Turn-taking difficulties? Why ‘fun’ might have more solutions than ‘formality’.

Dominic Gunn, Specialist Teacher for Early Years

"Turn-taking is a rule-based, language-driven, socially grounded practice which requires multiple skills being understood and utilised simultaneously. But constructed attempts to address all skills separately, or suppress the resulting behaviour (not a good idea!), and measure percentages of progress towards predicted outcomes, miss the point at which these skills start to develop happily, permanently and transferably."

Dominic Gunn, Specialist Teacher for Early Years


One concern frequently raised by practitioners in schools and settings is that a child does not wait for her or his turn, whether with a formal game or informal resource sharing. This usually involves grabbing or dominating, often with the breakdown of play, heightened emotions and dysregulation. It can involve an escalation of physical behaviour and quickly becomes part of the struggling child’s self-image, as disapproval is shown.

Our instinct has been to address what we see by increasing adult control, with a mix of modelling and direction, introduction of extrinsic rewards and sanctions, emotional awareness ‘work’, calming strategies, communication aids and language comprehension sessions etc. Quite often this leads to some improvement.*

However, our full battery of SEND strategies, compartmentalised curriculum assessments,  and confusing surplus produce from the education industry may have distracted us from the core component of taking turns, and therefore the solution to turn-taking difficulties.

Interventions and outcomes

Turn-taking is a rule-based, language-driven, socially grounded practice which requires multiple skills being understood and utilised simultaneously. But constructed attempts to address all skills separately, or suppress the resulting behaviour (not a good idea!), and measure percentages of progress towards predicted outcomes, miss the point at which these skills start to develop happily, permanently and transferably. And with a minimum of cost and artificial intervention.

Shared Pleasure Play

I have referred to this during most of the last 5 years as Shared Outcome Play, but in an attempt to move away from medical and business models which are framing child development, and SEND, along with language like ‘goals’ and ‘acceleration’, I have renamed it Shared Pleasure Play.

This is play which only makes sense with another person and which quickly becomes exhilarating. It works in a natural arena of social delight where understanding evolves at its own pace and the brain seeks repetition, securing understanding and urging self-regulatory behaviours that will enable the euphoria to continue.

Imagine holding a piece of elastic at one end and giving the other end to a colleague. You are facing each other (with or without eye contact depending on your neuro-comfort) and you start to walk slowly backwards. Can you imagine the prickling sensation on the back of your neck as the pressure changes between your fingers? The state of arousal and anticipation rockets while slightly scared and slightly giggling. What will happen next? It would make quite the MRI scan.

We would not want elastic pinging in a child’s face but it is this level of shared experience we are looking to facilitate with play opportunities and resources already available in our Early Years environments. Here are some obvious examples:

  • See-Saw.
    Even a commercial product has some value here, when we know what we are trying to achieve with it. The difference between someone sitting on the other side or not is a highly concrete sensation, whatever the language level or neuro-particular experiencing of the world. Face-watching is highly likely, even if passing. Jointly constructing a see-saw with blocks and planks takes us to another level of co-operation and shared challenge play.
  • Car and Drainpipe.
    Rolling a ball back and forth is fine, if you already want to roll it back! But put it, or a vehicle, or any high interest toy into a drainpipe or carpet tube and the building sound as the item picks up speed creates anticipation and thrill, before it shoots from the end. It doesn’t take long for the alternate end-lifting ‘rule’ to make sense, because the brain wants that thrill all over again.
  • Rope and Quoit.
    Works well even without the quoit, as the wiggler at one end sends a physical message down the snaking skipping rope to tickle the grip of the other rope holder. So many sensations, as we change pace and vigour, with the pauses after each move making sense of our own invented turn-taking rules. Add anything to the rope to keep it fresh and appealing.
  • Mini Parachute Games.
    What could be better? Facing each other, sensing the pull of the ‘parachute’, anticipating and enjoying the action of a friend! Who needs a sticker for waiting their turn when the turn of another is as exciting as your own? We just need to manage the establishment phase with a small group so that the game and the fairness can be fully understood.

For most of our children, this play happens naturally, given the right opportunity, but when it does not we should avoid focussing on ‘fixing’ the turn-taking troubles and ask what happened to the fun of sharing. We have been applying this approach for the last 5 years with very positive results, often removing the need for any major ‘Turn-Taking’ targets on personalised SEND plans, because taking turns, and enjoying each other’s turn, has been established.

This clip of Fillip shows how the building anticipation and excitement in his observed play of peers proves irresistible. It has a simple, understandable cause and effect pay-off, merging the developmental stage of “BOO!” with the agency**of a 3 year old and the realisation that the actions and reactions of friends is the most sought after ingredient in the play.

The skilled adult facilitates a happy understanding that removes the need for targeted lessons in rule-based, language heavy turn-taking.

(** The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy defines ‘agency’ as ‘the socially situated capacity to act’)

We know, now, how behaviourist approaches risk magnifying the unhappiness, stress and dissatisfaction of an experience, seeking only to suppress, without guaranteeing any desirable learning. We can also see that our terrific scientific, often medical, analysis of needs does not always lead to manageable, holistic or even accurate interventions to healthy learning – these sometimes look more like interruptions. We should be working with the brain the way it is most effective – through joy, exploration and friendship. And nowhere reveals the impact of this better than ‘Shared Pleasure Play’.

So far, focussing adult support in this way has helped a range of children known to have experienced trauma or attachment difficulties, been diagnosed Autistic, have communication and interaction difficulties, sensory processing differences, unstable alertness/ arousal levels (ADD/ ADHD when the time comes), developmental delay, cognitive pacial differences… ( this is a word I made up to described pace of thinking and learning development more as a flexible concept than as a point on a pre-determined  linear educational pathway)

*The improvements seen in children where extrinsic rewards and sanctions are used lack foundation, just like building a house on the sand. The brain does not develop a memory of happy co-operation and shared achievement, and remains highly vulnerable in the future. Similarly, where a child’s agency is compromised, by inappropriate adult control of a situation, the opportunity is missed for a permanent healthy brain to develop transferable skills even though a ‘problem’ might appear to be solved superficially. Self-calming and language skills are frequently necessary, but not in isolation from independent Shared Pleasure Play.

Dominic is a  Specialist Teacher for Early Years, his role is to support schools and settings when they have identified particular children who they feel should be learning and developing more successfully. These children are usually within the broad vulnerable group which we still currently call EY SEND (Early Years Special Educational Needs and Disabilities). Dominic works with over 120 PVI settings, childminders, maintained Nurseries and Year R classes.

Follow Dominic on TWITTER