The Importance of Observation in Childcare Settings

Observation is crucial for childcare practitioners and parents/guardians to monitor children in the early stages of their childhood development, and is featured in several places in the Early Years Foundation Stage documentation.  This blog post will define what observation is, why it is important in a childcare setting, when to observe and how to document observations.

What is Observation?

Observation in childcare settings is the method of watching, listening, documenting and analysing children as they explore, play and learn.  Monitoring children’s physical actions, expressions, gestures and behaviours, and listening to them talking and interacting with others will show how they are developing, their likes and dislikes and how they learn through their play and interactions.  It also reveals more about the child as an individual, and how they interact with other children and adults.

Why is Observation Important in a Childcare Setting?

By observing children as they explore, play and learn, practitioners can ensure that a child’s development is at the expected stage, whether the environment and resources (toys or equipment) are stimulating their development, and what future support the child will need in order to gain new interests, skills and knowledge.

Observation is also a long-term process: consistent monitoring and reviewing documented observations to make sure children are at the expected stage of development.  If there is an issue, observation quickly identifies the area or areas the child is struggling with, so you are able to address these issues and ensure the child is getting suitable support.

Categories or key areas of learning that observations are usually separated into are:
  • Cognitive
  • Social
  • Physical
  • Emotional
  • Language

There can be additional areas that you observe and monitor, particularly if a child is struggling or excelling in this field.

The main objective of observation is to provide practitioners with accurate information in order to plan suitable lessons that meet the child’s needs, and to continually improve their learning and development whilst in your care.

When do Practitioners Observe?

Practitioners should constantly be observing children to keep a detailed and up-to-date record of each child’s development throughout the day.  It is also important to recognise that observations from other team members and parents/guardians should be included in documentation, as children will have different relationships with different adults.  These perspectives will offer alternative and individual views to obtain a complete representation of the child’s behaviour and  development. The most in-depth records obtain observations for each child in different contexts and situations, such as inside and outside, in the nursery and at home, with other children and by themselves, during play and during meal time.

There are different types of observation, including:
  • Informal Observations
    • Practitioners ‘notice’ things, or ‘wonder’ about why a child behaved a certain way
  • Tuning in to the Child
    • Understanding the child’s personal preferences, behaviour and motivations
  • Schema Spotting
    • Recognising significant and regularly repeated actions children display when they are playing, drawing or interacting with others
  • Participant Observation
    • Participating in children’s play to gain close observations on how children behave.  However, this method can be bias and highly subjective, as adults can influence the interactions.
  • Non-participant Observation
    • Observing free play and how the children are interacting naturally, without the practitioners’ input.  

In your childcare setting, you should organise the opportunity to carry out different types of observation methods to provide suitable and in-depth observations of children in different scenarios.  This allows practitioners to examine and identify the child’s identity, such as their learning style, dynamic and relationships with other children, their interests, and their mannerisms or certain behaviours.

How to Document Observations

The process of observation also includes documenting and monitoring these results.  The more observations documented, the more in-depth analysis and monitoring of the child can be achieved.  Observations should always document what a child has achieved, and not what they are unable to do.

Reasons to document observations and assessments of a child include:
  • if it’s the first time the child has done something
  • if it is a display of embedded knowledge - the child learnt something previously but they are displaying this knowledge physically or verbally at a later date
  • if a child displays pride or self-esteem in something they created
  • if a child does something impressive - such as something new or something they had not been taught
  • if a child reveals something that shows you how they view the world or provides an insight into their personality or behaviour

Good observations should be accurate and factual, and should have as much detail as possible about what you saw and heard.  They should be noted down at the time and continually throughout the day, rather than trying to remember an event at the end of your working day, as you may forget certain details.

The format of documented observations also include sections on:
  • the name of the child
  • the date and time
  • the context or situation (e.g. adult participation or free play)
  • the category or key area of learning
  • the childcare practitioner’s or parent/guardian’s observations
  • any comments or opinions from the child

There are also different, more in-depth narrative techniques for documenting observations.  These offer the opportunity for childcare practitioners to reflect upon the observations. These include:

  • Anecdotal Records
    • These are written in the past tense and are factual accounts of an event.  Anecdotal records include detailed information on what a child said and did during an event, including their facial expressions, reactions and language, and why, when and where the event took place.  
  • Running Record
    • Running records are in the present tense and should be noted down in as much detail as the event is happening.
  • Learning Stories
    • Learning stories are stories based on the decisions and consequences from a child or a group of children.  
  • Time Samples
    • These are records of a child’s behaviour or actions at specific times, and should be done regularly.  Time samples are often used to identify any negative behaviour a child exhibits, by understanding the influencing factors.
  • Verbal Accounts
    • On occasion, observations do not need to be written down and can be verbally relayed to the child’s parent/guardian during informal discussions.  These accounts are often additional information regarding previous observations that have been documented.  

Observations can be written down on paper or typed up on electronic devices.  There are also apps now, that have been designed to assist childcare practitioners with their observation documentation.  It doesn’t matter which method you use and works for your nursery, as long as it is organised, accurate and up-to-date.

You can also include pictures of the child to clearly document certain events, which is something that parents/guardians often appreciate having.  Also, work samples of the child’s drawings and art projects, writing and other creative activities, with notes on how the child carried out the task, including anything they said.

This process of observation and all of the documented information is then added to a child’s file, which will be reviewed and analysed over time to make meaningful observations about the child’s development.

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