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Functional Play


Definition: Functional play is considered the most simple type of play. Child development experts who study the different ways kids play (yes, some people actually study play for a living) refer to it as first play because it's how young children first begin to use playthings deliberately to entertain themselves. This stage of play starts in infancy and usually continues through toddlerhood until around age 2.

Why Little Kids Love a Box

Before your child begins to invent pretend worlds and imaginary friends, she will usually love a toy for being exactly what it is. A block is magical, not because it can be re-imagined as a telescope or precious gem, but because it is a block. It can be pushed through a hole or rolled across the floor or dropped (preferably over and over and over again) from the top of a high chair. This actually means that "toys" may not matter much to your toddler. A cardboard box, as all parents have seen, will delight him at least as much as a new train set since, on its own, it has so many fascinating properties waiting to be discovered.

Unlike dramatic play functional play does not involve using toys or everyday objects in symbolic ways. Instead, your little one will concentrate on the natural physical characteristics of an object.

The Joy of Play

As your toddler interacts and examines the object, she is using her senses -- sight, hearing, vision, taste, and smell -- to learn about both the plaything and her world. Your child might be attracted to an object's bright colors, the sound it makes when he bangs it with a spoon, the smooth feel of its sides, or the new and unusual smells that emit from it.

Good-quality toddler toys should stimulate your child's senses. They also needs to be safe enough to be pulled on, sucked on, and thrown out of the crib. Specifically, toys and materials you give young children should be up to safety standards established by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Another characteristic of functional play is that it often involves repetition. For instance, your child might purposefully roll a ball down a slide over and over and over simply because he loves to see the colors spin around and hear the sound of the bounce. It is delightful. What else does a she need?

Benefits of Functional Play

While your child is happy with the pure sensory delights he can find in a toy doll or an empty toilet paper tube, don't assume that sensory stimulation is all he gets out of playtime. The simple repetitive activities that are common during functional play actually build pre-literacy, motor, and thinking skills. For instance, consider the following ways your toddler might play:

  • lining up cars by color -- promotes skills such as identifying and classifying objects
  • snapping together interlocking blocks without "making" anything in particular -- builds hand-eye coordination
  • crashing a car into the wall and watching it bounce back off -- introduces the concept of cause and effect

See Also: Parallel Play | Collaborative Play | Functional Play | Constructive Play | Dramatic Play

Also Known As: first play
My son's favorite functional play "toys" are a wooden spoon and a bucket that he bangs together over and over.

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