Functional Play

Play is the primary role of the child and so in In this blog post, we are covering functional play to support development using toys you might find in most households. Occupational therapy supports the development of individuals across the lifespan and when working with children, the main tool for supporting development of skills is functional play. Not only for young children, but throughout the lifespan there is functional play. We cover more on OT play interventions in our occupational therapy play post.

Functional play

Today we are talking about using everyday toy items in developing skills in therapy sessions or at home, all to promote child development.

What is functional play?

Functional play refers to using toys, objects, and items designed for play in their intended function to participate in play as an occupation. There are many types of play and the various functional play skills promote development in young children. Play age and stage makes a difference in the development of functional play. 

For example, functional play is:

  • Building blocks into a tower or other imaginative construction
  • Coloring with crayons
  • Driving matchbox cars along the floor
  • Swinging a bat to hit a ball
  • Kicking, throwing, or rolling a ball
  • Pushing a doll in a play stroller
  • Using a volleyball to play a volleyball game

Many toys can be used in ways different than their intended nature. We see this a lot in occupational therapy sessions where we think outside the box with the toys we have on hand. Toys are used in ways not exactly inline with their function, or the reason why they were created.

  • We use blocks or jump ropes to make an obstacle course path.
  • We make playdough using crayons.
  • We stack kitchen containers.
  • We climb up the slide.

Each of these examples stretches the object’s typical use into other ways to play.

Functional play is neither right, or wrong.

It’s good and natural to think outside the box. Functional play offers tools for healthy development in children. The opposite of functional play, or using those very same toys in ways that they were not intended is healthy for the development of children, as well!

Like many homes, ours has lots of children’s toys in random locations. Books under the coffee table. Light up balls in the hallway. Sports equipment by the door.

But.  Then I remember the function that all of these toys brings to my children.  These plastic pieces, wooden blocks, and little figures are tools for learning and development.  They are the tools of functional play!

We all use toys, tools, equipment, and materials in functional play.

Types of Functional Play

The types of play change over the course of development. Broken down, play includes these various stage of play as a developmental progression:

We can break down each form of play into play activities that utilize the levels of play as a powerful tool to support development. In each level listed above, you’ll see components:

  • Creative play
  • Communication play
  • Movement-based play
  • Socio-dramatic play
  • Dramatic play
  • Imaginative play
  • Explorative play
  • Fantasy play
  • Mastery play
  • Role play
  • Historical play

How do kids use basic toys in imagination, language development, social skills, fine motor strength, sensory integration, gross motor development, and problem solving?  

Toys are tools of function and help to develop a child’s skills in so many areas.  Grab a cup of coffee, move the ninja turtles from their couch battle scene, and read on!




Developmental play ideas for function in kids with everyday play items.




The Function of Play in Kids

In Occupational Therapy, probably one of the most asked questions is, “What is Occupational Therapy?” Since hanging up my graduation cap over 15 years ago, I’ve probably answered this question a few zillion times.  
Occupational Therapy is rehabilitation and treatment of activities of a person’s daily living skills and occupations in order to improve function.  A child’s occupations are learning to get themselves dressed, feeding themselves, and play, (among other things and depending on their age)!  
Whatever is important to a person, whether it be interests or to function throughout a day, is what an Occupational Therapist can work on in therapy services. 
“Play is a child’s work.”  It’s a phrase coined by Maria Montesorri, and a concept developed by  Jean Piaget.  Through play, children learn, develop, and integrate their systems and functional abilities.  
Today, I’m going to share how children can use those random toys scattered all over the house in development and learning.

But first, here are a few easy play ideas we’ve shared on the blog using toys you probably have around the house:


Build a Tinker Toys Pulley system and explore STEM concepts in learning with kids.Toys that will help improve pencil graspUse this gift guide to help kids who need tools and toys to help with attention and focus in the classroom, school, or at home.Hand strengthening activity for kids to play and create buildings with a asimple, no-prep activity. This is perfect for a busy bag activity for kids to do while waiting at restaurants or other places.  Also tips and ideas to work on intrinsic hand strengthening in kids, from an Occupational Therapist.



The Role of Play for Children

From infancy, play is a way of learning and developing skills.  A baby reaches for a rattle and discovers that their arm can move intentionally.  
The sound, weight, and texture of a rattle integrates into the child’s central nervous system and establishes neural pathways.  
This early sensory integration and every interaction with the environment helps to work on sensory processing in a child.  As a child ages, they bounce, run, jump, and LOVE to play; their body seeks play.  
From 0-2, play is solitary.  They are experiencing tastes, touch, sights, sounds, and smells.
A one year old repeats the same play actions over and over again in play routines.  Peek-a-boo and putting blocks into a basket over and over again helps the child to master physical and sensory skills.  
They develop problem solving, cause and effect, direction following, and a sense of self.

Functional Play for a Baby is:

  • Peek a boo games
  • Board books with an adult
  • Cloth toys
  • Teething toys
  • Texture toys
  • High contrast toys
  • Play mats
  • Floor play
  • Balls and sorting toys
Developmental play ideas for function in kids with everyday play items.

