Common Play Behaviours and Continuous Provision

Alistair Bryce-CleggContinuous Provision, Environment, Planning and Assessment, Uncategorized39 Comments

Often when I work with Early Years Practitioners, the thing that they find the most difficult to get consistently right is Continuous Provision.

Good Continuous Provision can be tricky – all too often children will just visit in an area of provision that they like, where they will choose a resources that they are familiar with and then engage in low level tasks, often for a considerable period of time. This is great for their levels of engagement, but not so much for their levels of progress or attainment.


                                   The Friars Primary

Of course, we want children to be happy – happy children make successful learners! But, we also want children to be motivated and challenged by the resources that we provide for them. We want them to be thinkers, negotiators and problem solvers – to apply the knowledge that they already have to enable them to explore new possibilities.

When your children are in front of you and hanging on your every word, you, the skilful adult can impart, tease and celebrate knowledge and achievement. But, when they go into Continuous Provision it is the environment that you provide that needs to do that job – almost as well as you do (and in some cases better)!

This is a method that I use with lots of settings that they find straightforward to apply as a starting point to their provision. To establish a good base for effective Continuous Provision we need to appreciate children’s common play behaviours.

In the words of Julie – ‘Lets start at the very beginning…’


Those of you who are familiar with the blog will know what I mean by a Gap and Strength analysis. If not you can find more info here.

Whenever a setting has carried out a summative assessment I get them to create a Gap and Strength analysis  – usually (but not always)  using Early Years Outcomes. This will indicate where the biggest gaps in children’s learning are and also where children are performing above the expected level of development for their age.

It is this info that I use to help me decide which areas of provision I am going to create or highlight within my space.

Remember, there is no Early Years law that says ‘you must have a …… area’.  You can have a number of ‘exclusive’ areas of provision or you could have none depending on the needs of your children. A jigsaw table is not a statutory requirement!

Children will also move resources that you have provided in one area to utilise in their play elsewhere. This is okay. The more ‘fluid’ you can make your environment the more opportunities for learning there will be (and, if we are honest, more tidying up)!

There are a number of areas that I set up as a Reception teacher in my own classroom that I would not have as an ‘exclusive’ area now. I am far more likely to have elements of that provision in every other area.


Grove Street Primary

Once I have created my areas of provision I then need to stock them with resources for Continuous Provision.

‘Continuous Provision’ is not just ‘the provision that is continuously available’. Children need to have familiar resources that they can revisit and reuse for different purposes over time. That is not the same as having three buckets, three spades, three jugs and three beakers out all year!

Each area of provision that you create needs a variety of interesting and stimulating resources that engage children and have the potential to extend their learning.


Continuous Provision has to continue the provision for learning in the absence of an adult and that is where the crucial difference lies.

This is where ‘common play behaviours‘ comes in…

If we take the ‘sand’ area for example. My Gap and Strength Analysis has indicated that there are lots of skills and experiences that my children would gain through sand play and exploration, so I am going to create a sand area.

Now then….what am I going to put on the shelves? More importantly, why I am I putting it there?

I want children to be able to play, explore, investigate and interpret in ways that are personal to them so I am not saying that they can only use the resources that I provide in the way that I intend them to be used.


What I am saying is… ‘I know what you usually do in the sand when there is no adult. So, I am going to provide resources that will support and challenge that common play behaviour’

First job I would ask you and/or your team to do would be to identify common play behaviours of children in the sand tray. You could do this as an actual observation of your children over time or you could list from experience the most common ones that you see.

We would end up with a list that would look something like:

  • dig
  • pour
  • fill
  • empty
  • mark make
  • mould/manipulate
  • enclose/bury
  • transport
  • cause and effect

… plus any more that you come up with. I am always careful to make sure that they are common play behaviours linked to sand itself rather than enhancements to sand play like Small World. These enhancements will be added into your Continuous Provision in response to children’s interests. They would be things that you are introducing to, or investigating with, the children, skills or specific challenges.

