top of page

The Play Cycle - A Play-work Perspective for Early Years Educators. (cert-4-£1)

Updated: May 15, 2021

Sorry, the free assessment is unavailable, please try later while we fix the issue!

Cert-4-£1 offer! Read our free blog post, take the free assessment and view your score for free with all certificates available for just £1.

At the end of this post, you can take the assessment and view your results for free. You will then be provided with the option to pay a £1 admin fee for your official Maybird Training printable certificate (PDF doc) which will arrive in your inbox the next working day. Need time to think about it? You can order your certificate anytime after passing the assessment. Happy CPD-ing!

The Play Cycle

Today’s post is going to take a look at ‘play’ within the EYFS, with a particular focus on the ‘play cycle’.

There is no doubt that the EYFS promotes play and values the importance of play in children’s learning and development. The framework reminds us that ‘play is essential for children’s development’ and provides us with guidance on how to support children’s learning across all areas through ‘Playing and Exploring’ (one of the characteristics of effective learning) and Positive Relationships and Enabling Environments’ (two of the overarching principles).

Within the guidance, there is reference to play, how to promote it, how to observe it and how to plan for it. For example, ‘play with children’, ‘join in play sensitively’, ‘talk more about process than products’, ‘ensure children have uninterrupted time to play and explore’. This is great guidance and I’ve been lucky enough in my work to see some outstanding examples of this, where early years educators are skilled in the art of responding to children’s play and facilitating the play process. Upon asking these practitioners where they learnt to support play so skillfully, I’d often get the response “It just comes naturally” or “You just know, you can’t teach it!” What these practitioners have in fact demonstrated (often without realising) is an intuitive understanding of something called the play cycle from the play-work perspective.

Since formal learning about the play cycle is usually only found within play-work qualifications and guidance or higher education qualifications, I can only assume that these early years educators have read between the lines of the EYFS guidance to develop a pretty sound knowledge of some important aspects of the play cycle as used by play-workers.

Even though there is plenty of advice about how to support the play cycle within the EYFS, this usually occurs indirectly through the guidance on positive relationships and enabling environments so it leaves me wondering why the play cycle doesn’t make more of an obvious appearance within the EYFS or at least within Early Years Educator training qualifications in general.

With this in mind I feel that if early years educators consolidated what they already know about supporting play, and combined this with the unique understanding of the play-work perspective, they would feel the benefits of a fresh, new and exciting approach to children’s play!

(To learn all there is to know about the play cycle through one blog post would be impossible but I would like to introduce some brief examples of the play cycle in action)

So let’s get started!

Here’s the ‘heavy’ bit...The play cycle comes from the study of something called 'psycholudics' best described as 'the study of the mind and psyche at play' (Winnicott, 1971) . The Colorado Paper (Sturrock and Else, 1998) offers everything we need to know about the play cycle but, it’s a heavy read, I won’t lie. The trouble is, because it can be a bit heavy-going in places, it’s been watered down somewhat. I’m afraid I shall need to do the same here for the sake of keeping this post brief, though I recommend that you set aside some time after reading this blog (and taking the quiz) to read the full paper if you find yourself further intrigued:

The play cycle is a deeply intriguing way of depicting the child’s play process. Play England (2008) suggest it is like describing a universal expressive language that children use when they play, but as with all languages, we can learn the simpler aspects quite easily but it takes time and practice to become fluent and really understand its meanings.

Let’s start with the following definitions of key terms that were first introduced in The Colorado Paper (Sturrock and Else 1998).

Meta-ludes: (I told you it can be heavy-going in places!) My favourite definition for meta-ludes comes from a pdf hosted on the Oxfordshire County Council website: inner reverie or contemplation that precedes play. Do we have thoughtful, stimulating spaces, objects or images that will spark metaludes? Another helpful definition is to break the word down: meta (meaning before) and lude (meaning play).

Cues: a lure or an invitation to a person, to something in the environment or to another part of self. Play cues can be by a look, gesture, verbal invitation, provocation, testing out, facial or bodily display, presentation of an object or an action.

Return: the response by a child, by a playworker, by the environment or by oneself.

Frames: initiated by the child to provide the context or the enclosure. It is the stage to contain and constrain the play and it is organic and can change in shape and size.

· Physical: mats, stones, rope, tyres, hedge, structure, designated area, fence etc.

· Narrative: storyline, music, rules etc.

· Emotional: when play is exploring a particular feeling, so the props, the action, the place and the story can keep changing because it’s the experience of the feeling that holds it all together.

Flow: when there’s a response and a frame, flow occurs and can last seconds or weeks!

Annihilation: child chooses to end and move on.

Adulteration: (not to be confused with adultery – which of course, has an entirely different meaning.) The Oxford dictionary definition: ‘the action of making something poorer in quality by the addition of another substance’ - we all do it in multiple ways. Wanting to rescue, educate, improve, make better, control or play ourselves.


· Play maintenance: play is self-contained

· Simple involvement: adult acts as a resource for the play

· Medial involvement: playworker becomes involved (invited but temporary)

· Complex involvement: direct and extended overlap between child and adult:

need to keep frame intact

· Integrity: playworker may be involved in disputed or conflicting frames (witness


Dysplay: not to be confused with ‘Display’ or the ordinary lack of return. The speedy misfiring of cues due to having got used to a pattern of non-responses.

(It’s worth noting that not all cycles of play will include each and every aspect of the above)

These definitions may not mean much without some examples, so let’s bring them to life with these observations taken from Oxfordshire County Council (I did not write these observations, and the children in these examples are older, but the examples have been so helpful for my play-work students in identifying and reflecting on the play cycle, I thought I’d share them with’re welcome)

Play cycle examples

Boy (7) watched a new practitioner for a few minutes. Then he tore up a sheet of paper into pieces and went up to the practitioner and threw them at her (cue). The practitioner looked slightly annoyed, tried to recover herself and then said brightly, “what have I done to deserve that?!” (adulteration) The boy shook his head and stomped off outside (dysplay). Another practitioner patted the new practitioner on the shoulder and said “you missed your cue there pet!”.

A boy (10) rolled a tyre into the fence (cue). He watched it settle (return), then with a flurry of activity, began to lug all the tyres out (cycle) one by one and started placing them carefully next to each other (frame). It was clearly hard work. A worker came over and stood nearby, but not too close and watched and waited. He ignored her and seeing that he was utterly absorbed (flow) she moved away. He carried on placing these tyres for over half an hour without stopping. Finally, he stood back and looked. He the