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Wondering With Children: The Importance of Observation in Early Education

  • University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA


This paper asserts that through the process of observation, documentation, and interpretation of children's goals, strategies, and theories, teachers gain insight into children's thinking. As a result of this process, teachers are better able to engage children in conversations and investigations that have the potential to extend their learning in both depth and breadth. Utilizing brief video clips of both children and adults to support its premise, the paper outlines and discusses relevant aspects of observation for understanding and introduces the concept of the videative as a powerful resource for revisiting and analyzing documented observations.
Wondering with Children
Importance of Observation in Early Education
George E. Forman
Emeritus Professor , University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Children are sometimes spontaneous - sometimes reserved, joyful now, sad later, friendly
and shy, competent and naive, talkative and quiet. To be childlike is no less than to be
everything in an almost unpredictable array of emotions, discoveries, and levels of
energy. Children are difficult to understand. Nor can they help us in any direct way to
know them. They are not equipped with powers of self-reflection to help us understand
the reasons for their caprice. 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 challenging characteristics of young children, we have learned
decades ago to begin with observation. But what do we see when we observe and how do
we use our observations to be more effective as teachers.
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 find out what they are interested in.
• By observing a child, I can determine her developmental level.
• I look to see what strategies he uses to make something happen.
• Observing children helps me know what skills the children need to practice
• When I observe children at play I learn a lot about who they are as little people
Because I want to use the reasons again, let me give an example that captures the general
meaning of each.
• Interests - She loves to play with trucks.
• Developmental Level - She throws the ball either hard or not at all, never
• Strategies - She tries to control her friend by hoarding the crayons.
• Skills - She has trouble stringing beads onto a shoestring.
• Personality - She does not like to take risks.
So, we can learn at least five attributes of our children when we observe closely:
Their interests and preferences
Their level of cognitive or social development
Their strategies for creating a desired effect
Their skills and accomplishments
Their personality and temperaments
Each of the objectives for observing have their own applications to improve the quality of
teaching young children. But it is possible that one of these is best suited for having high
level conversations with children. In Reggio Emilia the teachers call these conversations,
"revisiting." So lets think about how we can get the most from our observations of young
children in order to improve the quality of conversations that we have with them about
their experiences, theories, and attitudes.
If we truly want to have high level conversations with children about their beliefs,
theories, fears, assumptions, and expectations about how something work or why
something happened, what sort of knowledge do we need to know about the children.
Quite simply, we need to know their beliefs, theories, fears, assumptions, and
expectations so that we might enter the conversation with paraphrase and counterpoint.
Knowing their interests might help us prepare the environment, but it does not help us
have better conversations.
Knowing their skills might help us think about games to play with the children that
encourage the children to practice their skills, but it does not help us have better
Knowing their developmental level might help us predict what questions the children can
answer but it does not help us enter into a lengthy conversation with the children. To
have a lengthy conversation we need to make specific comments about what the child is
thinking. The developmental level is too general and does not offer us sufficient context
to engage the child in wondering about something.
Knowing something about the child's personality might help us be sensitive to the right
emotional tone with a child or might help us know what topics to avoid, but it does not
offer much toward having a constructive conversation about the child's theories, beliefs,
fears, assumptions, and expectations.
We need to know what the child thinks can be done in real situations. That is, we need to
know the procedures that the child believes will make things happen. These procedures
are both the source of understanding the child and our basis for a good conversation. If
we have watched and listen long enough to figure out the child's goals and strategies to
reaching those goals, then we have an interesting basis for our conversation with a child.
We might say, "It seems like you think the ball will roll faster if you raise the incline
higher." Or we might say, "Do you think you will have more friends if you have more
crayons?" In revisiting an experience with a child, we need to go beyond the behavior to
reach the motives, beliefs, assumptions, and theories that give meaning to the behavior
and give purpose to a conversation.
Unfortunately, to know these things requires more than a careful transcription of what
the children say and do. We have to dig. We have to abstract the meaning of elliptical
sentences, aborted movements, and confused explanations, demands, and descriptions.
Children are definitely competent in their own way, but they are not necessarily
articulate, nor do they routinely take the perspective of you, the listener.
And we have to slow down to study what the children are doing and saying. The teachers
in Reggio admonish us again and again to slow down. O.K. We will go slow. But what
will we do with the extra time we spend thinking about the children's thinking.
Understanding what children think requires a general knowledge about child
development and a willingness to speculate.
In the next few minutes you will see several video clips of children at play. Observe
these clips with me. And then we will speculate on what the children are thinking. After
that we will plan what we might say to the children on another day as we revisit or replay
the experience that we have observed.
