Play And Learn: Functional Play & Autism

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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, and the next step is functional play. During functional play, children play with toys in an “expected” way, such as pushing the toy bus on the floor. Be sure to listen to the podcast on the topic of functional play.

image of a woman lying on her stomach building with blocks with her preschool daughter

One Step Functional Play

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. Functional play may start with a child doing one action with one toy (e.g. putting a car down a ramp). Then, they expand play and learn more actions they can do with toys. For example, rolling the car down the ramp, then crashing two cars together.

The goal is to expand the number of one-step play actions they can do with a variety of toys. Autistic children may play more repetitively and have difficulty expanding their functional play on their own. This is where 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. Add in some narration and continue to develop a positive relationship. 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“.

For themed play visual supports, click here. These sets include several visuals for one-step play actions.

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”. 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 example, 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.

The themed play visuals resources also include two-step play visual supports. These combine the one-step play actions the child has learned and provides a visual that shows two steps.

Play More And Learn

There is a shift happening in special education right now. With autism, strategies tend to be shifting from “drill” to play-based therapy and learning. This approach dovetails nicely with a strength-based approach to teaching. Let’s find what the child can do, and stretch their skills from there. If your student is throwing, dumping, or banging toys, they are in the exploratory stage of play. Our job is to identify which one-step functional play actions to add into play in order to expand their play skills. So, let’s commit to each other to follow the child’s lead more, ask less questions, and take time to observe and connect with the child through play.

If you want to try out a free set of visuals to support 1 and 2-step functional play with the “making cookies” theme, click here! If you have a set of cookie toys, these visuals will be great with them! Check out this set and this set if you need cookie toys.

If you want more, don’t forget to listen to the Functional Play podcast episode.

If you want to learn more about the most important aspects of a preschool autism classroom, be sure to download the free Autism Classroom Guide!

the image shows the cover page of a guide for a self contained autism classroom. It shows a pictures of an early childhood classroom and 3 sample pages in the guide.

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