The Ultimate Guide to Writing Observations in Early Childhood Education and Care
I am still working on this blog! But the sooner I got it up, the more motivated I am to finish it! Enjoy it as it unfolds!
I’ve seen a blog article written about writing observations in early childhood education and care settings written as a guide. I’m a veteran early childhood teacher with over 25 years experience and I found the article hard to read and navigate. It’s written using a bunch of key words and phrases pulled from the Early Years Learning Framework and the National Quality Standard.
It doesn’t feel like it's been written by an experienced educator, although it may have been, but without genuine author attribution, it’s essentially a ghost written blog designed to promote a product. A blog article is a means of promoting a business and a product and as a business myself I totally understand that. Much of what is featured on my blogs is designed to support educators, carers, parents and those simply interested in early childhood education and children’s learning and development.
So, I have to throw my hat into the rink and respond with a blog article of my own.
Who is writing this blog and what makes them an expert?
To give myself some street cred, I’ll share with you who I am. I’m an early childhood teacher with a Bachelor of Education (Early Childhood Education 0-8 years old) 2005 and a Diploma of Education and Care from QLD TAFE 1998. I’ve worked predominantly in long day care settings in the not for profit or government sectors, with a few dabblings in private and a number of years in casual and agency work. I started studying in 1996, and due to my ADHD (I now know!) I stopped a started a few times along the way as I moved around spaces and colleges and universities. I’ve also been an Educational Leader, Second in Charge, Nominated Supervisor/Centre Director and an Educational Leader Project Coordinator where I worked with 25 Educational Leaders. I’ve also done countless mentoring and authoring along the way. I am not sharing this to toot my own horn, but to explain to you that I know what I’m doing, and while I am also a toy store owner, I am an active practicing early childhood teacher still teaching in a classroom. I am one of you.
So reading this other article has really pushed me to write and share my own understandings and experience as a veteran teacher. I actually wrote a guidebook in 2014 and 2015, but of course ADHD, lost track of time and haven’t published it. It’s one of my goals for 2024. I have quite a few projects on my radar for this year!
What are Observations in Early Childhood Education and Care?
An observation is both an action and a thing; a doing and a knowing. It is the action of looking or watching what is happening, observing children, and then noting down what we have observed. Observations can take many forms, but we’ll explore that more later.
Observing is how we gather information about children and observations what we document to share that information. Observations help us learn about what children know and can do, what their skills are and what challenges they may be facing and what they may need some support around. They also are a great way to illustrate children’s interests.
Observation in early childhood education and care settings aka childcare involves educators being observant to the children while they play, explore and engage in day to day moments such as in routines. Educators use the skills of watching and listening. As an educator observes they’ll be aware of the child’s behaviours, language - both verbal and non-verbal, and actions.
Observations can also include an educator themselves as a participant. They may engage in conversation and ask the children open-ended conversations or they may encourage the child in their play or learning. The Early Years Learning Framework’s Learning Outcomes includes ideas for teaching in their section.
Sometimes observation involves standing back and giving children space and time to work things out for themselves. Sometimes we need a little bit of a struggle to learn because learning isn’t always an easy linear process. By being an observer and holding back a little, children are given support and opportunity and this my friends is a teaching strategy and this can be part of the documenting and observational process.
What kinds of observations in Early Childhood Education and Care are there?
When we study early childhood education and care, we are taught to use different observational techniques and formats. Some of these include: anecdotal observations, running records, socio-grams, checklists, time samples, work samples, and of course the format of the decade, learning stories. While we learn all these formats, most of the time we mainly use one or two as our go-tos.
As a practicing educator, I can tell you with 40 focus children in a week, I don’t have time for long learning stories. I am a big lover of jottings, photos with jottings and I also use a checklist I’ve created to help me stay on track. As necessary I also use anecdotal when I feel that the children’s engagement and learning warrants it. In other words, when I have a story I feel I want to share, I use this format. As a practicing teacher, I just lack the time to do learning stories.
I also remember it being drummed into me that all observations needed to be written in the 3rd person, never the first person and that they needed to be unemotional and not include any first person judgements. Over the years though, they realised that we were humans with relationships and that we werent unemotional cold hearted robots without professional opinions. Learning stories were then born in New Zealand and changed the way we work as educators.
What are the main types of observations in early childhood education and care?
Historically these are the types of observations that educators were taught and used in their work for decades. But the great thing is, when you graduate and work out in the field, you can innovate as you like, because that’s how different formats are created - just look at Learning Stories! Their design changed the way we work.
Anecdotal records are written in the past tense and written after the fact. They are usually written in chronological order with a beginning a middle and an end. They are written in the 3rd person. They can sometimes take the form of diary entries or diary records. In my studies I remember having to note down context or include details of where the observation occurred and the players involved. There were often quotes and sometimes ridiculous minute detail like what hand the child used to hold an item and how they approached a table. etc. Yes hand preference can be an important thing to know, it can often just be observed in an accompanying photo.