Functional Play for Toddlers

Toddlers begin to imitate, pretend, and play with others.  Pretend play encourages language, emotional exploration, and “job” scenes.  Through pretend play, children build social skills.  
They can lead scenes, take turns, follow directions, explore empathy, gain more of a sense of self, build self-confidence, while working on tool use, clothing fasteners, and building and developing fine and gross motor skills.
Toddlers explore their environment by walking an finding things, putting things into containers, rolling things, throwing things, turning pages, and examining the inside and outside of things.  
From 2 to 2.5, children observe others but do not play with them. Kids aged 2.5-3 play alongside other children, but not with them in social situations. Starting at 3, children often times begin to interact with others in their play.  
  • Bath toys
  • Scribbling with crayons
  • Putting toys into a sorter
  • Rolling a ball
  • Carrying a bag full of toys
  • Pushing a toy shopping cart
  • Cause-effect toys
  • Board books
Developmental play ideas for function in kids with everyday play items.

Functional Play for Preschool

In Preschool aged children, kids play together with shared roles. They are curious and love to explore stories about animals and people.  
Crayons, paints, scissors, clay, sand, dirt, and other things are fun!  
Running, jumping, tumbling, rolling, and spinning provide movement and heavy work fun.  
Functional play in the preschool years includes:
  • Pretend play with baby dolls, figures, cars
  • Building with blocks
  • Coloring with crayons
  • Painting 
  • Cutting with scissors and snipping paper
Preschoolers love to mix and feel how things are as they explore.  Around three and four years old, imaginations begin to become awesome as they tell stories! 
Developmental play ideas for function in kids with everyday play items.

Functional Play for School Aged Children

School-aged children build cognitive skills in games as they problem solve, establish executive functions, share, build relationships, take part in winning/losing situations, and establish complex roles with other children.  
They are constructive with tools, projects, and toys. 
Functional play for school aged children includes:
  • Board games
  • Crafts
  • Drawing activities and supplies
  • Sports games and sporting events
  • Video games
  • Books

Functional Play for Teenagers

Teenagers are involved in play, too! Even during the teens, children are developing skills in executive functioning skills, and refining motor skills, motor planning, and skill use. 

This is good information for occupational therapy for teenagers in middle school or in high school. We cover specifics in this post on middle school occupational therapy.

Functional play in the teenage years includes:

  • Board games
  • Books
  • Video games
  • Social activities
  • Crafts
  • Cooking activities


What do we learn from Functional Play?

Play happens naturally.  A child is led to perform instinctive physical milestones through play.  
A baby rolls over to reach that brightly colored shaky toy.  
A toddler pushes a car around the house while crawling on all fours, providing himself with vestibular and proprioceptive input and strengthening to the arms and neck. Read here about crawling as a functional play tool and mobility as independent activity for young children.

There are so many benefits to play! Just some of those naturally occurring skills include:

  • Problem-solving skills
  • Functional task practice
  • Fine motor skills
  • Gross motor skills
  • Practicing communication skills and vocabulary
  • Working through behaviors in a low-stress environment
  • Reinforcement of skill development
  • Understanding the world around the young child and getting a sense of the world as it occurs through practice
  • Repetition of skill performance through repetitive actions
  • Exploring one’s surroundings
  • Executive functioning
  • Visual motor skills
  • Hand-eye coordination
These play situations happen naturally and purposefully (even if the kiddo doesn’t realize that his body is seeking out certain sensory situations!)  Play should happen naturally, but there are ways to work on skill areas through play. 
How can you build on natural play instincts with toys you already have in your house to work on developmental areas or Occupational Therapy goals?  
  • Use a child’s interests to create pretend play situations. 
  • Model appropriate language or problem solving. 
  • Encourage imitation of actions using cars or action figures.  
  • Work on arm strength and shoulder girdle strength by pushing cars up a ramp.  
  • Provide proprioceptive situations by playing and building couch cushion forts for dolls.  
  • Respond to attempt to communicate in pretend play with animal figures.  
  • Encourage turn-taking.
  • Allow your child to “lead” a play situation.
  • Encourage grasp development with toy manipulatives.
  • Discus social interactions with small figures in small worlds, like this outdoors small world scene
  • Work on multi-step direction following in a pretend play situation where the bug needs to hop on the block, then go around the sticks, and get food from under the rock.

Functional Play Toys

The benefits of functional play occur in the natural environment for the child: the home, playground, outside, in the school classroom, etc. Play happens everywhere! So what are some functional play toys that can support this aspect of development?

Try these toy ideas:

  • Legos
  • blocks
  • play dough
  • An empty cardboard box (great for creative play)
  • art supplies and a piece of paper
  • Playground equipment such as a swing and slide

The benefits of play does not need much! You can foster higher-level skills with simple materials.

What are your child’s favorite play figures or imaginative toys?  
This post is part of my 31 Days of Occupational Therapy series where I’m sharing ways to work on common Occupational Therapy treatment areas using every day, free, or almost free materials. 
Developmental play ideas for function in kids with everyday play items.
You will love some of these play and developmental ideas!

Baby Play Ideas for babies and toddlers
Toddler Play Ideas for kids aged 2-4
School-Aged play ideas for educational learning

Functional play