Why Play is Important for Kittens
Kittens are known for their frisky behavior, running, climbing, pouncing and pawing. This play is actually a vital part of normal development, helping the young cat develop social, predatory, and locomotion skills that adult cats in the wild would need.
When kittens are still with their mother, their play is centered around her as well as littermates. This social play teaches kittens to understand and communicate with other cats. Around weaning time, they begin to show interest in playing with objects, going through the stalking, chasing and pouncing motions that teach them how to hunt. They also use their paws to bat and swat at objects, developing their eye-paw coordination. By around 10 to 12 weeks of age, locomotory play, with running, climbing and leaping, is fully developed. Such play is important in developing agility and coordination. By this time they have a full repertoire of play behaviors, complete with play fighting, play killing, and play escape behaviors---all behaviors essential for survival in the wild, and as well, for a well-adjusted cat in your household. Play also helps shy kittens build self confidence as they start to succeed in bringing down their quarry.
Kittens that are weaned too early often have longterm effects of growing up alone. If a playing kitten gets carried away and bites or scratches too hard, its littermate or mother will either quit playing or give a signal that the rough play was not appreciated, perhaps growling or giving a swat. In this way the kitten learns to inhibit its bites and scratches, so that play fighting doesn't damage playmates. Kittens without this education often grow up play fighting far too roughly, and getting into fights when they didn't understand their playmate's signals to stop. If you have an orphan kitten, try to find some playmates for him. If that's not possible, you'll need to teach him not to play too roughly by stopping play when he gets out of hand. Simple say "ouch!" and stop the game when he gets too rough.
Play helps burn off excess energy, which too often is directed into unacceptable behaviors such as climbing the curtains, knocking the collectables off the table or launching themselves at the chandelier. As kittens get older they naturally want to explore, which is another skill they'll need as adults. But unsupervised kittens can get stuck in small spaces, pull heavy objects down on them, or even get trapped in the dryer or get electrocuted. That's why you need to not only prevent your kitten from playing in areas you can't watch him, but entice him to play elsewhere by providing better things to explore, such as cat trees, perching posts, paper bags, tunnels and boxes. Cats that tend to chew can be given herb gardens suitable for cats or chew toys.
When you leave your kitten for the day, make sure there's nothing to entice him to play that could be dangerous. But do leave him a variety of safe toys and diversions, such as a scratching posts, ledges, climbing trees, cat toys on springs, ping pong balls, catnip mice, or interactive toys that deliver food or treats when the cat works at them. Some cats even enjoy watching cat DVDs of swimming fish and flying birds. Never leave string toys, which the cat could swallow, and which can cause serious intestinal problems sometimes needing surgery. Your young cat needs stimulation, and if you don't give him safe outlets, he'll come up with his own.
When you're with your kitten, you can roll ping pong balls, dangle feathers, or even go "cat fishing" with a toy on the end of a little rod and reel. Many cats appreciate modern technology, especially laser light pointing toys and remote control mice. As fun and tempting as it is to use your hands as targets, you may regret this as your cat gets older. A few cats become too rambunctious in their play, in which case you need to redirect their unacceptable play to acceptable play, or if that doesn't work, give your cat a time-out.
Playing with your cat is not only good for exercising your cat mentally and physically, but for strengthening the bond between you. Your cat will associate you with having a good time, plus games are fun for both of you!