Children are sometimes spontaneous, sometimes reserved; joyful now, sad later; friendly and reserved; competent and naïve; talkative and quiet. To be childlike is to experience an almost unpredictable array of discoveries, emotions, and levels of energy. Children are unique and complex and thus often difficult to comprehend. And they do not readily engage us in dialogue in order to explain the reasons for their caprice as they explore the world that surrounds them. Yet, as teachers, it is important for us to know our children deeply, to flow with their currents, and to extend their nascent theories about how the world works.
Given the delightful yet often enigmatic characteristics of young children, we learned decades ago that in order to comprehend children we must begin by observing them as they play. But what do we see as we observe, and how do we use our observations to enhance our effectiveness as teachers?
Five Reasons to Observe Children
Here are some of the reasons that teachers offer when asked about the value of watching and listening to children:
- If I watch the children play, I can discover their interests.
- By observing children, I can assess their developmental levels.
- I look to see what strategies children use to attain their goals.
- Observing children helps me know what skills the children need to practice.
- When I observe children at play, I learn a lot about their personalities.
We want to use these reasons again, so we will provide an example that illustrates the general meaning of each:
- Interests—He loves to play with trucks.
- Developmental level—She throws the ball either very hard or not at all, but she does not vary the throw along a continuum of very hard, hard, and soft.
- Strategies—She tries to influence her friend’s actions by controlling all of the crayons.
- Skills—She has trouble stringing beads onto a knotted shoestring.
- Personality—She is reserved and does not like to take risks.
In essence, we can learn at least five attributes of our children when we observe them closely:
- Their interests and preferences
- Their levels of cognitive and social development
- Their strategies for creating desired effects
- Their skills and accomplishments
- Their personalities and temperaments
Each of the preceding objectives for observing is relevant if we desire to learn about children and thus improve the quality of our teaching. But we think that one of these objectives is best suited for gathering information in order to engage in high-level conversations with young children about their theories and attitudes, conversations that can support and extend their learning in both depth and breadth.
If we truly want to have high-level conversations with children about their beliefs, expectations, and assumptions about how something works or why something occurs, what do we need to know about the children? Quite simply, we need to know their beliefs, assumptions, and expectations so that we might enter the conversation with a paraphrase or counterpoint:
- Knowing children’s interests might help us prepare the environment, but it does not help us have better conversations.
- Knowing children’s skills might help us think about games to play that might encourage them to practice their skills, but it does not help us have better conversations.
- Knowing children’s developmental level might help us predict what questions the children can answer, but it does not help us enter into a meaningful conversation with the children.
- Knowing something about a child’s personality might help us be sensitive about our tone of voice or help us know what topics to avoid, but it does not help us have better conversations.
In order to have a meaningful conversation with a child, we need to know what the child thinks can be done in real situations (possible goals), and we need to know the procedures that the child believes will make things happen (possible strategies). If we have watched and listened long enough to determine the child’s goals and his strategies for attaining those goals, then we have both a resource for understanding the child and an interesting basis for a high-level conversation.
We might say, “It seems like you think the ball will roll faster if you make the incline steeper.” Or we might say, “Do you think you will have more friends if you have crayons?” But then in revisiting an experience with a child, putting that experience into words, we need to go beyond the observed strategies and consider the theories that make those strategies reasonable.
Considering children’s theories requires more than a careful transcription of what they say and do. We have to dig. We have to abstract the meaning of elliptical sentences, aborted movements, or a confusing explanation, request, or description. Children are competent learners, but as teachers, we have to slow down, carefully observe, and study our documented observations in order to understand the ideas that they are attempting to convey. In addition to slowing down, observing, and studying children’s actions and narration, understanding children’s theories requires a general knowledge of child development and a willingness to speculate.
In the pages that follow, you will view several video clips of children engaged in play. Observe the children in these clips carefully. Then read our speculations on what the children may be thinking (possible theories) and our ideas about what we might say to the children on another day as we revisit the experience that we have obseved.
A special thank you to ECRP: Early childhood research practice, wondering with children: the importance of observation in Early Education.http://ecrp.uiuc.edu/v7n2/forman.html