Functional Play and Autism

· ·
play room for autistic children

The journey of play development in autistic children may take a different path than it does for typical children, but it doesn’t make it any less meaningful!  With each stage, they delve deeper into their understanding of the world around them. For teachers and parents of young autistic children, the journey can be a tad more complicated, and understanding the stages of play becomes crucial. Two fundamental stages in this journey are ‘exploratory play’ and ‘one-step functional play’. Let’s take a closer look at these stages and the transition between them!

What Is Exploratory Play?

The first stage of play, described by the Hanen Centre, is exploratory play. It involves children exploring their surroundings using their senses. During this stage of play, children engage with objects and toys in ways that involve actions like dumping, banging, mouthing, throwing, and shaking. As children grow in the exploratory stage of play, they begin to combine objects, such as banging two of them together or placing one object inside another.

Though exploratory play is typically seen in the first year of life for most children, it holds more significance than it’s usually credited for. This is especially true for our students who are dumping and throwing objects and toys.  Many times, people say “well they aren’t playing with toys yet”.  But now you know that they actually are! It’s this exploratory stage of play. 

One of the prime reasons this stage is important is its association with language development. When babies interact with objects, caregivers tend to name these objects, and thus, the child’s first words often emerge from the objects they’ve been exploring. The tactile experience coupled with auditory input creates a robust foundation for early vocabulary.  So, this is why we want to provide varied experiences with toys and objects for our little ones. This might be our first goal inside of that first stage of play.

This stage tends to last longer for our autistic children. This extended phase can sometimes be confusing for educators and caregivers as they try to get children to play with toys in the way the toys were made to be played with. But remember, the extended exploratory phase is a vital step for them, helping them build strong sensory foundations.

Transitioning To One Step Functional Play

We can help children move from the sensory exploration of toys and objects to the next phase, which is one-step functional play. The transition is marked by a shift from mere exploration to understanding the functionality of objects. Instead of dumping, banging or shaking a toy, the child begins to understand that certain actions yield specific outcomes. A classic example is cause-and-effect toys. When a child discovers that pressing a button results in music playing, they’ve just taken their first step into functional play.

Initially, functional play may consist of simple actions, such as putting a car down a ramp. As they continue to learn and engage, the complexity of these actions increase, like rolling the car and then crashing two cars together. This phase is a testament to their growing cognitive abilities as they connect actions to reactions and build upon their understanding.

Making a smooth transition from exploratory play to one-step functional play is all about providing opportunities that are only a slight stretch from what the child is already familiar with. By introducing activities that have an element of both, we can ease them into the next phase without overwhelming them.

Tips For Moving To One Step Functional Play

1. Provide the Right Tools: Cause-and-effect toys can be great starters. Toys that require a specific action for a certain outcome can nudge them from exploration to functionality.

2. Narrate the Play: Just as naming objects in the exploratory phase aids language development, describing actions during functional play can expand both play and vocabulary. Phrases like “Push button” or “Car down” can be helpful.

3. Celebrate Small Achievements: Every single functional action is a milestone. Celebrate it. This not only boosts their confidence but also encourages them to explore more.

4. Patience: Remember, every child’s journey is unique. Comparing it to neurotypical developmental standards does not serve or students or families. Celebrate their pace and achievements.

5. Use visual supports – I’ve found that having visual supports showing one step play actions can be very helpful! That’s why I created an entire bundle for different themes. It includes the kitchen theme, dinosaurs, vehicles, building blocks, vets and pets, farm and more. You can check these out in my TpT shop. If you are a member in the Autism Little Learners Membership, they are available to you at no additional cost in the membership hub. Just type “play visuals” in the search window. 

6. Connection Over Compliance: With any play, we want to keep connection at the forefront.  No play action is worth getting in a power struggle or eroding the relationship over.  So, keep it fun, go with what they are interested in and be ready to shift or pivot your plan if the child isn’t interested in what you have presented to them.

The play journey for every child, more so for autistic children, is a blend of exploration, understanding, and growth. While the stages might seem distinct, they’re interconnected in more ways than one. Understanding these connections and providing the right guidance and support can make all the difference in nurturing a child’s development. For a deeper dive into the stages of toy play, you can read the blog post on Autism and Play.

you can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation

Guiding the Transition

Let’s say you’ve been working on the exploratory activity of “put in”.  Maybe you’ve made some DIY put in activities with plastic containers where you put puff balls or blocks in.  Maybe you’ve purchased some cute ready to go put in activities off of my exploratory play toy list on Amazon. If you are doing those types of activities and your student or child is liking and doing well with them, here are some slight stretches that you can try next.  These activities are examples of ways you can slightly modify or add to put in exploratory activities to make the play more functional.

* my absolute favorite place to start is with a Tot Tube. This toy is especially great for kids who dump toys. It’s a large 3 part plastic tube that you can drop objects into. It could be a toy car, a small stuffed animal or figurine, balls…really anything that will fit! You can make the tube short on a table or longer to reach the floor. Then, help your student put the object in the top and watch it drop down. This activity brings so much joy to so many of my students!!! There is a middle section that is clear, so they can see the object passing by. It’s so motivating and engaging. 

* Another way to move from put in activities to one step functional play is to start playing with toys where you put a ball in ramp – make it super fun by being animated.  Catch the ball when it comes out and put it back at the top of the ramp so they only have to push it in.  At first, if you hand them the ball, they will most likely throw it.  

* Another related one step functional play activity is to put cars down a ramp- you can make exclamatory and environmental sounds like “beep beep, zoom, and a crashing sound”.  

* You can also find toys that have a variety of pieces to put in … like spikes to put in the hedgehog, or coins that go in a pig.  It could also look like lifting and lowering the “dumper” of a construction truck.  There are so many options for this stage!

Another example of a way you could teach beginning one step functional play with cause and effect toys is to model how to push buttons or levers on toys. This could include buttons that make toys light up, play music, or spin. It could also include activity boxes. 

It’s important to remember that these activities are merely suggestions. Every child is unique, and what works for one might not work for another. The aim is to find that sweet spot where the child feels both familiar and challenged.

Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.” –Diane Ackerman

If you’d like to listen to the podcast on this topic check out episode 37 Moving From Exploratory Play To One-Step Functional Play In Young Autistic Children

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.

Visual supports starter set

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *