What is Functional Play? – Occupational Therapy for Pediatrics

Children engage in learning through play. Occupational therapists consider play to be essential to a child’s growth and development. There are many types of play you may be familiar with already: parallel play, pretend play, and imaginary play. Functional play is play with a purpose, such as using an item for it’s intended purpose. Examples of objects used for functional play include a toothbrush to brush one’s teeth, a water bottle to drink water, or a stick of deodorant to apply to one’s self.

Function play is easier to understand for a child compared to other types of play. In contrast to say, imaginary play: using one’s imagination for play, it takes a more mental effort. An example is using a doll or action figure for pretend play. Functional play, on the other hand, is easy for us to engage with for children.

There are many benefits to functional play, compared to other types of play. Research suggests that children learn most through functional play. Functional Play prepares a child for other types of play and even for more advanced communication skills.((Functional play in young children with autism and Williams syndrome: A cross-syndrome comparison. Peter AJ Fanning, Laura Sparaci, Cheryl Dissanayake, Darren R Hocking, Giacomo Vivanti. Child Neuropsychology 27 (1), 125-149, 2021)) A lot of occupational therapy puts an emphasis on ‘function’. It’s why we as adults do purposeful activities. But for a child, they are like sponges absorbing knowledge of the world around them and learning what the purpose of our interactions are with our immediate environment. They are building the associations of objects, animals, people, and things with their function in their environment.

So when we think of functional toys, they are actually all around us. Many of these can be used for children to learn through functional play. Of course, some things are considered more safe than others. Sharp knives, electrical cords, a pool of water would be unsafe for a child. But you can take a toothbrush, a comb, a cardboard box, whatever is around you that you interact with, your child would likely want to participate in as well and model after you. Not only is it functional because you are using the object or thing already, it is a perfect learning opportunity for your child.

Before you grab an object to use as a toy for functional play, you should consider your child. What’s their developmental level at physically and mentally? One indicator of this is their interest level. If a child shows interest and through your common sense, they can engage in functional play with your supervision, then there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ thing to play with. And as a parent, you would know your child’s temperament and personality best. If they are careful, then a pen may be appropriate, but if they are not, then it may be risky for poking their eyes, for example. In general, an older child such as a 1 year old should be able to begin engaging in more of these types of play, as their communication skills are more developed such as their balance and fine motor skills. They may not necessarily speak, but you should not underestimate their understanding and receptive communication skills for learning through functional play.

While it’s easy to say no and to redirect a child to playing with their ‘toys’, take a second to think of it is an opportunity for a child to participate in functional play. Opening a draw, pushing a button, turning a knob, crumbling a piece of paper and throwing it in the trash – the possibilities are only limited by what is in your environment and what is safe.

Through functional play, my 1.5 year old (with my help and supervision) learned how to open and close the garage door, open and close a drawer, take out a pair of Airpods, associate a stick of deodorant with it’s intended purpose, use a comb, throw things in the trash, put on a hat, wear ear protection in loud environments, open a push button water bottle, almost fully put on a sock, turn on a battery operated handheld fan, and so on. These are all things that “adults do”, but through the self-affirmations that my child gives themselves when they do something successful (even without our praise), they find joy and purpose in their young lives. It’s very powerful for one’s development and promotes their independence and self-esteem.

So look around you when you may be stressing about having to get some more toys for children. It may already be there! Just pick it up, use it for it’s intended purpose, and let your child give it a try!