Meaningful Observations in Early Childhood Education and Care

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Observation is a fundamental tool for teaching in early childhood education because it supports awareness of a child’s development, skills, interests, strengths and play. Observation in childcare is crucial for both early childhood teachers and educators, parents and children.

As part of an ongoing cycle of assessment and planning, observations can be made for individual children or small groups of children allowing educators to interpret children’s play, behaviour and learning styles and adjust teaching practices where necessary.

What are observations in Early Childhood Education?

“Observation alone is not enough. We have to understand the significance of what we see, hear and touch”. John Dewey

The words of John Dewey, a philosopher, academic and educator from the late 18th early 20th century can provide a foundation of what observation looks like and means in the early education and care setting. This quote provides a good beginning point as it tells us that there is no ‘right’ way but many ways to approach observation and as John Dewey (1938) says: “we have to understand the significance of what we see, hear and touch…”.

In Dewey’s opinion, education was not just a place to acquire a pre-determined set of skills but a place to realise one’s full potential. Dewey re-imagined the learning process of shifting from the traditional ‘transactional’ method of the time to a model that encouraged a passion for knowledge and ‘intellectual curiosity. This idea suggests that for observation to be meaningful teachers and educators must be curious and open to the meanings that arise – to therefore gain a deeper picture of the child and their learning.

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Observation in childcare involves being attuned to the child through listening and watching as they play, learn and explore. During the observation process, teachers and educators will be aware of the actions, expressions, behaviours, and gestures of children.

Sometimes, observation involves joining in with children’s conversations or interactions to form an understanding of how they are developing, interacting with others and playing. An important consideration for observing children’s play is to slow down and bring quietness to the process of observing and listening. Being present with children when observing means that adults are sensitive to not interrupt the child’s play process. This means that the meaning and richness of each child’s experience can be observed.

Vivian Gussin Paley describes this sense of presence through this reflection of her role as observer of play:

I rarely paused to listen to the narratives blooming everywhere in the garden of children in which I spent my days. I saw myself as the bestower of place and belonging, of custom and curriculum, too often ignoring the delicate web being constructed by the children in their constant exchange of ideas the moment I stopped talking and they resumed playing.

The Importance of Observation in Early Years

Childcare observations can occur throughout the day in an early education and care setting. Through daily care routines, like mealtimes, rest, and nappy change and also as the child plays, interacts with other children and explores materials and the surrounding environment. Integrating observation into practice can hold many benefits including:

  • Planning for and designing a responsive child-centred curriculum
  • Ensuring teaching strategies support the child to achieve personal goals
  • Providing ways to describe the child's skills and abilities
  • Providing feedback to parents about their child's learning experience

When undertaken in a sensitive and responsive way, observations nurture close attachment relationships between adults and children. Quality relationships support children to be emotionally supported and this results in a stronger sense of security, belonging and wellbeing. When children feel secure, their learning with others in the early childhood environment is optimised.

When early childhood teachers and educators recognise the importance of close, responsive and reciprocal interactions, children feel safe, secure and cared for, this supports positive engagement in the play and learning process.

Consequently, this also supports teachers and educators because observing how children interact, and what their abilities and interests are provides a meaningful platform to better plan and develop an authentic program based on each child’s experience.

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Types of Observation in Childcare

There are many different methods of observing children’s play, development and learning. Some well-known methods include anecdotal observations, running records, time-sampling, sociograms and checklists. Photos, audio or video records as well as learning stories are also valuable ways to build understandings and interpret the learning, interests, abilities, and skills of children. t is important that teachers and educators explore the different methods on offer and utilise the one that best reflects the teaching and learning context including service philosophy. This ensures that the planning process facilitates each child’s development and learning in a positive way and provides the educative team with a thorough understanding of each child.

Here are some of the different types of observation techniques to use when observing children.

Anecdotal Record

Anecdotal records are usually performed after an event and are written in the past tense. They are sometimes described as diary records and focus on what is important, recorded in chronological order, with a beginning and an end. This may include focusing on a single area of child development, or going through a number of developmental areas, or aspects of a child’s play at once. When creating an anecdotal record, you must record what the child has said and done, including their body language, pronunciation, direct quotes and facial expressions.

Anecdotal observations are a practical method for recording any important events or actions that may tell us about the child's interests, needs, development, abilities and skills. For example, this might include observing a child playing with playground equipment, which will provide details about their gross motor skills. Anecdotal records are a valuable way to share with a parent their child’s evolving learning and development and for families to see the progress their child is making in different areas of their learning experience.

Jottings

Jottings are short notes of any significant events, discussions or behaviours. These can be noted in a few short sentences, but are often no longer than a paragraph. The observer will usually write an interpretation to go with the jottings.

Jottings are a fast and simple method to record important behaviours and incidents. Here is an example of a jotting with an interpretation:

21.07.2021 - Sally enters the building with her father. She hides behind her father's legs. L walks over to her father and engages in a brief conversation. L says "it's time to say goodbye to daddy", and welcomes Sally with open arms. Sally comes out from behind her father's legs, reaches for L and smiles.

