One of the biggest concerns when the EYFS was first published was about doing observations of children. How will there be enough time? How could you observe every child? How much paperwork was this going to involve?
Although some of these questions still exist, the vast majority of practitioners are now very good at doing observations. Most practitioners can write a range of different types of observations, can tune into their children's interests and have found methods of doing this accurately and in good time.
However, it is not always clear as to how these observations should be used to inform planning, assessments and evaluation of children's progress. These ‘Next Steps’ need to be appropriate for the children, as well as making best use of the observations made by practitioners. Translating observations into next steps can be very daunting. There is almost an infinite number of ways that you can use one observation to support a child’s learning and development. It could be that you have found one way of using your observations for next steps, but then always use this same method all the time. This may result in planning that is repetitive and may not cover every area of learning and development. On the other hand, it may be that you have not found a simple way of using observations to inform next steps. Sometimes the huge array of choices can make choosing a next step a really confusing task.
In this article, I will explore ways of creating effective next steps, linked to your observations. The first method is for people who like categories and headings. The second method is for those who prefer mind maps and spidergrams.
Using categories or headings
Here I have explained four categories that you can use, which will cover all the areas of learning and development as well as making optimum use of your observations. You may wish to take one observation and plan next steps for each of these categories, giving you a number of options for your planning.
This is probably the most straightforward category. You simply go to your early years curriculum (whether that is the EYFS or one of the other curricula in the UK) and choose the next level of child development that is listed there. For example, if you have observed that your child can count securely from 1 to 5, the next step would be to extend this to counting from 5 to 10. This is probably the most used method for finding the next step from an observation. However, there are some limitations to use method because it does not take into account your child's interests or the broader curriculum. Sometimes the steps are too large, sometimes too small.
Extending an interest
Once you have got to know and understand the children in your care, you will be able to observe their interests and things that make them tick, which may include schematic play. Once you have identified their interests, you can use this as a ‘hook’ to draw them into other areas of learning and development. For example, if your child is fascinated with fire engines, you can extend this to different coloured vehicles for colour recognition; environmental noises, listening to the different sirens; numbers, emergency numbers; people who help us. This is a relatively easy category if your child has a clearly defined interest or set of interests. It is more difficult if you have only just started caring for this child or if their interests change rapidly.
Embed a learning point
Sometimes, it is very tempting to keep moving your child on with their learning development, without first ensuring that prior learning has been properly embedded. This can cause problems, especially with areas such as mathematics, where a secure foundation is essential before moving on to more complex ideas. Reinforcing learning may mean returning it to an idea many times, such as reading the same book to the children all week. Or it may mean considering the same learning, but in many different environments. For example, the concept of ‘melting’ may be experienced through: melting ice cubes in the water tray, observing ice melting in puddles outside and watching ice melt in a drink.
Personal, Social and Emotional Development
One of the most precious things you can give children is a love of learning. By encouraging children to have a "can do" attitude towards life, you are helping them to learn in many different circumstances. This is called a mastery disposition, and all next steps should encourage this. For example, the next step should be challenging enough for your child to learn something from it, but not so challenging that you are setting them up to fail. As you get to know your children, this will become easier, as you will begin to understand their level of development. This may mean planning your next step to be a smaller or larger increment than is listed in the curriculum.
As well as this personal development, your next steps could consider how the social development is included. This may mean planning for a small group of children – such as your key group.
Using mind maps or spidergrams
A mind map or spidergram starts with an idea in the centre of a large piece of paper. This could be an observation of a single child; a group of children or it could be schematic play that you have observed in your setting. From this, ideas are arranged around the outside, similar to a spider's legs.
There are several ways of organising a mind map and you may want to use different methods for different types of observations.
Areas of learning and development
A number of ‘bubbles’ are drawn around the central idea, each bubble labelled with a different area of learning and development, depending on your curriculum. Inside each bubble you write an idea for an activity. If you work in a setting with other practitioners, you can do this as a group activity with everybody making suggestions for each area of learning and development. In this way you will get a range of ideas and perspectives on activities. If there are further or complementary activities that are also suggested, these can be added as further bubbles around the edge. For example, the central observation may be about your child enjoying mixing paint. This could be extended in physical development by adding sand to the paint, so the children get a different sensory experience when they touch it; using different size paintbrushes and discussing relative sizes for mathematical development; consciously using more challenging words to describe colour and texture to expand vocabulary for communication and language.
Areas of provision
If your children are particularly fascinated with one idea, for example, conkers, you could thread this throughout the areas of provision in your setting. A number of lines or bubbles are drawn from the central idea, each labelled with an area in your setting. For example, you could do a floating and sinking activity in the water tray; plant them in pots in the outdoor area; write and display stories in the book corner. This is particularly good for planning that can be extended for a longer time than just one activity, but is still responsive to the children’s interests.
Involving the children
If you have older children, you could involve them in your planning process. Having a ‘review’ discussion after an activity (either as a formal process such as HighScope recommends, or as an informal discussion about the things that the children enjoyed that morning) will help you to understand what went well (or not!). You can also ask the children how they would like to extend their play, capturing their comments as observations to inform the planning. Pre-school children may be able to draw or illustrate their own ideas for next steps, highlighting their favourite parts.
Choosing next steps is not an exact science by any means. It becomes easier as you get to know your children and as you have more experience; however, the best-planned next steps can still go awry. Children will always tell you whether they have enjoyed an activity or not. This could be verbally, but it is more often ‘voting with their feet’ – if an activity or area doesn’t appeal to children, they will simply avoid it. Once you have spotted this, you should consider how the activity could be changed or replaced (even if it has taken some preparation). Mark on your planning the enhancements you have made and why. These will help you when you are planning next steps for the future.
Trying different methods to choose next steps will help you to think more broadly about the opportunities that you are giving the children. If you are a natural ‘categories’ person, think about using a mind map to explore a variety of areas. If you are a mind map person, think about using categories to ensure you have every area covered.
Using observations to plan next steps will help you to plan for the needs of each, unique child, whatever methods you choose to use.