Observing children




Observation is the key to understanding young children as learners and a vital tool in finding out more about them as individuals. It is an integral part of the assessment and planning cycle and a firm basis for reflection.

In any high-quality setting, observation is recognised as a fundamental and crucial aspect of the practitioner's role and, as such, is given high priority in terms of training and everyday practice.

Observation is about watching children's actions, expressions, gestures and behaviours, and listening to their talk and interactions. Sometimes it is about joining in with their play or conversations and sometimes about asking and responding to questions. Always, it requires a sensitive and respectful approach to children's play and an attitude of openness to the individual's learning agenda.

Why do we observe?

There are many good reasons why adults observe children in their care and the reason may influence the nature of the observation in terms of who is observed/observing, where the observation takes place and at what time of the day or session. However, although specific reasons for observation may be varied, the general purpose will be to find out more about:

* a child or group of children; or

* the effectiveness of provision.

The ultimate and overarching aim of observations is to enable practitioners to plan an appropriate curriculum, providing for the full range of needs within the setting. (In this part of the series, we focus on observations to find out more about individuals or groups of children. Observations to evaluate provision will be addressed later in the series.) Practitioners will observe children to find out:

* what is interesting and motivating them as individuals or groups;

* how they have responded to a particular activity, experience or area of provision;

* factors that influence their involvement and sense of well-being during the day or session;

* how the children's skills are developing;

* what they know and understand in terms of the Foundation Stage areas of learning;

* how they interact with adults and other children;

* about friendships and dynamics within groups;

* how they approach learning, for example, their attitudes and learning styles;

* which areas of provision and activities they choose to access regularly;

* about patterns in behaviour.

Observation is only the first stage in the process of understanding and addressing children's learning needs and interests. It is what is done next with this information that will impact on children's learning. Assessment is the analysis of observational information that will then inform practitioners' planning.

Who observes?

It is the responsibility of all practitioners to note important information about all the children's learning as it is presented. Children have different relationships with different adults and, through observation, each adult will bring an individual perspective to the assessment process for a particular child.

If only one practitioner, for example, the keyworker, ever observed a child, the information gleaned would be limited to their perspective. It is, therefore, important to be working in a culture of mutual respect for the contributions that colleagues make. Of course, sometimes one member of staff will be charged with a specific observational focus but, over the course of time, there should be contributions from a variety of practitioners.

Likewise, information gathered only in the setting will not offer a full picture of the child's play and learning. Parents' and carers' knowledge of their child must be included in the assessment equation. The more adults within the child's world that contribute positively to the process, the deeper the insight will be.

Where and how do we observe?

The simplest answer to the question, 'Where do we observe?' is 'Everywhere'. Practitioners may not always document everything that they observe but they should develop the skill of registering incidental and significant information throughout the day. The most accurate picture of a child will result from observational information gathered in various contexts, both in and out of the setting.

Observation of young children should always take place in a context that is meaningful to them. Observations that are rooted in child-initiated learning experiences will generate the most sound information for making accurate assessments of learning.

A high-quality learning environment (indoor and outdoor) is, therefore, vital in order to observe children in naturally occurring situations and self-initiated play.

Where a broad and balanced curriculum is offered through provision, there will be a meaningful context for learning and for assessment. In both sessional and full-day care settings, there will also be opportunities for observation during daily routines, for example, as the child enters nursery, snack or meal times. Adults working with young children should always be alert to significant information that children communicate to us through their words or actions.

It is crucial that practitioners are able to respond spontaneously to children's play and learning and to take opportunities for observation as they arise. Many observation opportunities occur incidentally and these can offer useful 'snapshots' of children's learning.

Such observations may be very brief and concise, perhaps focusing on one aspect of learning, but can offer important assessment information, especially when viewed in the context of others. Other spontaneous opportunities may require the practitioner to observe over a longer period of time in order to document a process or continuous activity.

Effective implementation of this observational approach will impact on a setting's short-term planning and teams will need to ensure that adult-led activities do not dominate the curriculum or the adults' time.

There should be flexibility within the working week for adults to support a focus and to observe and support child-initiated learning. Sometimes the team may plan time for an adult to assume the role of 'observer' within the context of child-initiated play. Whatever the organisational issues within a particular setting, it is imperative that the principles of good observational practice should inform decisions and that staff are afforded ample time to observe children and so ensure high-quality assessments.

Practitioners may plan a series of focused observations in areas of provision looking at individuals' self-initiated play in each area. Such an approach can be a very effective way of gathering information about a child in several curriculum areas. Narrative observations offer a more holistic picture of the child's learning at the time of observation and can give the practitioner useful information about what is interesting and motivating the child.

Sometimes practitioners will decide to 'track' a child over the course of a session, a day or longer to find out more about that child as an individual learner. It may be that they want to identify, or confirm, interests or repeated patterns of behaviour. Or, they may want to look more closely at the child's relationships with other children or at the response of the children to the rhythm of the nursery day. They may also want to find out more about that child's style of learning or the choices they make at nursery.

There are different ways of organising staff to facilitate this approach.

It could be that one practitioner is deployed specifically to observe the child for a period of time or that all practitioners record their observations of the child as the child enters the area in which the adult is working. Either way, observations will be recorded at regular intervals throughout the allotted time.

An adult-led or supported focus will provide valuable opportunities to observe children on their learning journey towards identified key goals. Of course, learning during such activities will not be restricted to that planned by the adult. There will be unexpected opportunities for assessment and all significant observations should be registered, if not recorded.

