Effective delivery of the Early Years Foundation Stage depends upon practitioners being skilled at making observations that recognise the significance of what the children are doing.
While the term 'observation' is widely used now in the sector, not everyone appreciates the difference between watching a child playing and seeing what he is doing. And until they do, they will not be able to gain a clear understanding of an individual child's interests and achievements.
A visit to Reggio Emilia prompted Bali Pallan, the teacher in the under-threes room at Greenfields Children's Centre, Southall, London, to attend a course at the renowned Pen Green Research Base on developing ways of documenting children's learning.
'I was inspired by my visit to Reggio and the way they document the children's learning and I wanted to built on it,' says Mrs Pallan. 'The course is at the research base, but they give you opportunities to go into the Pen Green Centre so you can see how it works. They are not giving you anything that they do not put into practice themselves.
'The course gave me lots of ideas to build on, such as different ways of documenting the children's learning and presenting and displaying what the children have been doing.'
Kate Hayward, assistant director at Pen Green Research base, who leads the course on Documenting Children's Learning, says, 'The emphasis in the course is on what you are looking at, how you recognise what is significant and how we use observations to inform planning.
'I like the New Zealand terms of noticing what is happening and recognising its significance. What happens sometimes is that there is so much emphasis on doing observations that people focus on the quantity of their observations, rather than the quality.
'At Pen Green, schemas are used so practitioners gain an understanding of a child's deep interest and can use their understanding and pedagogy to support that child's interests.'
Ms Hayward cites the example of a child painting a beautiful rainbow and then completely covering it with black paint.
'Some adults might say to her that she is ruining her lovely picture. But her interest is in envelopment,' she says. 'She is interested in curved lines, so in this she is learning about capacity, covering and area. It is recognising what you are seeing.'
She emphasises that the way to start is with the child. 'Think about what he or she is doing, rather than start with the curriculum and try to map the child on to that.'
Mrs Pallan shared what she had gained from the course in separate feedback sessions with her colleagues working with the under-threes and over-threes. The team is now working on different ways to document visually the children's learning, and as a pilot she is developing a portfolio charting a child's learning journey.
'We looked at what we photograph and the reasons behind taking a photograph. It is not just done for the sake of it. We have to think about what we are going to do with a photograph and how we are going to use that to further the children's learning.
'We are now getting the parents involved in developing listening stories with the children, where we follow the children's lead. Using photo talk-books, you can capture the moment. The child can take the photo and record a message to go with it, or an adult can add the caption.'
The team have developed document books and project books made up of digital photographs recording the children's interests and activities. The under-threes respond to seeing photos of themselves.
'The children smile and point at themselves or make gestures when they recognise themselves or someone else they know in the photographs,' says Mrs Pallan. 'I am in the process of putting together a home technology photo book, taking photos of things like juicers, blenders, toasters and microwaves.
Project books are made to chart the progress of the over-threes. The team no longer plan themed topics, but instead follow wherever the children's natural curiosity takes them. The adults see how a child's particular interest can be developed further into a mini-project which is then documented in a project book.
THE EXPERT'S VIEW
Kathy Brodie, Early Years Professional and trainer, says, 'The reason you need a good-quality course on observation is that people need to understand what they are seeing. Observation is different from watching.
'How are you going to plan for an individual child's needs if you do not know that child well? If you are in tune with your children and observe well, you can spot anything, from the onset of chickenpox to what the next developmental steps are.
'A good course will also remind practitioners that when you observe, you are always looking through the lens of your own knowledge and experience. If people are aware of schemas and see a child carrying an object outside and then inside again, they will see the child is not being messy and that there is a quite high level schema going on.
'On my courses, I play a DVD and ask people to comment on what they have seen - and nobody comes up with the same thing twice.
'You need to consider what you are looking at - the product or the process. A child is painting and talking about what he is creating. Are you observing the speech and language development? The personal, social and emotional development? Or the product - the painting?
'Observations should be done during child-initiated play so you know you are observing deep level learning. Practitioners have to be in tune with the children to achieve quality observations, "We had a lovely time in the garden" is not a quality observation.
'Practitioners need to have an understanding of child development so they can understand the significance of what they are observing. The EYFS is amazing. The information in Development Matters gives you so much to work on.'
- Observing to Inform Practice developed by the National Day Nurseries Association (ongoing, internet-based) www.ndna.org.uk
- An Introduction to Documenting Children's Learning (7 May) led by Paddy Beels, held at Early Excellence, The Old School, Outane, Huddersfield - T. 01422 311314 www.earlyexcellence.com
- Developing an Observation-based Approach to Assessment and Curriculum Planning in the EYFS (8 May) led by Margaret Edgington, held by the Institute of Education, 20 Bedford Way, London WC1 0AL - T. 020 7612 6589/6987 www.ioe.ac.uk/cpd
- Observing Children's Learning - a Focus on Assessment (24 May) led by Sue Pearson, held at Early Excellence - T. 01422 311314 www.earlyexcellence.com
- Learning: Observation, Assessment and Documenting Children's Learning (27 - 28 May) led by Kate Hayward, held by Pen Green Research Base, Rockingham Road, Corby NN17 1AG - T. 01536 443435 www.pengreen.org/pengreenresearch
- High Scope two-day courses: Introduction to Child Observation Record and Introduction to Child Observation Record Tool (ongoing) held by the Early Years (Northern Ireland) - T. 028 6634 2696 www.early-years.org
- Observation and Record Keeping for Working with the Under-Fives, halfday course for ten people (ongoing) Understanding/Using Schemas in Promoting Children's Learning (ongoing) both by Acorn Childcare - T. 0845 371 0953 or www.childcaretraining.co.uk
- How to Perform Effective Observations Using the EYFS Framework half-day and full-day courses (ongoing) led by Yvonne Batson-Wright, held by Training Designs Ltd. Courses in central London; weekday and out-of-hours workshops held at settings - T. 0845 643 4231 www.trainingdesigns.com