Here is the general plan. As you observe children, think about their goals. What effects
are they trying to create. Then watch their actions and listen to their language to
determine the strategies they use to reach that goal. The relation between the strategy and
the goal will reveal a theory. A theory about how something works or a theory about
how to make a desired effect happen.
Lets watch this little two year old boy trying to hit a large ball with a golf club. Watch
not only what he does, but think about what he does not do. Here we go.
Boy hits large beach ball.
His objective was to propel the ball forward. To do this he places the head of his golf
club on the side of the ball and pushes the ball forward. So his goal was to move the ball
across the grass and his strategy was to first make contact with the ball and the push,
more like shoveling the ball rather than hitting it with a swing. So what he did not do
was move the club back away from the ball and then swing swiftly forward.
Lets watch this again.
We will call this little boy Toby. We could say - Toby needs to develop his skill at
hitting the ball. So we go about encouraging him to try again. We might show him how
to pull his golf club back before he makes contact with the ball. But what if we first try
to figure out why Toby's strategy makes sense to him. Why does he do it this way. What
theory does he hold that makes his strategy reasonable?
We will now enter into Toby's head and listen to his answer to our question.
"Why would I draw the golf club backward if I want to make the ball go forward. It
make more sense to place my golf club on the ball and shovel it forward. This makes
sense because I know that the club has to make contact with the ball in order for it to
move. So, I place the club in contact with the ball and push it."
What implications does this alternative approach to observation have for how we talk
with young children. Instead of showing Toby how to hit the ball correctly, the teacher
will address Toby's thinking. She might say, "You press your club against the ball and
shovel it forward." That's it. The teacher deliberately uses the word "press" and "shovel."
The road to better performance is through the child's ability to reflect on what he actually
did, his procedures. Verbs are the names that we give to our procedures. In some other
context the teacher will be able to say, "You hit it by swinging your bat in the air." As
the child learns the meaning of the action-names, the child will become more conscious
of not only what he is doing, but will eventually reflect on the assumptions that he has
about how things work. This form of teaching encourages the child the think about his
actions and the assumptions he makes as he deploys his procedures for "shoveling" or
If one action can reveal strategies and their implied theories, then a set of related
strategies will be even more helpful. Here is an older boy, around four, playing in the
water flume at The Make a Mess preschool in Boulder, Colorado. The flume is about 40
feet long, has a gentle flow of water coming from the top end and has sand spread all
along the bottom surface. The boy is trying to get his light-weight ball to roll or float all
the way to the bottom end of the flume. We will call him Jack.
Notice the different strategies that Jack uses to reach his objective. Sometimes he
releases the ball, sometimes he tosses it, sometimes he carries it through to air to some
spot further down the flume? Why does he make these adjustments? What are his
theories about how the ball will interact with the changing nature of the floor of the
flume? Lets watch to identify his strategies and then think about his theories.
Each of these adjustments can be viewed as a theory and the theory can guide our
decisions about how we visit or revisit Jack's play in the flume. He places the ball on the
smooth surface of the floor and he opens his fingers. He seems to understand that the
surface has no sand and is smooth enough to allow the ball to roll of its own weight.
However, when the ball has to roll over the rough sand he tosses the ball, giving it extra
force to make headway in the sand. When the ball is in the water he slaps the ball, as if he
knows that the ball is stuck but not completely stuck. A slap will work. But when he
comes to an incline he figures that neither a release, toss, or slap will work. He picks the
ball up and gives it an airlift over the hump. Clearly Jack has some rather sophisticated
theories about how things work and the adjustments in his strategies tell us so.
So what do we do with our new-found understanding of Jack's thinking. Perhaps we
have video tapes Jack playing with the ball in the flume. (And of course I did, since this
is the video that you saw.) We could sit with Jack and talk about what he was doing in
hopes that we could bring his own theories into consciousness. You might say, "That
time you slapped the ball." Jack might answer with an explanation. And you can
continue helping Jack to reflect on his procedures and their associated theories by giving
Jack names for his procedures. These words, particularly the verbs, are tools for his
When you observe children, enter their wonderment. Don't be afraid to speculate on
what they might be thinking. If you are wrong you will know so enough during your
conversation with the children or by their lack of reaction to your comment. It is better
to have a theory about their theory instead of asking them directly, "Why did you do it
that way." You will find it works better if you say, "That time it you had to toss it.
Before you just let it go." Then you wait to see if the child picks up on your description.
You do not make random comments. Your comments come from your speculation that
Jack has done something intelligent and you want to bring this in to consciousness
through language or other forms of revisiting.
