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Functional Play


Hazel and I were watching a nature show. She loves to see the animals on the television screen. When the wolves were prowling, she excitedly pointed to the television screen and says, “Doggy! Woof woof!”


A section we both enjoy in nature specials is when we see baby animals. We watched a mother wildebeest give birth and her baby stood within minutes. A few minutes later, he was prancing. It didn’t take much time for the calf to start running. Some animals are literally born to run. They have to. With this wildebeest calf prancing and running around with other wildebeest calves, the narrator said that this play is pivotal in their young development. Play helps all babies, regardless of species, strengthen their muscles and build their capacity for skills needed for adult survival. On a very primal level, play is the key to survival.


My focus has been primarily on Maggie lately. With her recent changes, I’ve had to spend time focused on getting everything organized for Maggie. Maggie does require a lot of special attention in so many ways, but Hazel is growing as well and I strive to help her feel the love and attention she deserves. When Maggie is at school, I devote time to helping Hazel develop functional play skills. I hope that Maggie will also watch Hazel completing the same tasks and this modeling will help grow both children.


As a simple example, one of our toys is a Fisher-Price bucket with a shape sorter top. There are plastic shapes in different colors. The purpose of the toy is simple. Match the shape to the correct opening on the shape sorter and push through. Easy peasy, in theory. Little kids lack the dexterity in their hands to properly hold toys. Sometimes, if trying to push through the wrong hole, children could get frustrated. Sometimes, when the toy disappears, there isn’t an obvious success because it’s gone.


A strategy I use with Hazel (and Maggie) is to remove the bucket altogether. I place the shape sorter top directly on the floor (or table) and begin placing all of the shapes in their correct opening. This is a scaffold because after a shape is inserted, it’s clearly visible. With all the shapes in, challenge completed! Hazel typically applauds with an enthusiastic “Yay!” I pull out the top, leaving the shapes in place on the floor, and say, “Okay, your turn.”


Leaving the shapes as is on the floor is another scaffold. I don’t point it out, because I wonder if Hazel even notices. I want her to have that epiphany. This is another matching technique. If the yellow star is on the bottom right, the star will fit in the bottom right hole. If the green triangle is on the top left, the green triangle will fit in the top left corner.


Other functional play toys include puzzles, which have varying degrees of complexity for early learners. The Melissa and Doug farm puzzle is a personal favorite. The pieces are chunky, which is easier for small hands to grip. The pieces are matched with the puzzle base, so it’s not just matching the shape of its perimeter but also matching picture to picture. The chunky puzzle pieces also lend themselves to imaginative play later, but we’re not there yet. Right now, we’re learning how to put pieces in place. Hazel has mastered that puzzle and others. Maggie is still working on it.


Another technique that has helped both kids develop their functional play skills is to remove distractions. If I have a puzzle out, I try to have that be the only thing in front of the child. Free play is different. Both kids will tear out all the toys and it will look like a toy explosion in the playroom while they both buzz from one toy to the next. Functional play is a precursor to focus and attention, which helps create school readiness.


On a typical weekday afternoon, I’ll have a puzzle in front of Hazel. Ready, set, match. She can do it on her own without assistance. On a typical weekday afternoon when I have alone time with Maggie, I’ll have a puzzle in front of her and we practice. Eventually, our practice will lead to our final product: Challenge completed.



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