A scenario such as this one can highlight to educators what Sally’s experience of transition is like. Through interpretation and analysis, the educators may determine that Sally is experiencing separation anxiety and explore strategies to support her with this. Through a jotting such as this, educators can see that Sally is forming an awareness of other people and has the ability to distinguish between familiar people and strangers while also showing strong attachment behaviours towards her father and her caregiver..

Running Records

Running records involve describing everything a child says in a specified period of time. A running record is written in the present tense as it is being recorded as it happens. It provides a detailed description of the child's actions and behaviours during a specific time frame. They are practical for deciding why a child may be behaving in a particular way and can provide significant information on other developmental areas.

It is recommended to observe in time increments, such as 2 to 5 minutes. An example of a running record:

9:30am to 9:33 am - Ben puts his bag away and begins running towards the play area. Ben greets Michelle with a hug. Michelle asks for a high five, Ben high fives Michelle. Michelle says "Good job!" and Ben laughs.

Photo Observations

Photo observations can capture how a child learns through an experience, and provide an understanding of the child's development, skills and interests

When accompanied with a brief interpretation, a collection of photographs can portray the development of the child, or any changes in their skills and play overtime.

Time Samples

Time samples record a child's behaviour and how often that behaviour occurs during the day. A tally system is used to record the specific time the behaviour occurs. Time samples are an effective way of finding out how children are engaging in various play areas as well as providing insight into children’s behaviour at different points in the day. A time sample is often described as taking a series of ‘snap-shots’ similar to time-lapse photography and can assist in seeing the particular patterns in how children experience the program.

Time samples can be undertaken every 30 minutes in a day, or in shorter increments of 5 to 10 minutes one important consideration is to have a clear pre-determined purpose for undertaking the time-sample

Socio-grams

Socio-grams are an observation method that detail a child's interactions and friendships. It can be conducted on a variety of age groups, reflecting the social interaction patterns of a child such as how often a child interacts with others and who a child interacts with. A socio-gram can also highlight the way a child moves between experiences within the program and whether any assistance is required to support social interactions or engagement in the program. .

Event Samples

Event samples involve a collection of short observations of a specific behaviour or event within a pre-determined time frame. This form of observation is commonly used to document behaviour patterns and can be used equally for children as well as adults (to assist an educator or teacher to be aware of strategies he or she uses during the day)and the indicators for why a particular behaviour is occurring. In this way, event samples can act as a teaching and reflection tool for the adult to examine their responses to children in specific scenarios.

For this type of observation to be effective, it is important that every event that occurs within the time frame is recorded. What is essential is ‘what’ is observed rather than ‘when it is observed’.

Learning Story Observations

Learning stories tell a narrative to whoever is reading them and were originally developed as a tool to assess children’s learning in the context of the early childhood curriculum. children's voices and questions were integral to this approach.

Learning Stories encourage educators and teachers to consider a bigger picture and to think about how each child is experiencing their world. A learning story may focus on the experience of an individual child or a group of children. What is important to understand about this form of observation is that it presents a story of a child’s learning over a period of time and can highlight specific skills, interests and dispositions for learning – making the learning visible to the reader. Learning stories not only describe actions they also make feelings, thoughts and the interpretations of those writing or telling the story visible.

There are six aspects to consider in writing a learning story:

  1. It takes place over time
  2. It provides a link in the chain of a child’s learning.
  3. It must contain meaningful details of the child or groups play or learning experience.
  4. There must be attention on context and background
  5. It will read like a good holistic story rather than a fragmented report.
  6. How will the child’s voice be acknowledged and or included?

There are many diverse ways of writing a learning story and the following example has been written in response to a play experience shared in a story written by Tom Drummond: 

A Story for Jolene

Today in our room I found a quiet space ~ a place that was filled with creative explorations old and new.

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In this place, I noticed you: Jolene, creating a painting of earthy hues; green, brown, orange, yellow and blue that you 

painted in stripes of thick, strong, bold colour. I think that you liked the feeling of reaching up and sweeping with the paintbrush because you repeated this gesture a number of times and then I heard you say the words: “Pretty painting”. When you paused, I thought you had finished but ‘no’ a

 new form was emerging. By twirling your brush in a big blob of paint ~ you created not one but five blue spots! This technique was a new discovery for you ~ How fantastic!

It was very special to see how you focused so intently on your artwork to explore the connection of the wet paint landing on the paper. I wonder ~ What will your next creation be?

The Art of Observation – Considerations for Documenting

When writing any child observation, it is important to record any behaviour in a descriptive manner. Observations should document the details of how children play and learn. In the Gowrie NSW workshop ‘Capturing the Story - Learning foundational skills for writing meaningful documentation five elements are suggested:

  • Objectivity – Observing without judging – being aware of the lens that you are looking through.
  • Specificity – Look for the specific details. How many children were involved? What materials were used? How long did the play run for? Whether a child has done something for the first time,
  • Directness – Capturing the child’s voice through direct quotes. Using photographs, artefacts and video to support detail and add layers to the observation.
  • Mood – the social and emotional details of the play experience. Tone of voice, child’s gestures, non-verbal information, mood cues what is the emotional atmosphere surrounding the play? Here, we may notice a child’s joy or pride in the experience.
  • Completeness – The play event has a beginning, middle and end. The observation captures the detail in its entirety.