There is also lots of opportunity for discussion about how some of the common play behaviours are linked and cross over with each other. Not to mention an appreciation of schematic play – but that is a whole other blog post!

I usually transfer these common play behaviours to a simple A4 grid and under each behaviour, I split the column into 3.

At this point in the process we are going to implicitly level each common play behaviour that you have identified. We will do this over 3 broad levels – emergent, mid – level and high level. The word ‘level’ can be easily misconstrued by some and conjures up thoughts of ‘top shelf, middle shelf, bottom shelf’ and children being told only use the resources on their allotted shelf! This is absolutely not what we are aiming for! The term ‘implicit levelling‘ means exactly that – it is implied. You know that it is there, but to the children it just looks like a collection of interesting resources for them to experiment with.


Bedford Drive Primary School

If the term ‘levelling’ scares you or someone close to you then you can always just refer to it as differentiation – it is basically the same thing!

Let me explain a little more…

First on our list of common play behaviours in sand is ‘dig’. So, what would an ’emergent’ digger use to dig with? What sort of space would they need? Is the sand tray on the floor or at waist height?  Would the sand be wet or dry?Would it always be sand? Plus any other questions you or your team generate.

An emergent digger is likely to start to dig with their hand. After their hand what might they use next? In my experience it is usually a container that is easy to manipulate and after that probably a scoop.

Your list for  tools for an emergent digger might go something like

  • Hand
  • Container
  • Scoop

When you are thinking about a mid level digger they might access resources like

  • Spade (short handle)
  • Spade (long handle)
  • Serving spoon (large)
  • Ladle
  • Wooden spoon (large)
  • Spatula

And a higher level digger? well, something like

  • Wooden spoon (small)
  • Small scoop
  • Teaspoon
  • Fingers
  • Lollipop sticks
  • Something with a mechanism
  • Non specified resources of their own invention!

Of course, all of the challenge for digging does not come from the size of the utensil. There will be challenge from the size of the digging area, the texture of what they are digging in etc…

For the purposes of this exercise we are thinking about shelves next to an indoor sand tray.


It is not an exact science nor is this an exhaustive list, but hopefully it will illustrate the process.

Once I have done this for digging, I would then apply the same process to pouring, filling and emptying and so on.

When my ‘common play behaviours for sand‘ grid is complete, I would then move on to all of the other areas of provision that I had created and do a grid for them. You can re-use these grids, just add or adjust for different cohorts.

(If your children are transitioning between rooms in Nursery, to Nursery from Pre-school, Reception from Nursery or from Reception into Year One (as a group), your common play behaviours overview will give their next practitioners  a clear outline of the sort of resources they need to provide to maintain and extend your children’s skill level in every area of provision.)

Now I have got my skeleton for Continuous Provision.

I look at each grid and then apply what is on them to my children. Do I have any emergent diggers?

Yes I do – Well then I know the sort of resource that I need to put out.

No I don’t- Then I need to move on to a more challenging digging resource for their CP

If I have emergent, mid level and high level diggers then I need a bit of everything. This is not prescriptive and not exhaustive it is a Continuous Provision skeleton that you can build on and enhance.


Exploring a variety of concepts  through a sand play provocation – The Friars Primary

Some of the most effective Continuous Provision I have seen will have resources that support all of the common play behaviours  identified within that area available for the children plus some quality enhancements.

What adults must not do is to go into a space and say:

You’re a high level digger, so drop the scoop and pick up the tea spoon… or else‘!

 We have to be appreciative of the subtleties of children’s play and seek to understand their interpretations and explanations which often don’t match our assumptions and are rarely back and white! Children need a variety of resources and the freedom to experiment with them – underpinned by knowledge of the adult and rigour of the provision.

What you have got with a common play behaviours approach is a scaffold for learning that is based on assessment and development which supports children in their exploration of process and skill either with or without an adult.

I would ‘tweak’ my resources in response to observation and every time I did a summative assessment I would reassess my provision against my common play behaviours format then add my enhancements.

You can download a blank Word format for common play behaviours here

Have a go – and see what you think!


