Functional Play For Toddlers – Why is it Important and Top Ways to Encourage

6 min read

Written by Sindhuja Prabhu

Sindhuja Prabhu

Toddler playing with train set

Have you ever seen a toddler use certain things differently than the way they are meant to be? Probably a small toddler hitting the floor with a ball rather than rolling it, or a toddler trying to eat with their knife instead of the fork or spoon? Why do they do that? Is it because they are experimenting or do not know the exact function of the item in their hand?

It is important to teach toddlers what to do with things they come across in their day-to-day lives. Functional play for toddlers is very important if you want them to understand and learn the use of various things. While it is all tempting to let a child explore and find new ways to use certain items, it is important to teach them the actual function intended for that item.

In This Article

What is Functional Play?

Functional play is a type of play where toddlers learn to play with or use items the way they are meant to be. It is an important part of their development as they learn to use things the way they are intended.

Functional play also involves toddlers repeating a particular action during their play. For example, arranging things in one particular order. Toddlers will do this with almost anything and everything they can get their hands on.

What is the Importance of Functional Play For Your Toddler?

Functional play is very important for a toddler’s development. Through functional play, your toddler will learn to use items the way they are intended to be. You need not teach or remind your toddler every time they use the toy or item. Learning through play is an effective way to learn and retain for a long time.

It also helps your toddler develop various skills that are important to achieve appropriate milestones. When you put together a learning plan or actively involve yourself in their functional play, you can help them learn more.

How Can You Encourage Functional Play For Your Toddler?

Toddler using spoon to transfer things

Wondering how you can incorporate functional play in your toddler’s daily activities and play time? What are the ways in which you can support and encourage them in functional play? Well, here are some tips and activities you can try to encourage functional play in toddlers –


  • Use common household items rather than investing in expensive toys
  • Set up a tray or corner with items that promote functional play. It will encourage your toddler to explore more on their own
  • Gradually introduce one toy or item at a time and once they are comfortable with that toy, then give them a new toy
  • Show and tell. They will watch you and learn to use their toy properly
  • Make your toddler play with other kids their age so that they can learn from them as well

Activities to Encourage Functional Play

These activities are great to promote functional play-

1. Transfer With Spoons

Give your toddler two bowls – one with some beads or seeds in it and the other empty. Show your toddler how to transfer the contents from one bowl to another using different spoons. They will learn how to use a spoon with control, transfer contents without spilling and also develop fine motor skills.

2. Ball Throw

You can use an assortment of balls in different sizes and colors. Show your toddler how to throw, roll, identify colors and arrange by size. Playing with balls can improve their perception of size, colors, movement and also improve their communication skills

Likewise, you can try encouraging functional play through use of blocks, trucks, cars, books etc. as well.

Top 5 Ways Functional Play Benefit Your Toddler

Functional play enhances toddler's social skills

Toddlers between the ages of 1 and 3 are in a stage where they want to explore and understand things. Functional play is one of the most simplest forms of play but has the following benefits for your toddler-

1. Develops Motor Skills

When your toddler learns to use things the way they are meant to be and practices those movements, it strengthens their motor skills. It also encourages and teaches them to use their limbs and fingers in different ways, thus teaching them new movements.

[Read : Developing The Right Motor Skills In Your Toddler]

2. Improves Communication and Builds Social Skills

When you tell or teach and your toddler responds, communication skills are building up. Your toddler is listening, understanding, and responding to your words. When they play with other kids using these toys or items, they communicate with one another, watch and learn, and also guide. All these are very important milestones of communication and socializing skills.

3. Develops Reasoning Skills

As they grow, they will ask questions to understand why you want them to do certain actions and why they should not do certain actions. This is logical reasoning and problem-solving. For example – when you show your toddler they need to place their toys with the broad side at the bottom and the narrow side on top, they learn that placing it the other way around will cause the item to fall. They will try placing it in different ways until they learn the right way.

4. Sparks Creativity

Playing with different items sparks creativity in your toddler. As they learn the skills, they will try using them with different toys. As a result, they get creative and explore new ways. For example, once they learn to stack, they will try to stack different items and not just blocks.

[Read : How to Encourage Your Child’s Creative Side]

5. Promotes Independent Play

As your little one discovers new ways or the actual ways to play with their toys, they will start playing more independently. They may not need your attention and constant interactions. Their focus is completely on the item in hand and they are learning to play on their own.

Are There Any Disadvantages of Functional Play?

Functional play may make toddlers less creative

Though functional play is essential for a toddler, it can have the following disadvantages:

1. Limits Creativity

Toddlers can experiment and devise new ways to play with a toy. It may not be the ‘right’ way but it will sure be creative. By teaching them how to do it ‘correctly’ we may end up curbing their creativity in the process.

2. May Make Them Dependent

Once you start teaching and directing a toddler to do certain things in a certain way, they may switch off their problem-solving ability and simply look for guidance. This will not happen all the time but if they were to handle something complicated, they might just seek your guidance on what to do next rather than explore on their own.

3. Hurts Confidence

Constantly correcting the toddler to play with a toy the ‘right’ way or to use an item ‘properly’ may hurt their confidence and make them doubt themselves.

Functional play is an important milestone in your toddler’s development. It has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. The key to getting the maximum benefits from such a play is to follow your toddler’s lead and be open to new ideas and suggestions. Encourage your toddler’s creativity while you gently guide them to use things the intended way.


1. What Age is Functional Play For?

Functional play is for children up to 5 years of age. However, the maximum learning and benefit can be achieved between the ages of 1 and 3. In this stage, they explore and understand more.

2. What Skills do Toddlers Pick up With Functional Play?

Through functional play, your toddler can pick up important skills like observation, communication, socializing, logical reasoning, problem-solving, and motor skills.

Read Also: Pretend Play in Toddlers – Stages, How to Encourage and Top Ideas

Sindhuja Prabhu,M.Sc (Psychology),PGDBM

Sindhuja, a mother of two, is an obsessive mom with a keen interest in psychology, especially child psychology. Her quest for knowledge and way with words led her to become a passionate content writer. She transformed her love for writing into a full-fledged career which incidentally also turned up being the perfect stress buster for the last 5 years.Read more.

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