Observations in the early years are one of the most powerful tools you have for understanding the children in your care.
So how did they become just another addition to your paperwork pile?
After all, without observing and understanding our children, how can we provide them with an environment that will empower them to play and learn? Your assessment and planning are only really as good as the observations you can make, so it matters what gets written.
Not for Ofsted, not for your Local Authority, and certainly not just for a pretty learning journal.
For the children.
We’ll talk you through what really matters when it comes to your observations, before going through some exercises and ideas you can pass onto practitioners who are struggling. It’s time we stopped observations in the early years from being just another paperwork burden, and starting using them for what they’re best at – understanding your children.
What is the point of observations in the early years?
At its most simple, the answer to this question is two-fold:
- To improve your provision for the children in it.
- To help parents understand progress and improve the home learning environment.
Sounds simple enough. In essence, it’s all about understanding the children in your setting, including how they’re developing, what they have been up to, and what they are learning through their play.
For you, this means learning more about the effectiveness of the provision for each child. That’s why it’s so vital you use these observations for something. Otherwise, why do them? They should be helping you plan, understand child interests, and train staff.
For parents, it means helping them to understand what’s going on when they’re away from their precious little ones, and empowering them to provide an even richer environment to play in and explore at home.
What does a high-quality observation look like
First up, we’re going to explain what a high-quality observation looks like in the early years. These ideas should cover some simple ideas that you can share with practitioners, to help understand what they’re aiming for in their observations.
1. A rich description
An observation should be descriptive. It doesn’t need to be a novel, but it should tell the full story of the interaction. Take this fascinating example from Dr Julian Grenier’s piece on observations in Nursery World:
See? It doesn’t need to use complex language that takes hours to write. But it is perfectly descriptive and tells you the story of the interaction. What’s more, it goes well beyond ‘Clive loves jumping in puddles’, which so easily could have been written.
As you can see from this example, quotes are a great way to give a real feel for who the child is and how they engaged. You can hear the child’s voice very clearly.
Look over your latest observations. Can you hear the child’s voice? Do you get a feel for the child’s play? If you can’t, then it’s time to be more descriptive.
2. What should you include in your description?
Elsewhere, Julian has talked about focusing on some key things in your observation:
- Focus on the length of time that the child was engaged in the activity.
- Write exactly what they were doing, with details about resources and words they used.
- Ask yourself, what does that mean for the child’s learning?
Julian rightly points out that with these sorts of details, you should be able to see a clear progression in a child’s learning as you flick back through your observations. In time, you should see children starting to spend longer on specific interests and more deep-level learning taking place.
Ask yourself, does this observation give me a feel for some progress in a child’s learning? Or does it explain where they might be stuck?
3. Beyond the description
Once you’ve mastered that, it’s time to go deeper. This is where your skill as a practitioner can shine – anyone can write down a description of a child, but only you know how to interpret what is going on in that little brain.
This might be recognising certain skills emerging in the child, it might be noticing a schema that the child is displaying an interest in, or you might be explaining the thinking behind their actions.
It takes time, talent, and knowledge to do this, but it will take your planning and understanding of children’s interests to the next level. A description alone will not do that.
4. Include the adult role
It’s not just about assessing the child, you’re assessing yourself too.
Self-reflective practice is the key to building an environment you can be proud of, and observations are a great tool to do that. Are you seeing sustained shared thinking in your observations? Are you asking the right open-ended questions? Are you helping to scaffold a child’s play?
5. Spotting something new
High-quality observations often record more than just the everyday, or the mundane. They should give you improved insight into the child.
That might be:
- A new skill they’ve learnt
- An emerging interest
- A new challenge they’re facing
- Something that they’re struggling with
This doesn’t mean you have to wait for an obvious new skill or fully-fledged mastery of something new. The key is simply that it shouldn’t be a mundane encounter that you noted down just because you hadn’t done an observation for a few hours. Often, less is more.
6. The complete observation
All the best observations in the early years tend to have a sense of completeness about them.
What we mean by that is that there is a clear storyline. They begin with a spark of interest, are followed by a pursuit of that interest, and then finish with some sort of completion of the whole journey.
In between, you might have an extending of that interest, conversations, new ideas, or a million and one other things. But a good way to spot a great topic for observation is by identifying that clear spark and the follow up of that spark to its conclusion. That is what tells you a learning experience has taken place.
7. What is an observation not?
Before we go onto some ideas that you can try in your setting, we also want to bring up a few clear things that an observation should never be:
- A quick scrapbook moment – Remember the puddle example from earlier? Imagine if we were to classify that rich, descriptive example as “Clive loves jumping in puddles”. It might be an entertaining picture and a great moment but it doesn’t tell the full story of what happened.
- A Development Matters checklist – There’s nothing wrong with recognising development in your observations. But only making observations that you can tick off a list is no way to get a complete picture of the child.
