by Claire Sands
In this post we will introduce the play cycle and how to observe children at play - a great tool for practitioners and parents to find out about.
It was a bright sunny day in a busy primary school playground. Parents were standing around waiting for their children to finish the day. At 3.15 the school doors opened,
and a mum went over greeted her son and then turned her attention to the teacher where a brief conversation took place. After a short while the mum turned round to her son and gave him a small water bottle. The boy ran into the open playground with the bottle, brandishing it like a water pistol, whilst scoping for someone to engage in his new game. He caught and maintained eye contact with a young girl, from his class in the crowd of parents and children. They both knew they had committed to playing something from this exchange.
At this crucial point the girl turned, breaking eye contact and screamed…. The boy thought “she’s loving this” and he started to chase the girl around the playground for about a minute. During this time the girl became increasingly distressed and eventually ended up on the class teacher's leg crying and panting quite obviously not enjoying the game she had just committed to.
The teacher comforted the girl and the mum immediately took the water bottle from the boy (obviously infuriated with the incident) who received a ‘Why on earth did you do that?’ sort of lecture. The boys response…. “what did I do wrong?”
Was the boy wrong in this situation? Sometimes as adults, we can be quick to judge a situation, when perhaps not all is at seems. This situation is not as black and white as it first appears, analysing the incident using the Play Cycle could lead us to a different outcome...
The Play Cycle is used by play professionals to observe and understand play
Play Drive: All play begins with the play drive that is the instinctive desire and need to play: The child wanting to shoot someone with his water bottle on a hot day.
Play Cue: From this drive the child may produce an action which can be very subtle or very obvious: Creating eye contact with a girl to initiate a game of let me chase and shoot.
Play Return: The feedback a child receives from a play cue is called a play return. The child maintaining eye contact then turning running away screaming.
Play Flow: This is established once the play has commenced, and is a continuation of cues and returns. It can last a few seconds or several weeks: Both children running around the playground in a chase and shoot scenario.
Play Frame: The process of play is ‘contained’ by the play frame. The play frame can be a material boundary that keeps the play intact; the rules of the game or understanding between the participants. A frame can be many things – a table, a playground or something broader: The playground with lots of people/obstacles provided the ‘frame’ in this instance.
Play Annihilation: When the flow of play is terminated by children. This can be the end of the game or perhaps the destruction of a recently constructed model: The girl annihilated the play frame in this instance as she was clearly not enjoying the frame she had engaged in and was quite distressed
Play Adulteration: If an adult intervenes and tries to lead or force it they will be denying the play drive purpose and adulterating the child play: The girl is comforted, water bottle is confiscated and boy is told off.
So, let's give that question another thought: Was the boy wrong in this situation? In this situation the boy had clearly misread the girls responses to this situation. He simply translated the girl's turning and screaming as a Play Return when in fact it couldn’t be further from the truth. He thought this because he couldn’t see her facial expression and so, in turn spectacularly misinterpreted the situation.
Once the incident unfolded, the boy's response “What did I do wrong" was in this situation, very valid. In his perception he had not done anything wrong or untoward and thought he was responding playfully to the girl's play return.
As playworkers we use the Play Cycle as part of our regular practice to help us understand play better to inform our interventions and ways to support it further.
“It is like describing a universal expressive language that children use when they play and 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.” Oxfordshire County Council.
Scrapstore Play Services offers a range of playwork training courses for early years practitioners, parents and lunchtime staff about play theory and understanding play. To find out more please phone us on 0117 9143002
Useful Tips For Parents
Observing your children: The next time your with child(ren) have a think about their behaviour and see if you can recognise the Play Cycle.
Is the positive or negative behaviour perhaps a cue from them to play
Do they get a return?
How do they deal with getting or not getting a return?
How long does the play go on for? Could you note this down as something that the child really likes to do?
Does annihilation happen? How quickly? Does there seem to be a reason?
Things for you to consider:
Are you always ready to return a play cue?
How can you extend your child's play when you don't have the capacity to return their play? Can you adjust their play in anyway so that they can carry on without you?
How does annihilation make you feel? Does that matter to your children? Can you change the way you react to annihilation so that you don't adulterate their play?
Can you recognise how often you adulterate play? Sometimes we have to, but can you think of way to do this without causing upset? The 'time at the bar please!' technique is a useful one - give your children a time warning for winding down their play.