Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

The Evolution of Play

Offered at: Pratt Logo

Note: For the time being I am removing this course from my roster of courses offered; although I have enjoyed teaching this class and I believe it offers students some valuable content, it will not be a viable course for very much longer due to curricular reforms that make a one-credit course difficult to fill. I am still excited about this topic and would love to explore it through a three-credit course that looked at both play and performance in animal behavior.

Course Description:
This short course explores the evolution of play in a diversity of animals. Looking at the behavior of juveniles and adults, we will come to understand playfulness as an adaptation produced by Darwinian natural selection. In class we will use a variety of games to investigate the adaptive value of play; as a final project, students will produce a game of their own designed to aid the survival and/or reproduction of players or analyze a modern form of play from an evolutionary perspective.

Who Might Be Interested In This Course?
Do you want to learn about evolution, but don’t have room in your schedule for a full 3-credit course? Are you an avid athlete, jokester, performer, musician, or game-player who has wondered where your passion for play comes from? Are you interested in the similarities and differences between play in the animal world and human play? If so, this class will give you a chance to consider major evolutionary hypotheses explaining the origin of play. This class is brief and provides a less comprehensive overview of evolutionary biology than my introductory course in Evolution (MSCI-260), but in our consideration of play you will be exposed to all the basic tenets of evolutionary theory. The majority of your grade will be based on your final project, which challenges you to analyze a form of play from an evolutionary perspective. I also ask that students engage in regular discussions, often in small groups, so you should be prepared to be actively involved during class sessions. The Evolution of Play requires a significant amount of reading (see the syllabus below for details), so you should be prepared to allocate at least two hours a week to reading for this course (note that the course meets once a week for fifteen-weeks).

What Background Should I Have Before I Take This Course?
This course assumes that you have a basic understanding of evolutionary biology and strong understanding of high school-level biology. It is helpful if you take MSCI-260 (Evolution) before taking this course, but the course is also valuable on its own.

MSCI-261 (The Evolution of Play) Course Syllabus
MSCI-261 (The Evolution of Play) Final Project Guidelines

You can check out exemplary Final Projects on the Evolution of Play student work page.