Learning & Development:: Practitioner Role, Part 2 - In tune

Without careful observation and responsive listening, adult interaction could become interference in children's play, says Julie Fisher, independent early years adviser and visiting professor of Early Childhood Education at Oxford Brookes University

If we want to have meaningful and fruitful conversations with young children, then it is our job as early childhood educators to tune in to their current thinking before we can extend or enrich their understanding. But this is easier said than done.

It is impossible for any human being to know precisely what another is thinking. Indeed, it is very often extremely difficult to understand what we are thinking ourselves, let alone what is going on in another person's mind. However, our challenge as educators is to use all available cues and clues to try to identify what is interesting or intriguing young children so that we can offer them appropriate support. It is when adults do not tune in successfully to children that there is a danger of interaction becoming interference.



Every early years practitioner knows that one vital way of tuning in to what children are currently doing is to watch them! The EYFS says that observation is key to ensuring that practitioners are 'sensitive to the individual development of each child'. Yet it is surprising how often I hear practitioners say that they feel guilty at apparently 'doing nothing'. This truly misrepresents the power and purpose of observation.

Without spending time watching what children are doing, a practitioner can only guess at what children are thinking and learning - and what their subsequent role as the educator might be. And guessing is not good enough.

We must be as careful as possible that when we interact with children, it is at the right moment and in the right way. Otherwise, we are in danger of bringing children's activity to a standstill and interrupting the flow of their thinking.

I believe that observation is, in fact, a time when adults are very busy. The body may not be moving, but the mind should be extremely active. For as we watch, we are asking: What is this child trying to do? Where have those ideas come from? Is the child building on something they've tried before? Can I help?

Observing children - taking time to watch - may be a busy and important part of the role of the adult, but sometimes what we see can be misleading. The DVD material from the Oxfordshire Adult-Child Interaction Project (see box) showed that what a child is doing and what they are thinking are frequently two very different things.

Sometimes a child engages in activity in the water tray or with dough, for example, because it is soothing and familiar and very tactile, and this leaves their minds free to think of other things. Maybe the child is thinking about something at home, maybe they are taking the opportunity to watch what else is going on in the setting, maybe they are just letting their mind wander over nothing very much at all. Yet it is often during these moments that children feel free to have their most engaging conversations.

As we saw in Part 1 of this series (see box, p22), children talk most when they are most relaxed, so these very tactile activities - those where there is not a deep level of involvement or engagement - are often the times when good conversations take place. As educators, we need to be alert to these opportunities.

On the other hand, it may be that the child is doing something with their hands - say, pouring sand from one container to another or arranging small-world resources - and yet their mind is busy telling a story of super-heroes, princesses or monsters. If the adult observes only what the child is doing before they intervene, then they may ask questions or make comments about the pouring or the building, when what the child is actually thinking about is their 'story'.

If our observations have not tuned us in to the child's thinking, then it is at moments like these that the child looks at us as though we have arrived from another planet. When the questions we ask, or the statements we make, are nothing to do with what the child is busy thinking about, then we often bring their fantasy or problem-solving to an abrupt and disappointing end.

In the Oxfordshire Project we found it a revelation to stop looking only at what the child is doing and to ask ourselves - what are they thinking? In this way, we turned our attention from the child's hands or their bodies, to trying to read their minds and watch their faces; to see whether their thinking is in tune with their activity - or somewhere else entirely.

By shifting the focus of our observations in this way, we realised that, important though observation might be, it is not sufficient to inform how we should respond. There are other important cues and clues that lead us to be tuned in to the child. As well as watching, we need to listen, for it is frequently what children are saying that gives us better clues as to what they are thinking. But neither of these strategies can be done in a hurry.

If we are trying to watch and listen while we are doing something else, or when our minds are elsewhere, if we try to tune in from across the room or as we walk past an activity, then the chances are that we will not tune in with any accuracy. Children's self-initiated play is often complex and confusing to the onlooker and so, as well as watching, we need to wait.


It is often when we make hasty judgements about what children are doing or thinking or learning that we intervene inappropriately. So, we must acknowledge that watching and listening takes time. There are times in the day, of course, when we do observe while in the middle of other tasks, when we notice something important as we pass by. But these casual moments are not sufficient to build a profile of the child as a learner and certainly not sufficient in helping us make a judgement about whether, as adults, we can - and should - interact with the child at that moment.

So, before we intervene, we must wait long enough to try to understand what the child is thinking about or trying to achieve; long enough to see the patterns of play emerging; long enough to see if the child or children choose to invite us into their play; long enough to be more or less certain that an intervention will support children's learning and not interfere with it.

In our Oxfordshire Project we gave ourselves permission to wait by saying, 'Don't speak until you're spoken to.' In this way, we put ourselves in a watching and waiting mode, and we gave the child the power to instigate the conversation - or not.

