Observations: Who Has Time?
Observations are one of the pillars of our professional practice. In theory, we agree that observations are important. We know that we need to observe the children. We observe to determine the children’s interests, wants, and needs. We observe to effectively plan. We observe to determine social and emotional learning. We observe to determine how responsive our environment is and what needs to be changed. We observe as co-learners, co-researchers and co-imaginers.
In practice, however, observations can be challenging and time-consuming. In a busy day, how do we find the time to effectively observe? If we do manage to find the time, then what? Where do we go from there?
To help navigate the process, here are some tips that make observations less tedious and time-consuming.
Tip #1: Don’t go undercover. Observations to not have to be done ‘in secret’. You can observe the children and document your observations while in the early learning environment. If you are taking photos, talk the documentation so the children know what you are doing. “I love that sandcastle you created. I am going to take a picture to share with mom and dad.” OR “You jumped so high. Let’s try that again and I am going to get an action shot.” If you are making a few notes, let the children see them. In doing so, you are modelling literacy. You are opening yourself to questions that you can answer. When asked, “What are you doing?” respond truthfully: “I am writing about how you just shared with a friend and showed compassion and empathy.” Use big words! Build them up! OR if you are observing to plan/scaffold learning, let them know. “I am trying to figure out what we should do next because you are showing me your learning.”
Tip #2: Just do it! There is no right time or place to observe so don’t wait for one. Just do it when you see something that catches your attention. Jot down an interesting phrase on a sticky note and put it on your planning board or on your clipboard to reflect upon later. Note an exploration of play and jot it down. If some thoughts come to mind about it there and then, note them on the side. Just get it all down and figure it out later.
Tip #3: Be messy. Observations are all about the process and it is a messy process. Don’t worry about making mistakes; there are no mistakes to be made! You can correct the spelling later. You can change the vocabulary afterwards when you reflect on your observation. Can’t think of the word in English? Write it down in whatever language works for you. Scribble where needed…draw arrows… use abbreviations just as long as you get it down.
Tip #4: Know your why. If you do not know why you are observing then you won’t know what to observe or how to document it. If you are observing a challenging behaviour, you are going to be using the ABCs to figure out what is going on. If you are observing a child exploring a pine cone for the first time, you may observe to write a learning story. If you are observing why there are always disagreements in the house centre, you may be observing to listen to running narratives or doing an activity-path to figure out what is working or not working for the children. You need to know your why in order to determine your how and you're what!
Tip #5: Don’t go it alone. Observations do not have to be a solitary exercise. They can involve your colleagues. They can involve families. They can involve the children. Ask for others’ interpretations or ideas on what you are seeing. If your circle time is not working, ask a colleague to observe you in practice. If a child is struggling, ask parents to offer up insights. If children are gathered around a mud puddle, ask what they are looking at. Ask what they are thinking about? Multiple observations allow you to get multiple perspectives which allows for multiple reflections.
Tip #6: Find time to reflect. When all is said and done, you need to reflect on what you have observed in order to determine the “Now what?”. What do you do with this information? Do you tuck it away for future reference? Do you write it up and post it for the children to see? For the parents to read? To bring to your next planning session? When do you reflect? In the moments that are offered up: coffee break, while on the playground supervising, while tidying up, on the way home or just sitting for ten minutes at the end of your day to collect your thoughts.
Being effective in both content and time is the key to observations. It takes repeated practice to hone your skills but the effort it worth it. By committing your time and effort to observations, you are investing in your professional practice.