One customary aspect of early childhood education is watching children. But childhood observation is the intentional, purposeful watching that pays attention to a child’s actions, behaviors, interactions, and reactions and draws out insight about their development.
Childhood observation goes beyond simple observation and involves assessing children's progress toward developmental milestones. Various types of childhood observation can help preschool teachers learn more about a child and their unique needs and use this information to plan helpful activities and routines.
If you're looking for activity ideas that promote growth across developmental domains, check out our free list for inspiration!
Why is childhood observation important?
Besides determining whether a child’s developmental stage meets expectations for their age, childhood observation can also guide teachers and parents in other ways.A few other potential actions and outcomes for childhood observation include:
- Better understanding of the child’s communication style
- Identify signs of behavioral challenges or special needs
- Document the child’s language development
- Record how the child is using new skills
- Analyze and correct negative patterns
- Acknowledge and reinforce positive patterns
- Evaluate interactions with other children
- Adjust teaching practices based on observations
- Determine whether the child is ready for next steps and further learning
Childhood observation is a straightforward tool for early childhood teachers and other childcare providers to help set and accomplish goals. When you decide the type and purpose of the observation, it becomes clearer which childhood observation method is best.
Childhood observation methods
When creating a childhood observation report, it’s helpful to include as many details as possible and utilize a wide variety of methods. Here are five common childhood observation methods you can use to document your observations:
One of the first storytelling principles we learn is “what, when, and where?” Anecdotal records answer these three questions and provide a detailed account of a child's actions. These observations are typically recorded in the past tense and include notes on body language, facial expressions, reactions, tone, and quotes of the child's words.
In a preschool learning environment, sometimes a teacher has time to “jot down” a few observations. This method simply involves writing a few short sentences about notable behaviors, conversations, or events. Jottings work efficiently with other methods, such as photographs or work samples.
Sometimes, telling a story with words doesn’t communicate as you hoped. But a series of photos can show and help describe what’s happening in a child’s development. Include a brief caption that explains what the images reveal about the child’s actions, interactions, work, skills, and other behaviors.
Recording various types of samples is a childhood observation method that allows you to focus on specific areas. For example, the samples you may observe and record can include work, event, and time samples.
- Event samples: This method focuses on a singular event, such as a child’s pattern of behavior or response. It helps identify where and when it occurs, what triggers it, and provides insight into the cause. Why does this behavior occur? Has this behavior improved or escalated?
- Time samples: This involves observing a child's behavior during a specific time period. These observations are typically recorded at routine intervals to show a child’s behavior at particular times. By providing time and environment context, this method can help to identify the situation surrounding a particular behavior.
- Work samples: Children create many paintings, drawings, writings, and other crafts during their early childhood. These works (along with notes sharing what the child was doing or saying) can help show how a child’s development unfolds.
Running records are completed at a specific moment in time. With this observation method, you write a detailed account of what you see, the child's comments, or interests the child expresses, as it happens. A running record should always be written in the present tense and offer as many detailed notes as possible.
A child’s development can be a complex process, so using a wide range of childhood observation methods is helpful. Switching up your observation method can help you get a holistic view of the child’s interests, personality, strengths, and other qualities.
Different types of observations in early childhood
Early childhood educators need to understand why childhood observations are beneficial and what they should look for when observing a child.
What type of information would be most helpful to know about the child? Use any childhood observation examples below when deciding what kind of data you’ll collect.
- Strengths: What is the child good at? In what areas have their abilities stood out as notable strengths?
- Developmental timeline: Where is the child on their developmental timeline? Are they meeting or exceeding their growth expectations for social-emotional, physical, cognitive, and language skills?
- Learning approach: How does the child typically learn? Which learning approach do they use to engage with what they’re learning?
- Interests: What types of play and other activities seem to grab their attention the most? What awakens their curiosity and intrigues them to want to learn more?
- Knowledge: What important lessons have they learned?
- Abilities: What skills have they picked up? What do they know how to do at this stage?
How to use childhood observations
One of the most important things we can do in early childhood education is to observe a child and put our observations to use in a way that helps them move forward in their development.
Childhood observation begins with assessing a child’s behavior and development process, but it doesn’t end there. It provides teachers and parents with a well-informed opportunity to address the child’s needs and make adjustments to focus on their education and meet their developmental milestones. Childhood observation also lays the foundation for lesson planning and individualized childcare. When you have valuable insights from observations and assessments, you can thoughtfully plan the next steps in a child’s education.
Partnering with families
You can meaningfully engage families by bringing visibility to what the children are learning daily. Sharing the activities of the day with families is a great way to partner together to build a strong home-to-school connection.
Download a free copy of our preschool daily report template to keep families up-to-date on their child’s day and share extension activities to try at home.
Applying what you learn from childhood observation is a simple, worthwhile way to guide a child as they learn and grow. Taking the time to see how children behave instead of teaching them how to behave gives us the opportunity to understand what they need.
Understanding how children behave, what they need and what motivates them is the best first step to help them build meaningful interactions with the world around them.