functional play

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Functional play has been described as the first play of children. Beginning in infancy, as a child learns to control his actions and make things happen, he finds enjoyment in shaking a rattle, splashing in the bath, and dropping objects repeatedly from his high chair. These repetitive actions are slowly replaced by more complex forms of play, but functional play is enjoyed by children throughout their childhood as they discover new actions to master.1

Infants first learn to exercise their “wired-in” behaviors with simple actions, and as they discover how things work, they develop their motor responses. Repeating a behavior leads to mastery and that gives the child pleasure. Play begins when the child deliberately engages in the activity for pleasure.2

Any repetitive action that the child finds enjoyable is considered functional play. Throwing objects, opening and closing things, stacking blocks and then knocking them over, filling and dumping containers, pushing a toy back and forth, and banging objects together are all examples of functional play. The repetitive nature of this play is how children learn about their world. They learn about the properties of physical objects and cause and effect. These simple discoveries prepare them for learning more complex skills later on. Children also develop their gross and fine motor skills through practice and gain confidence as they develop new skills.3

Jean Piaget was a pioneer in the study of cognitive development in children. He defined functional play as primarily happening during the sensorimotor period of cognitive development between birth and 24 months, where development is observed from simple reflex motions to more repetitive and coordinated responses.4 Piaget determined that play is described in three stages: the first being functional play followed by symbolic play, which adds constructive concepts as well as pretend play, and finally games with rules, which build social skills.5

Psychologist Sara Smilansky described functional play as the child using repetition in physical actions, language, and manipulation of objects, based on the child’s need for physical activity. She differed in Piaget’s levels of cognitive play by adding constructive play that follows in the sensorimotor period when the child moves to constructing or building with objects with a preconceived plan rather than just playing in a random repetitive manner.6

Some elements of playing on a playground can be seen as functional play. Repeatedly sliding down the slide, playing on a seesaw, pushing a merry-go-round, and swinging on a swing can all be considered functional play, since these actions are repetitive.7

  • 1. “Learning Through Play: Functional Play.” F.B. Meekins Cooperative Preschool. < http://www.fbmeekins.org/attachments/146_Learning_Through_Play_2_--_Functional_play.pdf > 8 Sep. 2011.
  • 2. Frost, Joe L. Play and Playscapes. Albany, NY: Delmar Publishers Inc. 1992. p.78-79.
  • 3. Op. cit., “Learning Through Play: Functional Play.”
  • 4. “Stages of Intellectual Development In Children and Teenagers” Child Development Institute. < http://www.childdevelopmentinfo.com/development/piaget.shtml > 23 July 2010.
  • 5. Frost, Joe L., Sue Wortham, Stuart Reifel. Play and Child Development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001. p. 46-47.
  • 6. Ibid., p. 171.
  • 7. Op. cit., Frost, Joe L. Play and Playscapes. p. 79.