How Functional Play Benefits Children

Little boy playing with cardboard box
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Child development experts consider functional play to be the most simple type of play in which small children engage. Such experts often refer to functional play as "first play" precisely because it characterizes how young children first begin to use playthings 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 reimagined as a telescope or precious gem, but because it is a block. It can be pushed through a hole, rolled across the floor or dropped repeatedly from the top of a high chair. This actually means that "toys" may not matter much to toddlers. A cardboard box, as all parents have seen, will delight them as much as a new train set, since it has so many fascinating characteristics to discover.

Unlike dramatic play, functional play does not involve using toys or everyday items in symbolic ways. Instead, your little one will concentrate on the natural physical characteristics of an object (whether that object is designed to be a toy or not).

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 it emits.

Good quality toddler toys should stimulate your child's senses. They also need to be safe enough to be pulled on, sucked on and thrown out of the crib. Specifically, toys and materials given to 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, toddlers might purposefully roll a ball down a slide over and over again simply because they love to see the colors spin around and hear the sound of the bounce. The sight and the sound delight them.

Benefits of Functional Play

While children may be happy with the sensory delights offered by dolls or empty toilet paper tubes, they get much more than sensory stimulation 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

Functional play may be known as "first play," but it prepares tots for the complex skills they'll need to utilize both in school and in life.

By Maureen Ryan
Maureen Ryan is a freelance writer, editor, and teaching consultant specializing in health, parenting, and education.