I work in a laboratory, I study the otters each day,
I'm stuck when I come to one story, the myst'ry of why otters play,
As a scientist I look for reasons for certain behavioral traits.
Could it be just for fun that you play in the sun? I've even seen you race.
You go head first and belly down and then you slide into the water.
You go head first and belly down and then you slide 'cuz you're an otter.
You don't have to go to school each day, you stay at home and play,
And you look so cute when you're covered with clay, and...
You're Mother Nature's acrobat, the Queen of Rock 'n Roll.
You make me laugh so hard, I feel it deep in my soul, when...
Your antics are amazing and your whiskers mesmerize.
As a big top clown, you should get the first prize, when...
You're otterly adorable, I love to watch you play,
Would you be so kind as to show me the way, the way...
Words and music by Candy Forest 1990
Available on Head First and Belly Down, audio cassette from Sisters' Choice Recordings or from Alcazar. Includes songs about endangered animlas, solar energy, recycling...


In an article in the Smithsonian magazine (June 1989, pp138+) about river otters, Candy found the phrase “head first and belly down” and this paragraph: “As a scientist, Foster-Turley hesitates to use the word 'fun', but with otters she comes close. 'When I see one balancing a pinecone on its nose, then pulling it underwater and letting it bob to the surface, then shooting up and jumping on it, there's nothing else to call it.' After all, she points out, otters are quick-witted, skillful animals to whom a productive river or marsh is an unchallenging all-you-can-eat buffet. And when they've had their fill of fish, frogs, crabs and othe delicacies, they've got time to kill. So why not play?” Pat Foster-Turley assures us that it is athe otters' diet, not the otters themselves, that she studies in the laboratory. The otters stay outside.



Pat Foster-Turley is the scientist whose study of river otters inspired “Head First and Belly Down.” She says otters are “skillful and quick-witted.” Animals that are good at getting food, like otters are, have energy left over for playing. Young mammals, whose mothers are feeding them, often have energy left over. But they seem to play for another reason too: they are learning moves they will need when they have to find their own food or get away from animals that want to eat them.

Otters and a few other mammals play even after they are grown up. When otters slide into the water over and over again it's not to get food or shelter or to groom themselves or learn something or win a prize. They just do it!


1. Watch young children. How do they play? Take notes.

Does playing help young humans learn? Develop their muscles? Help them make friends?

Do humans play after they are grown up?

2. Watch dogs or cats, kittens or puppies or other animals play. Take notes.

Compare play activities in these different animals. Compare different ages too, if you can.

3. Wolf pups have a special signal that says to other pups and to adult wolves: “I want to play!” It is called the 'play bow.' Dogs make the same bow for the same reason: the dog (or wolf) stretches out its front legs and lowers the front half of its body while raising its tail and wagging it. It is saying to you, or to another dog, “I want to play!” Wolves do this before they play-fight each other.

Have you seen a dog or puppy make a “play bow?”

How do you signal to your friends that you want some friendly tussling or competition, not a serious fight?


1. Divide into two teams. A good way to do this is to have one team of people with even-numbered birthdays and the other team odd-numbered birthdays. (May 21 would be on the odd team, May 22 on the evens.) Each team has a container.
2. Each player write the name of a favorite animal on a piece of paper. Fold the paper and drop it in your team's container.
3. The first player takes a paper from the other team's container. Don't show anyone on your own team what is written on the paper.
4. Without making any sound, act out that animal to your own team until someone on your team guesses what animal it is. If your teammates ask you questions about the animal, remember that you can't make any sound when you answer, just make motions.
5. Then someone from the other team chooses a paper from your box and acts out one of your animals for their team. Watch and see how well they act and guess.


OLIVER AND THE OIL SPILL, written and illustrated by Aruna Chandrasekhar. Landmark Editions, 1991.
Aruna was nine years old when she wrote this realistic story about a sea otter. Landmark Editions has a contest every year for young author-illustrators. Write to them at P.O. Box 4469, Kansas City, Missouri 64127, to find out how to enter a story you have written.
EMMET OTTER'S JUG BAND CHRISTMAS by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Lillian Hoban. Parent's Magazine Press, 1971.
Emmet wants to get his mother a store-bought present this year, but times are hard. He takes a chance on winning the talent contest. He doesn't know his mother is doing the same thing.