New stages of play research may shape the way educators document children’s learning
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New stages of play research may shape the way educators document children’s learning

by Freya Lucas

February 05, 2021

Research conducted by a Swansea University academic into how early childhood educators and other professionals can study the stages children go through as they play together has the potential to shape the way children’s learning is observed and documented. 


Dr Pete King, who specialises in play and childhood studies, devised a method of studying the process of children’s play – the Play Cycle Observation Method (PCOM) – and has now published research which demonstrates how effective it is as an observational tool.


Play is considered an important research topic for scientists, who hold a deep understanding of the crucial role play plays in a child’s development, both cognitive and social. 


Dr King recently evaluated the PCOM with a group of  three-year-olds via an observation booth at the University of Central Oklahoma’s Child Study Centre, along with fellow researchers Professor LaDonna Atkins and Dr Brandon Burr.


“The PCOM focuses on the process of play and initially it was piloted using a video of children playing. We were able to show it could be used effectively in that situation, where the observer is able to pause or rewind to take a closer look at the children’s activity,” Dr King explained.


“However, this is not an option when observing children in real time so how reliable would the PCOM be in those circumstances? This question formed the basis of our research paper.”


The PCOM focuses on the process of play and the Play Cycle, the term used by play professionals to observe and understand play. The cycle can be broken down into several distinct phases – pre-cue, play cue, play return, play frame, flow and annihilation.


The play cue, either verbal or non-verbal, is an invitation to play from a child, while the play return is another child’s response. The play frame is the physical or imagined boundary that keeps the Play Cycle intact and annihilation is when play has finished.


For this study two members of the research team acted as the independent observers with no experience of using the PCOM. They watched play from the booth and used specifically designed observation sheets to quantitatively record play cues, play returns and Play Cycles. These sheets also collected qualitative data of play frames, annihilation and the role played by adults in the Play Cycle.


The observers watched the same ‘target child’ at the same time, each carrying out their observation simultaneously, without any discussion or comparison. This was repeated for 11 separate observations of different children. The data was then collected and analysed by a third member of the team.


Through the recent application of the research, Dr King said, “we proved that by focusing on the process of play, the PCOM is a very child-centred and child-led observational tool. It is not restricted to a type of play such as pretend or social, so offers the opportunity to observe all types of play.”


Benefits of using the PCOM lie not only in the fact that it outlines how the various stages of play can be supported, but also its power as a tool which can be used by early childhood students who are learning about play, and existing professionals to support reflective practice. 


The PCOM also has capacity to be used as a training tool for trainers and lecturers who are teaching content which covers play. 


Findings have been published in the Journal of Early Childhood Research and may be accessed here

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