Functional Play and Autism

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boy building blocks

Expand your student or child’s play and they will learn more than just “how to play”. Expanding and increasing play skills will improve language and thinking skills too! The first stage of play is the exploratory stage.  Exploratory play is when children explore toys and objects using their senses.  The next step is functional play. During functional play, children play with toys in an “expected” way.  Some examples of this might be:  pushing the toy car on the floor, pretending to feed a doll, putting a ball down a ramp, and putting the toy people in the bus. Teaching functional play skills can be really fun!

For young autistic children, functional play can be particularly beneficial as it helps them develop social and communication skills while also providing them with a sense of structure and routine.  Now, remember that the child will still be engaging in exploratory play activities while you start to introduce them to one step functional play activities.  During this time, it is also important to honor and allow the child to play in the ways that are pleasurable to them.  Just a reminder, that Dr. Pamela Wolfberg’s definition of play is: “an activity that is pleasurable, intrinsically motivated, flexible, non-literal, voluntary, and involves active engagement.”

If you’d like some ideas, here is a list of recommended toys for exploratory play.

Expanding One-Step Play Actions

The transition from exploratory play to one-step functional play often starts with cause-and-effect toys. The child starts to figure out that if they perform an action (push the button), something will happen (music plays). This is where the child starts moving from exploring toys and objects through their senses to performing expected actions on toys or objects. Then functional play may start to include a child doing one action with one toy (e.g. putting a car down a ramp).

As the child’s functional play expands, they learn more one step actions they can do with a variety of toys. You might be asking, “what does this look like?” Well, one step play could start with learning to push a car on the floor, then push a bus, then push a train.  That’s an example of expanding the action they are doing to a variety of toys. Then, they can start learning to do different actions with the toys. So, crashing two toy cars together, putting the toy car down a ramp, putting the toy cars in water for a car wash, or pushing cars through a tunnel. When you are trying to expand one step toy play, you can write goals for increasing the variety of toys and for increasing the number of actions they do with toys.

Use a Variety of Toys 

Autistic children may play more repetitively and have difficulty expanding their functional play on their own. We want to expose our students to different toys and actions so they have the opportunity to find new activities that can be fun for them.  Some of these will “stick” and the child will continue to play with them, and others might now be as fun for them and can be set aside. It’s all about exposure!

Let me tell you about a student who was an “explorer”. She banged, shook, and dumped toys and objects for months. She did most of these types of actions by herself. Then, in a 1:1 setting, the special education teacher and paras started exposing her to different one step functional play actions. One of these one step actions was letting a car go down a simple ramp. They started by showing a visual and modeling it. Her eyes lit up and she referenced the adult with her eyes and she started laughing hysterically! Every time the adult would put the car down the ramp, she would roll with laughter. Then, she started putting the car down her ramp herself….still laughing hysterically! 

Exposing her to this new one step activity ended up bringing her so much happiness and joy. That’s why we want to expose our students to a variety of toys. You never know what might end up being something they LOVE!

Using Visual Supports for One-Step Play Actions

When you are exposing children to new one step play actions, visual supports can help! In addition to visual supports that show the one-step play actions, the adult should get down to the child’s level and observe and imitate what the child is doing. Then, try to encourage imitation by modeling different play actions with a second set of toys. Read more about these strategies in the Hanen Centre booklet titled “Take Out The Toys“.  This book is full of actionable tips to increase toy play for young autistic children.

I created a themed bundle of visual supports for one and two step toy play. The themes included are: vehicles, kitchen, blocks, dinosaurs, farm, train, vet, doctor , and zoo. These visuals can support most of the play sets you already have in your classroom or home.

Top 5 Toys to Encourage Functional Play

  1. Pretend play with household objects/routines: Children can play “house” with play kitchen sets or act out daily routines like getting dressed, sweeping, and cooking food.
  2. Building and construction toys: Building blocks, legos, magnatiles, and other construction toys provide opportunities for children to use their imagination while also developing fine motor skills.  I also love adding little toy animals to these!
  3. Figurines & characters: dinosaurs stomping on playdoh, Cocomelon characters getting on and off the toy bus, putting little people to bed, and acting out favorite songs with toys. 
  4. Play sets: toys like a farm set, train set, bus set, and doctor set can provide so many options for one and two step play activities. There is no specific set that is best…use the one you have access to!
  5. Sensory bins: adding small toys and figurines to sensory bins can be super motivating.  Think adding vehicles to a bin with sand, or “washing” characters in soapy water!

Here is a list of recommended toys for functional play.

Multi-Step Functional Play

Once your child or student has several one-step play actions with a variety of toys, it’s time to move on to multi-step functional play. Take some of the one-step play actions and combine them into 2 step play actions. For example, “put the people in the bus, then push the bus”. If you first focus on teaching a variety of one step play actions, you can then combine them into two step play actions. Visual supports showing both of these steps can be very helpful! Visuals can give children something to reference, along with an adult modeling the actions to encourage imitation.

Whether you are teaching one or two-step play, be sure to follow the child’s lead. Play with activities that they find interesting. Try to ask fewer (or no) questions. Instead, narrate the play based on the child’s language level. For a child who is non-speaking or has few words, use exclamatory and symbolic sounds while playing with them. Things like “uh-oh!”, “ready, set, GO!”, “boom” or making the sound of a car honking. Be fun, but not too intrusive.  This continues to help build a relationship and the child will trust you.

Benefits of Functional Play

  1. Social and Communication Skills: Functional play activities provide opportunities for children to engage in social interactions with peers and caregivers, helping them develop communication skills such as taking turns, listening, and sharing ideas.
  2. Cognitive Development: Functional play activities can help develop a child’s problem-solving skills, spatial awareness, and understanding of cause-and-effect relationships.
  3. Emotional Development: Functional play activities can help children develop emotional regulation skills and reduce anxiety.

Functional play activities can be highly beneficial for young autistic children. Parents and educators should provide a variety of play opportunities that are both structured and flexible, providing a balance of routine and novelty. Remember that our job is to expose our autistic children and students to new play activities so we can see what might “stick” as something they enjoy!

Autistic children often have unique interests and preferences, so it’s important to observe and adapt to their needs and preferences when selecting activities. With consistent engagement in functional play activities, young autistic children can develop important social, emotional, and cognitive skills that will benefit them throughout their lives.

If you’d like to listen to the podcast on this topic check out episode 11.

For more ideas on this topic check out podcast episode 38.

If you use visual supports in your classroom or home, you are going to want to sign up for this free Visual Supports Starter Set ASAP! Click here to have one sent to your inbox. Also, be sure to read more about visual supports and how they can help autistic children here.

a picture with a variety of visual supports for autistic children there is an all done symbol, a wait mat, a first-then board, a visual schedule, an adapted book and a change card

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