What is the Play Cycle?

The Play Cycle is a theoretical model of play. Made up of different stages, it is a valuable tool to help Playworkers and parents alike understand children’s play. The model also identifies how adult intervention can impact or disrupt play.

Who Created the Play Cycle?

The theoretical model of play known as the Play Cycle was first developed by Gordon Sturrock and Perry Else in 1998. It was published in a paper in the United States called The playground as therapeutic space: playwork as healing ‘The Colorado Paper’.  At that time, the researchers felt child-centred play was under threat. They were concerned that play could turn into “soft policing” if the importance of allowing children to direct their own play was not properly observed and understood.

The model and the definitions that were identified in the 1998 paper were further developed in 2019 by Pete King and Shelly Newstead and form the basis of what we know as the Play Cycle today.

The Main Stages of the Play Cycle

The theoretical model identifies six main stages of the Play Cycle:

The Pre-Cue

The Pre-Cue is the thought or idea in the child’s head that will start the whole process. It is a very instinctive feeling, thought, fantasy or idea that sparks the desire to play. The Pre-Cue can sometimes be referred to as the meta-lude as this is the name it was given in the early study.

The Play Cue

The Play Cue is the process of the child transmitting their thought or idea out into the world. It is an invitation, enticement or action issued to others to create play. The Play Cue can be quite subtle, such as making and holding eye contact, or it can be a more obvious action. Whatever the Play Cue looks like, it needs to be taken up by someone else in order for the Play Cycle to continue.

The Play Return               

The Play Return happens when the Play Cue of one child is picked up by another child or other children and they respond to it, activating play.


The Flow is the cycle or cycles of Play Cues and Play Returns that follow. As the play progresses, it triggers more Pre-Cues and Play Cues which in turn trigger more Play Returns. At this point, children can seem caught up in play and completely engrossed by it.

The Play Frame

The Play Frame is the physical or imaginary boundary within which the play takes place. This could be the playground or perhaps an imaginary dragon’s lair! The Play Frame can also be an agreed set of “rules” for the game or even just an understanding between the participants. So long as the Play Frame remains intact, the play cycle can continue.

Play Annihilation            

Play Annihilation occurs when one of the children involved in the play, either the child who made the initial play cue or one of the others, ends the play.

There is another way that the Play Cycle can end and that is known as Play Adulteration. This is when the Play Cycle is ended by an adult who has not previously been involved in the play.

The Adult’s Role in the Play Cycle

Some researchers have likened play to a language and the six main Play Cycle stages as features of that language. This language of play happens naturally between children and the Play Cycle thrives without any adult involvement.

When an adult becomes involved in the Play Cycle, it is usually in one of four ways; however, each way has the potential to disrupt the Play Cycle.

Play Maintenance 

Play Maintenance is where the adult remains outside of the Play Frame and passively observes the play. Here, the adult can check that the Play Cycle remains intact and is not disturbed by external factors. In this way, the Play Cycle is allowed to continue through its natural Flow and, eventually, Annihilation.

               How this can disrupt the Play Cycle:

When observing play, especially when it may involve an element of risk, an adult might feel the need to intervene. Whilst this is trigged by a genuine concern, the Play Cycle is, nevertheless, shut down.  

Simple Involvement 

Simple involvement occurs when the adult might be just inside the Play Frame but remains passive. The adult does not participate in the play but may act as a resource to further facilitate the Play Cycle and to maintain it. For example, a child wants a cardboard box to use as part of their play. Not being able to find one, they ask the adult, and the adult provides them with one to use.

               How this can disrupt the Play Cycle:

The adult, acting as a resource, might suggest or provide something other than what was requested. This is often done to try and be helpful or offer the more logical choice, but it changes the Play Frame and disrupts the Play Cycle.

Medial Intervention

Medial Intervention demonstrates a more active role in the Play Cycle. The adult may take up the Play Cue offered by a child and issue a Play Return in response. The adult then becomes part of the Play Cycle.

               How this can disrupt the Play Cycle:

Once involved in the Play Cycle, the adult might play in a way unsuited to the child and the initial Play Cue. This can cause frustration, disappointment or boredom for the child, causing them to end the Play Cycle.

Complex Intervention

Complex Intervention is where the adult becomes even more involved in the Play Cycle by both responding to and issuing their own Play Cues. This then causes the child to respond to the Play Cues of the adult.  

               How this can disrupt the Play Cycle:

The adult might issue too many Play Cues to direct the play and the child will stop responding. In this case, the adult has effectively taken over the play and the child can once again feel frustration, disappointment or boredom and bring the Play Cycle to an end.

Why is the Play Cycle Important?

For Playworkers, the Play Cycle helps us understand play better and informs the way in which we support it. We know that an adult’s role in the Play Cycle can be hugely significant and sometimes disruptive. We use our knowledge of the stages of the cycle to try and ensure play can continue safely for children without their Play Cycle being disrupted or broken.

For parents, it is useful to understand the Play Cycle as it can help them recognise some of their child’s behaviours around play. It can also empower parents to act differently when they notice their child’s Play Cues and understand their role when it comes to getting involved.

“The Play Cycle has proved, and continues to prove to be an effective way to observe and map the process of play.  This has implications not just for playwork, but anyone who is in contact with children in a play capacity (parents, childcare workers, early years workers, play therapists).  This can be in the home, park, open space, school, in essence everywhere children play.

Dr Pete King, Lecturer on childhood studies and play at Swansea University and writer of the recent released book Play Cycle: Theory, Research and Application


Understanding the Play Cycle and recognising its stages helps us understand the language of play. It lets us see how play comes into being, how it can be initiated, returned, continued and, ultimately, ended.

This knowledge enables us as adults to better observe children’s play.  We can then choose how, or if at all, we will interact with it to best support the Play Cycles we see.