- An interruption – You need to respect children’s play at all times, and be sensitive to their interests. This includes extending play in the right ways and not forcing children to take their play down a route they don’t want to.
- Evidence coming first – Evidence is important, but it should be second to learning. You shouldn’t disrupt a learning opportunity by prioritising a photograph over helping to extend or scaffold a child’s learning.
Ideas to improve your observations in the early years
Now that we’ve established what makes a high-quality observation, let’s look at some ideas to boost your practitioners’ confidence and help deliver better-written observations.
1. Give staff the time
All these ideas are useless if you can’t give staff the time they need. Paparazzi practitioners who try to capture every moment, sitting disengaged behind an iPad are a result of insecurity and not enough time to do the job properly.
If you trust staff to evidence things properly, then give them the time to do it. That might be in the room, or it might be away from the children so that they can fully engage whilst they’re present with the children.
You could give them little notepads, or find an app where they can make drafts as they go, rather than having to complete the observation in full. Or find a way to help staff make speedier observations so that a child’s learning is not waiting on a slow piece of software.
Of course, you have to find out what works for you, but that’s not rocket science – you just need to ask.
It might not be the same for every member of staff but that is the path to better observations – giving your staff the time and the tools to balance quality time with the children and quality observations.
2. What? Why? How?
One great framework for struggling staff is to think of ‘What? Why? How?’. It goes like this:
- What have I observed?
- Why was it important?
- How has it improved my knowledge of myself or the child?
This can help staff to focus on everything we talking about in the beginning of the article. The description, the thinking behind the action, and the adult’s role.
If ‘‘What? Why? How’ isn’t working for you, here’s a handy little acronym that might do the trick. SHARE stands for:
- The Spark – What started the moment?
- What Happened? – Describe the moment, and what went on.
- The Assessment – What is your assessment of the meaning behind what happened?
- The Response – What did you do to extend or scaffold the moment.
- The End Result – What happened after your response?
Again, they key here is that you’re also addressing what you did as a practitioner, and it also comes with a timeline of the moment which might help staff who struggle with being more descriptive.
4. Sharing (for real this time)
Now that we’ve got that acronym out of the way, let’s talk about sharing for real.
Seeing is believing, and sharing quality observations with practitioners is a great way to show them what they should be aiming for. One way might be to lead by example, using your knowledge to make some quality observations in the room.
Wherever you get your exemplary observations from, it’s important to use these examples in your training, providing context for some of the principles we’ve already discussed.
If you want a more hands-on experience for your staff, consider using videos of interactions and make observations on them together.
The key is that you understand why practice makes perfect.
5. Give a focus
If staff are telling you “I can’t find anything that is worth writing up!” then why not give them something specific to go on?
You can give staff specific areas of focus to consider each week. It might be a broad EYFS area, or it could be a more general theme. But whatever you choose, it can prevent practitioners from feeling overwhelmed and give them something to keep on the lookout for.
But remember, if the staff don’t feel there’s anything worth observing, that’s OK too. No child’s learning was ever helped simply because something was written down. With fewer, but more meaningful observations, it’ll feel much more manageable to actually do something with them.
6. Follow adult interests
Child interests aren’t the only ones we need to follow.
When it comes to staff training you need to strengthen their strengths, rather than always trying to improve their weaknesses. Find a topic that a practitioner is interested in, and let them follow that interest!
It might be schemas, it might be outdoor play, it could be brain development, stages of development, younger or older children – it doesn’t matter! So long as it’s relevant to your setting, then it’s valuable.
What you want to do is develop a team that can help one another understand what is really going on at a deeper level. You need to empower your staff and let them know who they can talk to when they feel stuck about what is going on in an observation.
Lizzy Barlow, Nursery Group Leader, Hollies Day Nurseries
Use your observations
A child’s learning, wellbeing, or happiness does not improve just because you’ve evidenced something they did.
Help your practitioners to understand each child’s interests and learning obstacles. Use them to influence your continuous provision. Share them with parents to give them a deeper understanding of their child’s development.
Whatever you do them for, don’t just do them for the sake of Ofsted or because an article on the internet told you to. Find what works for you, and do what is right by the children. Every observation should be for the child’s sake in the end, and no-one else’s.
We read some great stuff researching this piece. Why not extend your own learning with a few of these brilliant resources?
- All about Early Years Assessment by Dr Julian Grenier – We used this for the examples you can find at the top of the piece, and the findings influenced a lot of the theory in this article. It showcases a great approach to observations and how we can improve them.
- Observation, Assessment and Planning by Early Years Matters – An interesting read on how observation ties in with the EYFS.
- Observing Children by Nursery World – We loved this for a little more in-depth understanding about why we observe, and the different types of observations you can make.
- Early Years Observations in the Spotlight by First Discoverers – Want a more in-depth piece about the technical side of observation and some great analysis on the different methods? Then this is the article for you!