Let's listen to a four year girl, Avery, who is trying to get her large and loveable dog to
lay her head all the way down. The dog's name is Jasmine. Here is the case of a cute four
year old trying to get her dog Jasmine to lay his head all the way down on the bed that
she made. She is successful in getting Jasmine to place his body on the bed, but not yet
successful to get Jasmine to put her head down. She wants Jasmine's head down. First
she makes a pillow. This looks reasonable. The pillow gives Jasmine a spatial clue for
what do. The little girl adds a blanket, another cue for sleeping, then pats Jasmine's head
rather hard, almost as if Jasmine just needs to be encouraged.
When this doesn't work she comes up with the idea that she should give Jasmine a treat.
Perhaps she remembers something about how one can train a dog to do tricks using a
treat. But notice how she gives the treat directly to Jasmine. What is she thinking? Ask
what is her theory, not what is her mistake, but what is her theory.
Perhaps she is thinking that if I am nice to Jasmine then Jasmine will do what I ask. This
theory makes sense at one level. Now go deeper into this particular theory. This theory
assumes that Jasmine will understand that after the treat, then it is his turn to be nice. It
also assumes that Jasmine will know what it is that the little girl wants him to do.
Now that you have a theory about how the girl's theory makes sense, you have your
guideline for revisiting. You can help the child make her own thinking more explicit.
You can say something like, "Jasmine likes the cracker, but does she know what you
what her to do?"
• Do your homework on child development. Milestones and misconceptions
In the case of the four year old and the dog, we need to think about what the research
says about children's theory of mind. Theory of mind research covers all those pragmatic
situations where the child needs to consider someone else's thinking in order to
communicate effectively. In this episode, the little girl's theory of the dog's mind
includes the notion that "he knows what I am thinking." As least she behaves as if this
theory holds sway. The child development research goes on to say that children about
this age have a great tendency to blame the listener if the communication fails, rather than
to revise their message. Listener blaming sort of says, "you are not listening" rather than
"I need to be more explicit." If you know how theories of mind develop over the first
seven or eight years of life, you will have a better idea of what provocations to use as a
Create a long list of concepts you have identified throughout the year.
A concept is a small theory that explains the child behavior. A concept resides in the
teacher's mind and refers to what is in the child's mind. In other words, a concept is a
theory that the teacher holds about the child's thinking. The fact that it is in the teacher's
mind does not diminish it's importance. Our concepts about what the child is thinking
guide our practice. Here are some examples of concepts the I presume children hold and
that I have used to guide my conversations with children.
Since a worm has no legs, it moves by sliding on a surface.
A shadow is like a spot of black paint on the wall.
The baby chick gets out of the shell by rolling the shell off the table.
Air blows out of both ends of a floor fan.
If my friend does not do what I ask, I need to speak louder.
If the puzzle piece does not fit, I should discard this piece and get another.
I can make my friend like me if I let them use my toys.
A balloon floats up because the air inside pushes on the underside of the top.
If I can not get a turn pushing the stroller, then I will ask my friend to push me.
Now let me write these concepts in a slightly more general way. By rewriting them in a
more general way I will be able to see these same concepts in a variety of contexts.
Since a worm has no legs, it moves by sliding on a surface.
Things that are not elevated are everywhere in contact with a surface
A shadow is like a spot of black paint on the wall.
Marks can be hidden with a cover
The baby chick gets out of the shell by rolling the shell off the table.
Fragile objects are broken by contact with outside surfaces
Air blows out of both ends of a floor fan.
Wind only blows out rather than first in then out.
If my friend does not do what I ask, I need to speak louder.
Communication depends attention, rather than the choice of words.
If the puzzle piece does not fit, I should discard this piece and get another.
Parts either fit or do not fit (as opposed to parts can be adjusted to fit)
I can make my friend like me if I let them use my toys.
My toys will always please my friends (as opposed to some sense of the
interest or need of one's friends)
A balloon floats up because the air inside pushes on the underside of the top.
Floating is cause by an upward push (as opposed to relative density of two
If I cannot get a turn pushing the stroller, then I will ask my friend to push me.
If I can not be the agent of the action, then I can be the recipient of the
Know the knowledge domain relevant to the observation, e.g. what does research
say that three year olds understand about shadows or about neighborhood or
about calendars.
Review you notes or video documentation two or three times. The most important
details will reveal themselves to you only very gradually.
Sometimes you do not see the cleverness of a child's work until you look at a tape several
times. That the case of Kieran, a three year old boy gluing junk items onto a two by four
(no sound on this video clip).
