Answer: They're sharpening their survival skills.
Cats, like humans, often feel the need to touch things to better understand them. But why do cats — like Burrito, the curious cat in this video — feel compelled to bat at things, knocking them over? According to cat expert Mikel Delgado, this behavior could just be a form of playfulness, but play isn’t always as simple as it seems with cats.
“Play behavior in animals is the ‘practicing’ of skills they need to survive, such as hunting, but usually in an exaggerated fashion,” Delgado says. “In a sense, [cats] can test out how things work in the world — ‘What happens when I touch this? How hard do I need to bat it? How quickly does it fall?’” Felines also have sensitive whiskers, Delgado explained — not just on their faces, but on the backs of their legs as well — and thickly bundled nerve endings in their paws, which give them information about “prey” items (or, in this case, “play” items).
Another possible explanation for why cats knock things over is attention. “A lot of cats will bat things off dressers or shelves in the wee hours of the morning to wake their humans up — and they are often successful,” Delgado says. “Attention reinforces behavior for many cats, making them more likely to do those behaviors again.”