Common Play Behaviours – A Continuous Provision Tool.

Alistair Bryce-CleggABC Does A Blog, Child Initiated Learning, Conferences, Continuous Provision, Creativity, Environment3 Comments

I talk about Common Play Behaviours in my Excellence in Early Years training. Lots for people say that they find it really helpful when it comes to establishing their Continuous Provision.

It takes a bit of thinking about, but is well worth the effort! Have a read and see what you think…

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 support adults in their interactions with children but also continue the provision for learning in the absence of an adult.  Here is where a crucial difference lies, if the provision doesn’t have the potential to engage, enhance and extend the children in their learning then it turns into a holding space until some learning comes along. Usually in the form of an adult.

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 here for Common Play Behaviours

Have a go – and see what you think!


3 Comments on “Common Play Behaviours – A Continuous Provision Tool.”

  1. This was very interesting reading and I feel would very much help less experienced practitioners to develop their understanding.

  2. This is extremely interesting & I can see how I could use this in my classroom. I’m a P1 teacher in Scotland & currently on a working party to develop play in the early years of school. We are focusing on one area of our continuous provision & thinking about how effective it is in terms of attainment, pupils making progress & how they are challenged. I’ve noticed that I’ve got a couple of high attainers that always seem busy when playing but probably not being challenged, as well as a pupil who glides around the classroom but not really playing with anything or anyone, would you have any suggestions what to do or try to engage these children more? In particular I’m thinking about my sand area & I’ve got some plastic resources eg jugs, different shape containers, measuring spoons, as well as wooden spoons, ladel, metal trays, scales & wooden sticks & discs. Does this sound like an appropriate list of open ended resources? Finally, I’ve quickly thought about ‘pouring’ & wondering what your thoughts are on the levels: would you say that emergent pourers would empty out containers or buckets, mid level would pour out of bottles, jugs, through funnels & high level would pour from one container to another or create a route for the sand to go eg down a pipe or piece of guttering?
    As I’m at the very beginning of my teaching through play journey I am grateful for any input & advice you can help me with. Thank you.

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