The power of observations

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Children’s interests define their learning. A little boy brings a bag stuffed full with toy dinosaurs into the setting and tells you exactly what each one is called, and what they eat. He is four years old. He uses words like ‘Diplodocus’ and ‘Tyrannosaurus Rex’ with accuracy and confidence. He adores his beloved dinosaurs and plays with them incessantly.

Understanding the child’s needs

Creating next steps for such children is vital and a part of our daily work. However, it is possible that our enthusiasm for creating next steps supersedes the child’s real needs. While wanting to create activities that follow and deepen the context of those interests, we also need to be observing the child on a much deeper level, i.e. not only do we observe what the child is doing and saying, but also what he is feeling and thinking.

Let me explain further. Let’s say that I’ve noticed a child enjoying the indoor water tray for the first time, and so I create a simple water feature in the garden. But the child seems wary of the water feature, and chooses to sit in a quiet place with her favourite book. In my eagerness to create an activity, have I cramped a child’s emergent interests?

Perhaps if I had looked, watched and listened in the first instance, I might have noticed that the child was actually avoiding other children and was deeply absorbed in solitary play. I might have detected that this child disliked the drops of water that landed on her arm, and expressed frustration towards the child who splashed her. I would have seen that her play was repetitive, consisting of a sequence of pouring the water and watching it cascade over her hand. I might have realised that it was her sensory world that was being explored, and that water was just a small part of it.

Seeing the full picture

In our eagerness to extend children’s learning or to write profound observations, we can often miss out on essential nuggets of information. These are mined as we observe with intensity, searching for clues, hints and evidence of both the child’s present and previous learning and, most importantly, of their well-being.

Observing a child creates and deepens our understanding of them. Observations focus our thoughts and help us to plan. Not all observations need to be written down. Writing can sometimes disturb one’s thought patterns. It is sometimes helpful to leave the pen on the desk!

Then, sit quietly near the child; be close enough to see the elements of their play and the details of their well-being. It is now that we ask ourselves, what does the child see? What does he hear? What is he thinking? What is he feeling? How motivated is the child? How engaged? How responsive?

Noticing signs of tension

Watch their body language. Are they showing signs of tension or anxiety? Should you observe any signs of tension, these need to be addressed first. We cannot plan learning experiences for a child who is anxious and stressed because their ‘thinking’ brain is switched firmly off.

Then simply watch, listen, wait and think. Your observations and understanding of the child are the links between the child’s well-being and learning. Your observations not only secure the child’s future knowledge and understanding of the world around them but also create the vital backdrop for their well-being.

Observing the child on a deeper level

The roots of the word ‘observe’ is ‘ob’ – in front, before – and ‘servare’ – to watch, keep safe. By placing ourselves in front of (close to) the child, we can both watch and protect them. How? By recognising their feelings, understanding their strengths and weaknesses, and thereby planning appropriately to support them fully in their learning.

This is a job for the truly committed. It takes focus and effort to observe well. Both parties are rewarded by the outcome of vigorous and effective observations – powerful learning on behalf of the child, a firm connection between child and adult, and the knowledge that we are fulfilling our responsibilities as active observers in a child’s learning journey.

About the author

Helen Garnett is a mother of 4, and a committed and experienced Early Years consultant. She co-founded a pre-school in 2005 and cares passionately about young children and connection. As a result, she has written a book, ‘Developing Empathy in the Early Years: a guide for practitioners’. She has also co-written an Early Years curriculum and assessment tool, at present being implemented in India. Helen is also on the Think Equal team, a global initiative led by Leslee Udwin, developing empathy in pre-schools and schools across the world. 

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