical to the “rehearsal” of adult behavior and underpins behavioral flexibility.
Evidence in this presentation for symbolic play in great apes (Genera Pan, Gorilla and Pongo) ranges from extended anecdote to empirical reports from field studies with the latter coming from Genus Pan. Individuals from the three great ape genera who have participated in language acquisition research, whether arguably failed attempts to produce speech (chimpanzee Vicki from the 1950s) or more successful efforts with American Sign Language (ASL) that capitalized on the natural repertoire of great apes to use gesture, show evidence of symbolic play. These apes use ASL to “talk” to themselves in private, to their toys, make requests of toys, or care-givers, and dissimulate about the presence or absence of feared creatures. They engage in pretend object play which suggests the symbolic capacity to treat objects representationally.
The most persuasive evidence for symbolic play in wild apes comes from the Kanyawara community of chimpanzee in Kibale National park, Uganda. In a 2010 Current Biology publication, Kahlenberg and Wrangham reported juvenile chimpanzees carrying sticks and rocks as a form of “object play/doll play”. The pattern was female-biased and included lengthy periods of object transport, carrying objects into trees, nesting with, or making nests for the objects. Reports of possible symbolic play when chimpanzees and bonobos explore still or moving water may indicate the use of water to self-explore or manipulate the properties of water.
That there is some evidence for symbolic play in great apes is, perhaps, not surprising given what we have learned about ape cultures in the last decades. Evidence of ape abilities for innovation, imitation, social transmission of knowledge, and Theory of Mind argue for their impressive cognitive attributes. Nonetheless, the human aptitude for symbolic play is universally observed in childhood and continues through-out the life course. Symbolic play is embedded in the fabric of human cultures and is likely tied to symbolic systems including language.