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

Updated: May 15, 2021

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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!

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 then rearranged one or two tyres and stood back again. Then he dusted himself off and went inside (annihilation) and was later completely unconcerned when some other child moved a couple of tyres elsewhere.

A boy (8) was sitting at the organ looking at the keys. He looked around and caught the eye of another boy and nodded (cue). The other boy (who was there for the first time that day), came shyly up to the organ and also sat down (return). They started pressing keys and got a background bass rhythm going (frame – rhythmical narrative). One of the playworkers started dancing across the room (serves as both a cue and a return). One of the boys looked round and laughed and several other children whooped and cheered (response to worker’s cue). Within a couple of minutes, a line of children had formed doing the conga around the building which swelled and moved outside and back in through a different door. The boys on the organ were delighted and kept playing (flow). After about ten minutes, the line broke up and individual children danced back before involving themselves with something else. The boys on the organ petered out their playing but seemed happy to do so (annihilation). The playworker clapped and said “that was great!” and the two boys spontaneously stood up, bowed and both ran outside.

Three boys were on a large mat (frame) being dogs and playfighting. Two other boys joined them and it got louder and rougher. “Off my space” growled one ‘dog’ when some other child walked across the mat (most children walked around it). The ‘dog’ came out of role and complained to the playworker. “Don’t tell me” she said, “talk to them”. Everyone came out of role and the first boy made everyone in the vicinity sit on the mat. There ensued great debate over who had the right to which space – there were a number of conflicting spatial play frames here. After much negotiation, more mats were laid out separately on the floor and the various groups resumed play – each on their own mats. However, after a few minutes, one group dragged their mat to adjoin the ‘dogs’ mat (cue), followed by another and another and soon everyone was barking (flow). This in turn evolved naturally into a very organised game of tag-wrestling with two teams involving everyone who had been in the original space.

Two girls (7) were absorbed in a role-play (narrative frame) where one was an extremely bossy parent telling the other (their child) exactly what to do and how. (“stand here”, “go back there”, “do as I say now”….) They were wandering around the room as they did this, seemingly oblivious to anyone else (flow). Then they both spontaneously and simultaneously stopped as they saw other children laying down mats (cue) and practising handstands. Without a word to each other, they went and got their own mat (return) and then started dancing on it. Within a couple of minutes, they had then made up the rules for a new game that all had to be played on the mat itself (new frame).

Five boys (6-10) were crowded round the new X-box – one of them was actually holding the controls and playing a one-player game but all of them were deeply involved, watching and commenting. The frame was both the narrative of the computer game and the semi-circle of chairs they were occupying. They have previously agreed a rota so that everyone got a change to physically play, but they are all glued to the screen and offering advice to the ‘player’ (not always gratefully received!). Some of them naturally annihilate and both move on and return later. Others are absolutely immersed (flow) for up to an hour when it is then time to go (adulteration).

I hope you have the chance to fully immerse yourself in these examples and reflect on similar ones you have of your own observations of children’s play in early years - when we know these basics, play-workers and early years educators can observe children’s play in a new light.

Here are some key points to summarise and bring this post to a close -

So, the child who’s sticking out their tongue at you, or throwing toys around the room (or at you), can be seen to be issuing play cues instead of being ‘naughty’, ‘rude’, or ‘destructive’. When the play cue is not responded to appropriately, the cues can become laden with anxiety. The child who is desperate to play will try to compensate with cues that are more urgent and more frantic, often causing conflict within the environment around the child (these anxious cues are called dysplay).

Over-involvement and intrusive supervision of children’s play will lead to adulteration. The ‘magic’ happens when the play is in flow – a skillful early years educator will recognise when this is occurring and resist intervention if at all possible.

Have you ever wondered why sometimes, a child will happily come away from their play when asked and other times they will not comply at any cost? Children who are in full flow of their play will become very upset when their play is interrupted due to time constraints or other essential parts of the routine so it is the job of the practitioner to manage and predict this with sensitivity and foresight.

I know the next time I see a child being carried from the play park, ‘surf board style’ under the arm of an indignant parent (we’ve all done it!), I can with some certainty, assume there is a child who has not been able to complete their play cycle effectively because it’s home-time, lunch-time or some other adult-imposed reason.

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