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What is Functional Play?

Functional play, known as relational play, is when a child explores objects as they are intended to be used. Functional play shows children how objects are meant to be used in relation to one another and for their intended purpose.

Functional play is important for early learning, helps children explore different combinations of toys and tasks, and develops language, coordination, and thinking. At Pediatrics Plus, we work to target functional goals for every child based on the individual treatment plan put together by our team of therapists. Each of our locations has a Functional Play Gym, which allows the child to receive therapy in an environment that looks like it was built more for playing with vibrant colors and images on the walls.

Functional Play can look different as children grow and explore their surroundings. Below are some examples of how play changes as children grow.

Stages of Functional Play/Expected Milestones:

0-12 months:

  • Engages in exploratory play (sensorimotor play).
  • Play is focused on bonding with caregivers.
  • Might explore the parent’s hair, body, and face as they guide the child to objects such as rattles, rings, or soft animals.
  • Engages in repetitive movements to experience different sounds, sights, feelings, and touches.
  • Back-and-forth interactions (singing a song during a diaper change or cooing and smiling).

12-18 months:

  • Engages in functional play by using a toy for its proper function.
  • Cause-effect play is important (learning how to dump, fill up, turn, crank, twist, make noise, or light up toys).
  • Learning to play games such as “peek-a-boo” and “pat-a-cake”.

18-24 months:

  • Engages in pretend play, also known as symbolic play.
  • Makes inanimate objects perform actions (a doll eating).
  • Enjoys solitary play (building blocks) and social play (imitating peers).
  • Movements become more self-directed (climbing, swinging, and sliding).
  • Puts together sequences of multiple actions (putting toys in a bus then moving them).

2-3 years:

  • Engages in play with multiple children (pick a theme and children take turns).
  • Pretend play (using a block as a phone).
  • Motor skills are improving so the child can enjoy activities like throwing games and riding tricycles.
  • Combines actions into complete play scenarios (feeding dolls, putting pajamas on a doll, then putting doll to bed).

3-4 years:

  • Play is highly focused and revolves around peer relationships.
  • Participates in circle time, singing, dancing, games, and art time.
  • Engages in group play instead of parallel play (shows interest in being a friend).

Sources include: Vanderbilt & Children's Hospital of Chicago 

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