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.
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 record observations 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’s behavior and growth and put our observations to use in a way that helps them move forward in their development. Childhood observation provides teachers and parents with a well-informed opportunity to address a child’s needs while making adjustments to focus on their education and 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. Using a tool like brightwheel’s lesson plan feature can help you and your staff create custom curriculum and lesson plans, log observations in accordance with your state’s early learning standards, and even share progress with families, all from a single platform.
Partnering with families
Meaningfully engaging with families is a great way to build strong home-to-school connections and bring visibility to what children are learning daily. When administering assessments, you can share results with families to give them more insight into their child’s development and overall school readiness. If more development is needed, families and educators can work together simultaneously to reinforce important skills at home and in the classroom.
Although you may prefer less formal observation over assessments, it’s still important to share regular progress reports. This allows you to continually document children’s progression in key developmental areas, enables families to engage with their children’s learning, and encourages consistent collaboration between educators and families.
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.