Practitioners have often said to me that they are unsure of what to say in a child-led situation, that they are worried they will say the wrong thing. By waiting for the child to initiate the conversation (even the baby, through gesture and gaze), the adult is giving themselves time to tune in. If the child does choose to talk, then the adult only has to respond, naturally and genuinely, as they would to a friend on the other end of the phone.

Of course, this doesn't work in every situation. There are some very shy children who may never instigate a conversation and some who come from cultures where instigating a conversation with an adult is seen as disrespectful. But as a general rule of thumb it can be extremely effective.

Finally, it is important here to stress that there are times when the adult does initiate the conversation, when they choose the topic or the activity or the story. We will look at these kinds of adult-led experiences in Part 3 of the series, but in a child-led situation, then the challenging role for the adult is to be responsive to what the child says and does, and to follow the child's lead.


Having watched and waited, practitioners can then wonder: I wonder what this child is thinking? I wonder whether they need any help? I wonder why they are trying to use those materials? But we shouldn't just wonder about children. We should wonder at children - at their incredible talents; their extraordinary preoccupations; their imagination and creativity; their passion for life and for learning.

Having worked with a number of very able practitioners and studied their interactions, I see that one key attribute they all possess is that they wonder at children. They are practitioners who are fascinated and delighted by children - how they think, what they say, what they do.

It is only by being fascinated by - to wonder 'at' - children that we take the time to watch them and to wait to see how their learning unfolds and what our own role should be in the process. It is only by being fascinated by children that we take the time to worry about those children who do not readily come to us for a conversation - the quiet or shy child; the child for whom English is not their first language; the child lacking conversational experience; the child 'always on the move'.

It is only by being fascinated by children that we realise that there are some children to whom we may find it difficult to relate, maybe even to form a relationship with, for one reason or another. The professional in us should always work hardest to eradicate favouritism or preference in this way. Our job is to do our best by all children, not just those whom we find easy.


When we watch and wait and wonder about children, then we realise, as educators, that there are times when an intervention will not be useful. Sometimes children are so deeply engaged in their learning that to intervene means to interrupt.

Yet this seems to go against everything we believe about 'being an educator'. Our role seems to demand that we interact whenever we can for fear of missing a teaching or learning opportunity. But analysis of the DVD footage of the Oxfordshire project shows clearly that adults talk too much and frequently talk when what the child needs is time to think.

We saw earlier in this article that sometimes children are not deeply involved in their activity and although their hands are busy, their minds are relatively free. These are good times for a conversation - when the mind is free to focus on someone else and their questions and comments. But when a child is deeply involved, when they are grappling with a problem, when they are creating a story, when they are pursuing an idea, then sometimes their minds are too focused on the task in hand to have the capacity to talk to someone at the same time - especially if that person is asking questions about what they are doing and distracting them. So, as we watch and wait and wonder, we have to ask ourselves a further question: whether to interact with the child at all.

This does not mean that the role of the adult in child-led learning is passive, that we just let children 'get on with it' and step away from interaction and never intervene. But it does mean that sometimes our role is to wait and observe, rather than stepping in and speaking; to appreciate when an intervention would be an interruption and to wait to ask our questions or make our comments until a more suitable time.

There is an important role for talking and interacting - but not relentlessly, on every occasion. One of the Oxfordshire practitioners said that she had come to realise that it was only when she stayed quiet that her children had time to think. By being quiet, we not only give children time to think, but we give ourselves longer to learn about the child and to gather knowledge that can be used in our planning.

Deciding when to interact depends on the adult tuning in successfully to the child and their thinking. It depends on making the right decision about when and whether to interact - or whether to give the child thinking space. Not speaking is just as legitimate as speaking, so long as we use the times of quiet to learn more about the child.


This four-part series of articles explores the issues that have arisen for practitioners involved in 'Interacting or Interfering? - The Oxfordshire Adult-Child Interaction Project'. The scheme, which is ongoing, aims to give practitioners a better understanding of their role in supporting early learning and what helps or hinders adult interactions with young children.

Taking part in the project are 14 practitioners, who work across a variety of settings and care for children aged from six months to six years. Participants include colleagues who have worked together for over two years and each agreed to be filmed once a term for two years.

The four parts of the series are:

  • Part 1 'Effective communication' (Nursery World, 23 January 2012)
  • Part 2 'Tuning in to children's thinking' (Nursery World, 20 February 2012)
  • Part 3 'The adult role in child-led learning' (Nursery World, 19 March 2012)
  • Part 4 'How to have conversations with children' (Nursery World, 16 April 2012)


Photographs by Justin Thomas at Headington Quarry Foundation Stage School and The Slade Nursery School and Children's Centre, Oxford

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