Recording observations Not all observations will be written down and much useful information will be exchanged verbally through informal discussions between practitioners and with parents. However, it is important to build up over time a record of observational information that can be shared more formally and used as a tool for reflecting on, and planning for, children's learning.

Written observations It may not always be appropriate to expect all contributing adults to write down their observations of children's play and learning. Some parents can find this expectation intimidating and scribing their comments can be an effective way of gathering information.

Practitioners can scribe the information during the conversation or record comments later. What is of paramount importance in these circumstances is the sharing of information. Some parents welcome a simple format to help them organise their comments on paper and copies of this should be readily available.

Observations should document what the child has achieved - not what they have failed to do. Depending on the type of observation, practitioners may decide to use a format or a blank sheet. Formats offer a framework that can prompt adults into including important elements in their observation. They can be a particularly useful support as practitioners develop their skills in recording observations.

Some practitioners prefer to make observational notes in a notebook and to organise these into written observations later. This system can offer a valuable opportunity for reflection. However, practitioners should guard against spending long periods rewriting large amounts of material. Short observations recorded straight onto white sticky labels are easily transferred into individual profiles and can save a lot of time.

An observation format may include sections such as:

* name: This should include the surname where first names are duplicated in the setting;

* date: Day, month and year. It may also be appropriate to include the time or duration;

* context: Adult-led? Child-initiated? Independent? Working with/alongside other children? Which area of provision?

* key area of learning;

* adult's observation;

* child's comments - these can offer a very useful, further insight into learning.

Other types of observation may require slightly different formats. For example, a narrative observation would probably identify more than one key area of learning, but a margin may be useful for referencing particular aspects of learning at appropriate points in the observation, either at the time or during assessment later. Date and context are always important and even where a format is not used, these elements should be included in the observation. Samples of work are sometimes included, with the child's permission, for assessment purposes.

Photographic observations Still photographs and video observations are an effective way of documenting the child's learning process. Photographs should always be annotated or cross-referenced to relevant written observations. Where practitioners use digital photography they can print images almost instantly and perhaps with the children.

Practitioners should request written parental permission for using photography to record and document children's learning.

Further reading

* Vicky Hutchin, Right from the Start: Effective Planning and Assessment in the Early Years (Hodder Murray)

* Vicky Hutchin, Tracking Significant Achievement in the Early Years (Hodder Murray)

Series guide

* This 12-part series aims to support practitioners in achieving and maintaining high-quality provision in the Foundation Stage.

* The series is underpinned by the principles for early years education as identified in Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage and takes into account the national daycare standards and the 'outcomes' for children as set out in Every Child Matters and laid down in the Children Act 2004.

* Each part of the series will focus on a different aspect of practice, highlight key elements of good practice and offer a benchmark for self-evaluation.

* The series encourages practitioners to be reflective in their practice and to see the quest for quality as a developmental process.

* The elements of quality in early years practice are often interdependent and there will be points of cross-referencing between parts of the series.

CASESTUDY Baring Primary School, south London

Observations are pivotal to the planning process in the nursery class at Baring Primary School, south London, where teacher and nursery nurse undertake three different kinds of observation every day.

'We use observations to identify the next steps in children's learning and how provision needs to be changed or developed,' says nursery teacher and Foundation Stage co-ordinator Joanne Haine.

Daily, she and nursery nurse, Samantha Jones, take it in turns to observe:

* the focused activity of the day, involving children identified from earlier observations;

* a certain child for ten minutes;

* the children generally at play.

The observations are assessed as an on-going process and during dedicated planning time and then fed into the planning process.

What is of particular interest at Baring is how evidence is recorded.

Earlier this year the school was involved in a DfES project looking at the future of electronic records. Staff were encouraged to use electronic files and to add to their recording using digital photography by using video and palm PCs in the classroom to record observations.

Mrs Haine was won over by video as a means of recording. 'It's really powerful as well as excellent evidence, and great to show to parents,' she says.

And, while there was a mixed reaction to non-paper records from practitioners involved in the project, both she and her nursery nurse have become firm converts, holding only electronic and digital records since the spring. They have found it saves on space (with an end to bulky files), money (with savings on paper and printing out photographs) and time (with an end to cutting, pasting, preparing and filing records).

'I feel it's made us more effective and it's been motivating,' says Mrs Haine.

All the children's written records are held on computer with links to photographs and hyperlinks to the video clips (with good sound quality).

All the photographs are also held in one file and annotated to show parents about their children's learning, or are printed out and used in books about how children learn.

As for what is kept on file, Mrs Haine says, 'We're observing all the time and there's always so much happening, so you need to know your children and know in yourself what is important to record.'

And while convinced of the benefits of ICT in record-keeping, she feels discussing observations informally, say, at lunchtime, when setting up or at the end of the day, enable staff to respond quickly to children's needs and remain an invaluable part of the observation process.


10 steps to quality

1 As a team, have you considered the various reasons for observing children?

2 Are your practitioners organised in such a way that they can always use their allocated observation time?

3 Is the issue of observation time addressed in weekly planning meetings?

4 How do you support staff in developing the skills necessary to recognise and record significant learning?

5 Does the learning environment support children in initiating their own learning?

6 How do you ensure that all involved practitioners feed observations into the assessment process for individual children?

7 How do you encourage parents to contribute observations from home?

8 What systems do you have in place for sharing observations verbally between practitioners?

9 How do you ensure that important elements, such as date and context, are always included in observations?

10 How effectively do you use photographic observations to document children's learning?

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