When I first say the tape I found it rather dull, just a child engaged in a relatively
mindless activity of gluing do-dads on a board. But after watching the tape about three
times I noticed that Kieran was improving the efficiency of his work. He began to cut out
steps by finding more efficient ways to perform. For example, instead of dabbing glue
here and placing an item on the glue, he began to dab two places with glue. By doing
this, he eliminated one trip to the glue dish. And later, by picking up two objects at once,
instead of one at the time, he eliminated a trip to the junk bin. Look at this animation to
see what I mean.
So here you see how something that, at first glance, looks boring, turns out to be a
microcosm of self-regulated learning, or as Piaget would say, the schematization of
action. The acts were schematized into sub-routines that could be combined because they
were of the same type, e.g. placing a pair of glue spots to receive an identical pair of
• Look for laughter. Laughter often means an expectation has been violated
Sometimes it may even be the teacher who laughs. This too can be revealing. Look at
Victoria how has been pretend cooking mash potatoes. The first clip shows the game of
pretense. In the second clip Victoria finds a grape in the pan and eats it. The teachers
laugh. See if you can relate to why the teacher's laugh. Perhaps the teacher's laughed
because Victoria has conveniently slipped out of the pretense mode to eat her real grape.
It is as Victoria has said, "This pretense stuff is o.k., but who needs it when you have a
real grape." The navigation in and out of the pretense frame turns out to be an essential
skill for children playing together. They learn to make the pretense as pretense using
marking words such as "let's pretend." Often the negotiation of the game takes on the
main share of what their play is all about. And here we even see a boy, who has not been
included in the game, asking his friends to pretend that he should be included.
• Look for the aborted action or an abbreviated action; this mean the child has
changed his mind.
When you watch video tapes of children for many years you develop a sense of their
pace. If they are confident in the effects they are trying to create, the action flows in a
rather uninterrupted stream. But when they anticipate a problem, their actions pause or
change directions. These are cues that the child has had a thought, a thought that you
should try to interpret. Lets watch these clips of Kaylie around 2 years old. She is
playing on her kitchen floor with tupper ware lids, containers, and measuring cups. For
some time she has been trying to place the blue lid on the clear container. Here is what I
mean. About three minutes later she picks up the measuring cup. She moves the blue lid
to the measuring cup. Notice how she places the lid at the opening to the measuring cup
and how she pauses with the lid. It does not rest against the top rim of the measuring cup
because the opening of the cup is bigger than the lid. Nevertheless, she pauses there.
See if you can catch this pause. The pause comes just after the letter M disappears the let
the screen.
When the lid does not fit, she lets it fall into the bottom of the cup. She even presses it
firmly to the bottom. Lets watch this last part again, where she presses the lid to the
bottom. So what could this pause mean. Given that she has been trying to press the lid to
the clear container in the previous few minutes, we can speculate that her goal is to make
the lid fit onto the measuring cup. She has the assumption that the lid should fit at the top
of the container. That's why she pauses, to give the lid every chance she can to have it
find a footing on the rim of the cup. When it does not fit there she continues with her
goal anyway. But now she tries to get it to fit at the bottom. Who cares if the lid fits at
the top or the bottom anyway. She just wants it to find a certain level of snugness. She is
not trying to "contain" something, such as left over snacks or soup. She is simply trying
to find a snug fitting for her lid. So snug at the top can be relocated to snug at the bottom
as far as she is concerned. Thus we have discovered that fitting the lid does not necessary
imply closing up contents. It is simply fitting the lid.
Look for the co-construction of knowledge, where children are adding to each
other's words or work.
Look for examples of representation, where children are inventing new ways to
capture or express meaning. In this next clip we will see both the use of representation in
the context of co-construction.
This is an ideal situation. Here two boys are drawing a map of their neighborhood
without much attention to scale. Nevertheless their symbols capture interesting aspects of
identification, location, boundary, and part to whole relations. In this first clip the boy
tests to see if his map is readable, so he asks his friend, do you know where we are on my
map. His friend guesses, the mapmaker confirms, and the points out the X. The X marks
where his friend lives. While the reader of this map might not know what the X means,
they would likely know that this is a particular location highlighted for some purpose.
And since these two boys are working together, they are likely to co-construct a shared
meaning of this symbol system.
Lets look at just one more clip of this map-making episode. In this clip the boy in brown
refers to a sort of clover-leaf shape as our classroom. But then he seems to realize that a
room is not an entire building, so he draws a boundary for the interior wall of the room.
Finally he adds dots inside the classroom, for what else defines a classrooms - the
students inside. So by degrees he improves the readability of his symbol system and
thereby makes it possible for his friend to be more relevant in comments about what the
symbols mean.
