Recreation may look like it serves no obvious purpose, but when dogs and other animals are having fun they are learning some valuable lessons.

Say you're walking your dog in the park, when he comes face to snout with another dog. An intricate dance begins, as if each movement was precisely choreographed. The dogs visually inspect each other, sniff each other, walk circles around each other. And then the fight begins. But is it really a fight, or is it just play-fighting? It's very important for Fido and you to know whether he's in any true danger.

Dog owners everywhere like to take their dogs to the park to play. But is their behaviour best described as "play"? Scientists, such as James L. Gould and Carol Grant Gould have used the word “play” to describe any behaviour that does not have any apparent adaptive function, that is, it serves no obvious purpose.

The natural world teems with examples of such "purposeless activities." University of Vermont biologists Bernd Heinrich and Rachel Smolker describe a commonplace activity among ravens (Corvus corax): snowboarding. Ravens in Alaska and Northern Canada are known to slide down steep, snow-covered roofs. When they reach the bottom, they walk or fly back to the top, and repeat the process over and over again. In Maine, ravens were observed tumbling down small mounds of snow, sometimes while holding sticks between their talons. "We see no obvious utilitarian function for sliding behaviour," they write. Anyone who has spent time in a school playground will recognize that ravens and human children both delight in this type of repetitive sliding activity.

Read more at BBC Future.