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Observing in an Early Years Environment

You’ve spent your weekends and evenings cutting things out, collecting things, making things. The children are now using these resources in the setting. But not in the way you thought they would use them…

What do you do next?

This is the perfect opportunity for you to step back and observe.

When observing, try to make notes for everything you see and hear. Nothing is insignificant at this point. These notes will help you later on when you’re reflecting, assessing and planning the next steps. If helpful, take photos and videos, or record the child’s voice.

Whether you get involved is up to you. There may be a moment to 'steer' the children’s learning so that it doesn’t remain “comfortable” for them, and so you lean into their learning a little. It is important to realise though that just by being there, you may affect the behaviour and choices the children make.

Children will often do what they feel is safe, even if they look like they’re really engaged, which they may well be. But without modelling from someone else, they may never move on. Ask questions that get them to think. Ask questions that get them to try another way.

Once you have made your observation, you can reflect on what you have seen and heard. Was there anything that the children/child said or did that stood out? Make notes about these thoughts, remembering that the observation doesn’t have to make sense to others – they are there to help you make your judgement and provide evidence to back up your thoughts. If you use an online journal like Tapestry,  you can frequently share a picture with the family, with or without a little bit of text, and you can then make observations of significant moments with more notes for yourself and your team. 

The next step for you is to assess what the child has shown you about their learning.  

Do you have to do this for every observation? Again, this is completely up to you, but unless you have observed something new, and you feel that you need more evidence for an area, ask yourself whether assessing it the best use of your time? When you are assessing an observation, think about ALL the areas it covers. If the child was at the sand tray, making a sand castle and decorating it with shells, whilst sharing things with other children, or not getting upset if it collapses, there are so many different things you can assess – PSED, CL, MH, EAD – all from one observation.painting-428387_1920.jpg

Finally, you need to think about what you can do to help move the child on from where they are. What are the next steps? Look at Development Matters and see what kind of things the child needs to be doing to be secure in the age band that they’re working in, or if they are already there, what do they need to be doing to move on to the next age band? It is important to remember that Development Matters only contains suggestions as to what the child may be doing – it is not a tick list that needs to completed. Use your professional judgement to place the child in the age band and refinement you think they are most realistically working at. Can you talk confidently about your judgements with your team and other practitioners? Remember, you don't need reams of evidence. The observations provide a useful reference for you, prompts in conversations about a child, points of comparison to show their individual journey. 

 Children benefit more from your carefully chosen interventions, questioning and discussions, the sustained shared thinking you do with them, the time you spend with them, more than the number of observations you have on them.


Ben Case
Ben moved from teaching Primary (although he trained in Secondary!) to joining the Foundation Stage Forum (FSF) in 2019. He has taught in Reception and in Years 1 and 4. When he’s not answering Tapestry customer support queries, he can be found writing content for the FSF and Tapestry websites, browsing Twitter or running the Facebook ‘Tapestry Support Group’ account. He still dreams of being an F1 driver but makes do with watching races for now!

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