Tips for Writing an Observation

When documenting play and learning through a written observation, there should be accuracy with as much detail as possible about what you observed. This allows an accurate and authentic understanding of the child and their experience.

Observations can be written down at the time an event or behaviour occurs and throughout the day, rather than in an attempt to recollect the events at the end of the working day - which can lead to missing details.

When beginning to document observations, the following sections can be included to guide the structure

  • Background information - the child's name, age, the date, if others were involved, the name of the observing educator
  • Behaviours during play time - play behaviours allow us to gather information on the development of the child, their social skills, strengthsand interests
  • The situation or context - what is happening as you observe
  • Learning dispositions or domains that the child is exploringThe child’s voice including comments or opinions.

Remember to keep in mind:

  • Prepare before observing – Read through previous records, or observations that have been written for this child before partaking in an observation.
  • Use positive language - Focus specifically on what the child is doing and use a strengths-based approach to the choice of language. Avoid critical language
  • Be factual and relevant - Only write what actually occurred, including direct quotes and any other detailed information
  • Be objective not subjective - Observations should be based on true events, not what you personally think, avoid personal opinions and judgements when observing

Interpreting Observations in Early Childhood

Often our first observations of a scenario are simply a response, first reaction or surface level noticing of what is happening in play and learning. To go deeper and interpret the meaning within the play – we peel back more layers and consider what is below the ‘surface’ of what we are seeing. Educators can make notes to understand what you observed during the observation. This process can be supported by *questions like:

  • what did I specifically see?
  • what does this play mean?
  • What experiences, knowledge and skills can you see the child exploring, refining or achieving?
  • What captured your sense of delight and wonder when you observed the child at play?
  • Can you see what the child is trying to achieve through their play?

(*These reflective questions have been drawn from the Gowrie NSW resource a Journey through the Assessment and Planning Cycle - Assessment and Planning Cycle Cards (gowriensw.com.au)

Each individual educator will interpret each observation differently because each person will bring different experiences and professional knowledge to their way of enacting teaching practice. It’s important that educators and teachers create space to share their observations with others because hearing different perspectives can support the analysis and interpretation of learning It is important to be open to the diverse possibilities for learning that can stem from children’s play. This can be highlighted through approaching analysis with an inquiry approach – whereby asking questions can support deeper knowledge of the child and how they are learning.

 

Using the Curriculum Framework as a Tool for Evaluation

The Early Years Learning Framework can support educators and teachers to look closely at what has been observed and interpret the learning that is evident.

The Learning Outcomes, as well as the Principles and Practices, can provide a framework to sift through the information observed and highlight the gems of learning. When using the Learning Outcomes an approach can involve seeing the outcomes as part of a process and not just an endpoint. This means that educators can aim to create a context where the learning domain (that the outcomes refer to) are able to emerge – in a way that reflects each child’s process and learning journey.

In this way, the outcomes become tools to understand the possible opportunities for children’s learning. In addition, the outcomes provide indicators to show how children ‘take on’ these opportunities and possibilities for learning – their disposition towards learning.

The following diagram shows how a short observation includes an analysis that makes reference to Outcome One of the Early Years Learning Framework.

 DIAGRAM

In addition to the above example some other ways to document analysis within an observation could include:

  • Through the observation, I could see
  • During the observation...
  • (Child's name) has shown...

Following Up on Child Observations

After the process of observing play and learning then interpreting this observation for meaning, educators have valuable information about a child’s existing and emerging strengths, abilities, and interests. It is from this information that the next steps for planning and making decisions about what we do next to support children’s learning emerge. We use our understandings of children’s learning to provide deliberate, responsive, and informed invitations for play. It is vital to think of a follow-up experience that the child can participate in, allowing them to extend their learning, develop any emerging interests, or practise a skill. This is where it is important for educators to know why they have planned or ‘put out’ experiences for the children as opposed to it just being out. It may take some time to plan an experience that is meaningful for the child however it is essential that it is relevant to the observation.

The learning programme must demonstrate an awareness of the children, their interests and where they are on the continuum of their learning journey.

Informal assessment occurs in the present moment as we listen to observe, participate, and respond - this allows us to be intentional at the moment with the child.

New strengths, abilities and interests are beginning to emerge and grow for the child, and it is here that to keep track of the child's progress, educators may need to write some summary notes about the child’s experience in relation to the learning identified.

 

How We Observe Your Child at Gowrie NSW

Gowrie NSW implements child observation in order to better understand children, to ensure we are addressing their developmental needs, and to explore how we can support their learning as effectively as possible.

By conducting child observations at Gowrie NSW, we are able to provide parents and guardians with a chance to see their children learning in action, as well as continue to foster children's learning by exploring children's strengths and interests.

 

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