39 Comments on “Common Play Behaviours and Continuous Provision”

  1. Really keen to try this at school but I cannot download the CPB form, can anyone help please? I would also like the gap and strength analysis too!

  2. Hi

    I am very interested in common play behaviours. In my school we also have a nursery. Would you create a separate common play behaviour grid for nursery and reception or just one overall for e.g. sand play.


  3. This was really clear and I am excited to use it in my areas. I can’t download the word document. Are you able to help?

  4. Thank you for this. An excellent read.
    I have read this following watching your webinar on the revised framework (which I have probably watched about 4 times now to revisit specific parts). I can’t download the common play behaviours doc – could you help?

  5. I can’t get the link to work for:You can download a blank Word format for common play behaviours here

    I have been revisiting the last three day’s, but still no luck.

    Could this be emailed to me please?

  6. I am incredibly grateful for such a clear explanation and am excited to be beginning a journey of new learning based upon providing greater ‘pitch’ within our continuous provision. I will be introducing this model with the early years team, at a large Nursery and Reception provision, as part of our developing practice from September.

  7. Hello, I can’t seen to get the common play behaviours blank document to download. Is it still available?
    Thank you

  8. My manager is OBSESSED with you!!! I’m sure she’s on commission as our nursery is being re-developed to portray your work 🙂

  9. Hi Alistair,
    I’m really enjoying your posts and your site is a wealth of knowledge, ideas and resources.

  10. The blank common play behaviour chart has my workplace chuckling – there’s a typo in the second column you might wish to change…

  11. Hi, I’m having the same problem with the gap and strength analysis. The link takes you to a page that says you are not allowed to access previews and if you search it nothing is found.

    Really enjoying the Blogs.
    Thank you

  12. Pingback: They’re just colouring… | #eyfstwitterpals

  13. I love this post. I recently came on your conference in Bristol it was fantastic can’t wait to put it all into place at my setting.

  14. More fab ideas – oh for an endless supply of all those items like various spoons, tubes, etc etc. I seem to spend my weekends buying strange odds and ends that get added to the family shopping bill but there is always something else I think of that we absolutely must have!!

  15. Thanks Alistair, I’m coming across ideas like yours that relate to early years learning. But I’m a bit stuck on the connect between ‘play’ and ‘lessons’. I think its the cross over from Early Childhood Education thinking to School thinking. I’m teaching Year Ones in New Zealand. They’ve been at school 10 weeks or so, and are coming to me for 2016. The emphasis is Literacy and Numeracy, with a combination of whole class teaching, group teaching situations and independent ‘learning’ where the expectation is that they will go off and ‘practice’ all the skills I’ve just taught them…like counting and letter recognition, writing and reading etc. How do you see ‘play’ or ‘continuous provision’ (new term for me) into this school framework?

  16. This would have really great results I’m sure, no matter how skilled a team it’s a great streamlined way to approach cp. What also chimes with me when reading this though is that practitioners need paid for time each week to sort out challenge in cp, I think that this may be a major barrier, there’s no acknowledgement of the importance of this thinking and creating time when contracts or staffing levels are decided upon and most practitioners are paid for contact time plus a teeny bit of time either side, certainly that’s the case in our authority. Imagine the difference a couple of hours a week as a team would make to the quality of cp … climbs off soap box 🙂

    1. Yes I totally agree. I could spend a full day with my staff each week just planning and sorting out everything for the following week. I would love some ideas on how everyone else manages this. We have a weekly one hour planning meeting as a team but it isn’t long enough to get through everything we want to do.

  17. Great, easy to understand article once again. Will be looking at our continuous provision areas with fresh eyes. Thank you.

  18. Hi! Once again a great post! I can’t seem to access the’gap and strength analysis’ that you refer to. Is there any other way I can get hold of this?
    Thanks ☺

    1. If you search Gap and Strength Analysis in the search bar on the blog, it should come up there for you.

  19. I think your blogs are amazing. They give new ideas for me to implement.
    Thanks once again

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