My own version of anecdotal records were my staple for documenting children's learning for a good decade or more. Long before I knew what jottings were. Anecdotal observations are a great way to form an understanding of children’s interests, development, skills and abilities as well as their needs.
Then along came jottings. Jottings are short notes of anything significant such as play, conversations, events or behaviours. Jottings can be documents in a short sentence or three. The observer will usually write an interpretation to go with the jottings. Just remember that they’re not a paragraph, or paragraphs. Jottings are a fantastic way to document children’s learning as it is a fast and simple method. They can be written on post-it notes or scraps of paper.
Running records are highly detailed observational formats that involves an educator describing everything a child does and say during a set period of time. It is written in the present tense as it happens. It’s a means of detailing a child's actions and behaviours during a specific time frame. Running records are practical way to gather information around children’s behaviours or provide detail around a child’s development. They can help form behaviour plans and seeking diagnosis. Running records usually last 2-5 minutes.
Photo observations have grown in popularity and are often formatted in online software programs. Photos can capture a child’s learning and engagement and show progress over time. They can illustrate a child’s development skills and interests. Combining a photo and a jotting or even a paragraph or two, or an accompanying interpretation, photo observations can be a great way to demonstrate children’s learning, development and growth.
Work samples are essentially samples of a child’s work. So a drawing, a painting, a photo of a construction or collage. It is usually an actual drawing, but in todays day and age, we can use photographs or scans of the child’s work. This means they can still take their work home, but also have it represented in their portfolio.
Time samples record a child's behaviour and how often that behaviour may occur during the day or a specific time frame. Usually a simple tally system helps educators to record the number of times the behaviour occurs. Time samples can be a very effective tool to assist educators in developing an understanding of children’s behaviour at different points in the day. A time sample can also be described as taking a series of ‘photos not unlike time-lapse photography. It can assist educators, parents and specialists in identifying patterns of how a child may experience the early learning setting.
Time samples can be used every 30 minutes across a day, or even in shorter increments of 5 to 10 minutes. It is important that educators consider having a clear purpose for undertaking the time-samples.
Socio-grams are an observational method that details a child's social interactions and friendships. A socio-gram can identify children’s preferred social friendships, how they move around in a space (e.g. do they jump from experience to experience? Or are they moving with a peer or friend?). Socio-grams can highlight if a child needs some support in forming social connections or transitioning from one experience to another or in developing some play strategies.
This form of observation is most commonly used to document behaviour patterns. It is especially useful when trying to develop an understanding around when and why certain behaviours may occur. Event samples often involves a collection of short anecdotal observations of a child’s specific behaviour or event within a specific time frame.
Learning Story Observations
Learning stories are a form of narrative observations. The author is telling a story of children’s learning within an early learning setting. The recording of children’s voices are a fundamental element to this approach. Learning Stories were developed by Margaret Carr and Wendy Lee in New Zealand in 2001. They have since become an important part of documenting children’s learning in an Australian context since 2009 with the implementation of The Early Years Learning Framework.
Learning Stories encourage educators to see a bigger picture and think about children’s experience of the world around them. Learning stories might be about an individual child or a group of children. Often ‘whole group’ learning stories are completed often because of time constraints.
However in my professional opinion, whole group learning stories, may document an event, they don’t really support documenting individual children’s learning. There are just too many characters involved in whole groups to really be able to hone in on individual and what they may be benefitting.
They are also usually are done over a period of time and represent a story of a child’s learning over that period of time. Learning stories can highlight specific skills and strengths, ongoing or even fleeting interests and dispositions for learning which are critical elements of the Early Years Learning Framework.
The point of difference for learning stories is that they not only describe the visual actions, they also include the feelings and thoughts as well as the interpretations of those writing or telling the story visible.How do we use observations of children's learning?
Observations are evidence of children’s learning and development. They are a way for educators to paint a holistic picture of a child. It enables educators to document what children know, their interests, and strengths. In order to develop well rounded understanding of where children are, in order to plan to extend their learning, or to support their learning and development, we need observations.
Observations should be varied and not all of the same thing. For example, having 10 observations of Bobby building a tower in block corner isn’t supporting a holistic picture. But one of Bobby building in block corner, another in the sandpit, another with him drawing, another one with him playing a game with Joey and Mousa, and another one of him building with duplo at the table outside … gives us a more balanced picture of who Bobby may be.
Observations in Early Childhood Education and Care TO BE CONTINUED!
REFERENCES + FURTHER READING
What to read more of our educator blogs? Visit our The Educator's Notebook: Early Years Edition
What to read more of our educator blogs? Visit our Playful Insights: Early Childhood Education Blog