The Play Cycle is both an ingeniously simple and yet deeply intriguing way of depicting the child’s play process. 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.

The Play Cycle

We can use the play cycle to understand play better and understand how we can better support play:

Metaludes: inner reverie or contemplation that precedes play. Do we have thoughtful, stimulating spaces, objects or images that will spark metaludes?

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

A Play Return: the response by a child, by a playworker, by the environment, by oneself

A Play Frames: initiated by the child to provide the context, 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 and so forth
  • 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: we all do it in multiple ways. Wanting to rescue, educate, improve, make better, control, play ourselves (unplayed-out material)


  • 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 playworker: need to keep frame intact.
  • Integrity: playworker may be involved in disputed or conflicting frames (witness


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

An Example of the Play Cycle

Boy (7) watched a new worker for a few minutes. Then he tore up a sheet of paper into pieces and went up to the worker and threw them at her (cue). The worker 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 worker patted the new worker on the shoulder and said “you missed your cue there pet!”

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