Observation in Early Childhood Education: It is Only the Beginning!

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. 

When I was an early childhood education student, writing objective observations for course assignments was not a task I remember fondly. When I was an ECE professor, most of my students detested the observation assignments that required an adherence towards objectivity. They needed to be purposefully detached from their feelings, intuition, and interpretation skills. It felt unnatural. It was hard not to slip into the subjective. It is almost forty years ago for me, but I still vividly recall the red ink markings all over my first observation assignment for ECE 101. I had crossed the line into interpretation. It was the lowest mark I ever got! Learning to write objective observations is an experience that most ECEs share. I think it has impacted the observations that are now done in practice. I wonder if it has been difficult to go beyond the detailed objective observation that describes only what is seen and heard because of this shared experience? Back in the day, my observations were handwritten. Now, observations include photographs. These photos are usually captioned with developmental descriptors. This way of documenting can lack meaningfulness. Potentially, it shows families what they can already see. What can’t they see? Can we go deeper? Observing with acute awareness increases the possibility of really seeing a child’s ways of knowing and being (Fleet, Patterson & Robertson, 2017). We can see that a baby can feed herself peas using a pincer grasp. With interpretation, the observation can be more meaningful as the story could tell of the child’s desire for independence and autonomy. To move past the caption is to tell a tale that has meaning. It is when ECEs are observing, documenting, reflecting, and theorizing with subjectivity that the meaning making happens!

Attentively observing children can teach us so much about play and learning. It makes sense that it is an expectation of practice and a skill taught in ECE programs around world. Is there still a strict adherence to objectivity in observations? Do students have opportunities to look beyond the obvious and tell an interpretive story? I decided to review a number of online observation resources. I hope that they might be helpful to the readers of this blog, as you seek to know the history, tradition and practice of observation in ECE, while moving forward to find meaning in these captured moments in time. Neaum (2016) provides this informative chapter on observation that is foundational and developmental. This 2020 open resource, Observation and Assessment in Early Childhood Education by Peterson and Elam clearly shows the difference between subjectivity and objectivity. I am left wondering; how do we go beyond the objective to interpret the meaningful? How can we move beyond “fine motor” to indicate something the viewer of the documentation might not see like agency, schema play or relationship building?

It was when I came across, Observing Young Children from the Froebel Trust by Dr. Stella Louis, that I landed on a resource that I would use now, if I was still teaching ECE students about observation. It clearly addresses the need to interpret.

By using what we know about the child through written records, photographs, and films we can interpret what the child is doing. This important process involves us thinking about what we have seen and striving to make sense of it, helping us to figure out and gain insight into how and what a child is learning. Our interpretations are likely to be subjective, based on our own personal knowledge of child development, cultural background, relevant curriculum and our understanding of what we observe. Having regular opportunities to discuss our observations with colleagues will help us to think more deeply about our unconscious biases.

Dahlberg (2012) speaks to documentation as valuing subjectivity as there is “no objective point of view that makes observations neutral” (p.225). Documentation is meant to be subjective. Starting with an observation that strives to be objective is just a beginning point of the process of making learning visible. Rather than continually reinforce objectivity could we invite ECEs and ECE students to interpret? What is exciting about what you see and hear? Why does it make you pause to reflect? What have you learned or theorized about the child? What are the emerging interests being expressed in the play of the children? Emerging interests can inform the curriculum path forward. Observation is part of the process of emergent curriculum. In honour of the great Elizabeth Jones, a giant in early childhood education who recently passed, read this article about the emergence of emergent curriculum. Emergent curriculum requires a subjective determination based on interpretation that should include the perspectives of others.

Written observations of children’s play experiences, photos, children’s representations reflecting the emerging interests, the recorded/transcribed words of the children speaking about their interests will support pedagogy and curriculum. Observations are a start. We shouldn’t ignore this tradition in early childhood education that has a long history. Early childhood educators should be proud of their observation skills that they learned in college. Learning to observe though, is a life-long process where you can never arrive at point where you know everything. It should be a daily practice that reflects your practice. The photos that we take of children should show them making sense of their world. What do you see in these photos of my granddaughter Reese who is three years old? Every time she comes over, she spends time with our nesting doll collection. After a recent play experience, she drew her nesting dolls. Her framed representation now has a permanent place in my office! Clearly this is an interest of hers but maybe it is not the actual dolls that she finds intriguing, perhaps it is what she can do with them that keeps her coming back. She puts them in a particular order. She takes them apart and puts them back together. She lines them up in a way that makes sense to her. She is so focused! I wonder what she is thinking.

Meaningful Observations in Early Childhood Education and Care, is a helpful resource on observations that provides a balanced perspective that includes the objective and the subjective. It suggests that we need to be factual and relevant. That we need to write what actually occurred, and to include direct quotes and any other detailed information. However, it is also important to create space to share observations with others because hearing different perspectives can support the analysis and interpretation of learning. It is important to be open to the diverse possibilities for learning that can stem from children’s play. Going deeper to interpret the meaning within the play, is seeing what is below the surface of what was seen and heard. It is below the surface, that we will see the meaningful.

Observation alone is not enough. We have to understand the significance of what we see, hear and touch ~ John Dewey

One thought on “Observation in Early Childhood Education: It is Only the Beginning!

  1. I couldn’t agree more. However, I’m saddened when I hear perpetuation of the myth of objectivity in observing young chikdren, for we should know better!
    When we are aware of ourselves and the lens we use for seeing young children, and come to observe in a fully engaged way, we have to realize that the notion of objectivity is redundant. Moreover, I think we need to enjoy the benefits of subjectivity.
    Strictly speaking the objectivity that many of us were striving for in our early careers, was an impossibility. The fact that we chose one word rather than another to describe something meant we were being subjective. Even at a distance and trying to avoid all judgements and assumptions, we still emphasized one aspect of behaviour rather than another because we thought it more important. Capturing every aspect of physical action/skill, changing facial expressions, evrry kind of gesture and interaction etc was …impossible; the selection of words was subjective however ‘good” the description!
    Subjectivity in the observation proces allows us to enjoy children better as well as participate /engage with them. We may travel alongside them in their experiences , possibly come to have some insights about what we absorb, and apply some learning that may be (mutually) beneficial. Hopefully we will be more responsibe, appropriate and be the adult the child needs us to be.
    Fashions in education come and go, but some reflect deep understanding not just superficial policy changes and the newest shiny ideas. It’s wonderful that we have the opportunity to gain from different ways of knowing of people around the world as communications, research access, and travel improve. We may have gained alternative perceptions of the child, and amazing refreshed pedagogies. We’ve gained from narrative traditions, how not to do things, some cultures under threat, indigenous peoples, forest /nature lovers, many historic ideas, technological innovations and much more. In all our new-found insights I think we have noticed observation as a consistent element. it’s important to frame what we believe about the early years and what we think our role is in the lives of young children. Replicating existing exemplart programs may not provide our children with what they need. I’m not suggesting a set ‘Canadian statement’, but we need a shared vision. I use the word vision deliberately. Observation is the beginning and ongoing part of our early years thinking, and is integral to our vision – our way of really seeing children. There is both great responsibility and an exciting opportunity with the acceptance of notion of ‘the subjective’.


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