We evaluated hypotheses suggesting that play behaviour in free-living juvenile Belding's ground squirrels, Spermophilus beldingi, helps to regulate energy balance and promotes development of motor skills. We also examined the possibility that play behaviour and motor development influence important early life events in S. beldingi. We regularly measured body fat of juveniles using nondestructive methods, observed their behaviour, conducted motor skills tests, monitored dispersal status of males, and evaluated weaning success of females during their first effort to reproduce as yearlings. Rates of feeding were greater among juveniles who engaged in both social and nonsocial play behaviour at low compared to high rates, suggesting that play does not help young animals expend excess energy that they consume. By contrast, body fat was greater among juveniles who engaged in social play at high compared to low rates, supporting the idea that energetic variables such as body fat limit the expression of play behaviour. Motor skills of juvenile S. beldingi improved throughout the period in which juveniles engaged in play behaviour. Improvement in motor skills was greater in juveniles who engaged in social play at high compared to low rates, suggesting a link between social play and motor development. Motor skill levels at the end of the play period were greater among males who dispersed by the end of the juvenile summer than among males still residing in their natal areas. Rates of social play and improvement in motor skills over the course of the play period were greater in females who successfully weaned a litter as yearling than in females who did not. These last two results raise the possibility that play behaviour and motor development during the play period influence important events in the early lives of S. beldingi, which may ultimately influence long-term reproductive success. © 2004 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.