When children make representations of their words, it makes it possible for them to have
more focused conversations with their friends. Indeed, representations also make it
possible for the children to reflect more carefully upon their own theories and definitions
Look for examples of meta-cognition, where children are thinking about thinking.
You might hear a child say, "I am not very good at this." Such a comment indicates that
the child has evaluated her own ability, and ability certainly involves thinking. Instead
of focusing on the skill, focus on the reasoning behind her evaluation. Your focus on
thinking will pay off when you revisit the video with the child. For example, in revisiting
you might focus on counter-examples of her behavior by saying, "I have seen you do this
before." But then that is the end of the conversation. But if you say, "What makes you
think that you can not do it?" then this opens a dialogue with many twists and turns. If
the child is too young to articulate her reasons, then you can say, "You remember doing
this before." Even this comment orients the child to her thinking.
Meta-cognition can also refer to thinking about someone else's thinking. You saw an
example of this when the little girl tries to communicate her wish to her dog. The little
girl was thinking about the dog's thinking, that is, she was assuming that he was not
paying attention. Once you have a sense of the assumptions a child is making about their
own thinking or someone's else's thinking, you have a path to a high level conversation
with them.
Look for examples of meta-symbolization, where children are thinking about how
a symbol works or if a symbol has been understood.
What to do with the information you gather from a particular video?
• Summarize the goals, strategies, and concepts that you have identified
• Decide which concepts are more likely to be within the children's range of competence
and interest.
• Discuss how that set of concepts can be extended, within and across contexts.
• Find key segments of the video and revisit those clips with the children
• During revisiting with the children, focus on their thinking as well as their action
• Modify the materials or the environment in ways that stimulates new perspectives on
the concept or strategies.
• Help the children make their thinking visible to themselves for study and revision
• Give children tools of representation to express their theories to others.
• Transform the original encounter in ways that provoke the children to rethink a theory.
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... In this model, children are seen as independent and capable members of the learning community. The role of the teacher is to be an "active player" with the children; the teacher 10 documents experiences and "provokes" critical thinking to further children's learning (Forman & Hall, 2005). ...
Preparing educators to understand teaching as a cultural activity is a crucial element of teacher education programs. International field experiences have shown to accomplish this goal when combined with cross-cultural mentoring and critical reflection. This qualitative eight-month study used ethnographic methods to examine significant experiences of six U.S. preservice teachers while being mentored by five Nepali teachers at an early childhood center in Kathmandu. Findings illustrated how the preservice teachers negotiated their significant experiences around: 1) care routines, 2) adult-child relationship, 3) curriculum & materials, 4) mentor-mentee relationship, and 5) language differences. Findings indicated that the preservice teachers navigated significant experiences by using practices that tended to accept the Nepali school culture or, at times, by displaying perceived privilege and entitlement over the Nepali school culture. More specifically, the preservice teachers showed acceptance of Nepali cultural scripts related to the themes of care routines and adult-child relationships by following practices of the mentor teachers, but their perceived privilege and entitlement were evident when confronting the Nepali cultural scripts related to the themes of curriculum materials and mentor-mentee relationships. Implications focus on why intercultural conflicts might have occurred as well as recommendations to prepare educators to understand teaching as a cultural activity.
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Research shows that conversations and daily interaction among teachers and children is crucial for their development. Observing children and interpreting their thinking processes is a significant factor in intentionally planning curriculum that emerges from children’s thinking, assists them in making connections, and extends their learning. This article presents findings of a single case design study investigating the effects of the observation and interpretation processes in a Cycle of Inquiry System (COI) (Broderick and Hong in Early Childh Res Pract 13:1–14, 2011) intervention on preschool teachers’ productive conversations with children. The intervention for each teacher consisted of pre and post interviews, a 1-day COI training, use of COI observation and interpretation forms, and coaching meetings with the researcher. The participants were 4 preschool teachers in Northeast Tennessee. Teachers were videotaped in their classrooms working with children during the free play time and coded for productive and non-productive conversation strategies for determining the baseline and changes during the intervention. All the teachers show an increase in productive conversation strategies to differing degrees. The non-overlapping pairs analysis for all participants is represented by a large value. The findings indicate the benefit of training teachers to observe and interpret the meaning of children’s conversations to intentionally plan for productive conversations that impact learning.
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This chapter presents research based on evidence, where the way of favoring the promotion of thought and the opportunities for play as a learning resource is investigated. Twenty-four three-year-old children and one teacher participated in the study. The research is based on psychology and pedagogy's empirical contributions about the game and its implication with cognitive processes and learning. The implemented method consisted of direct observation, supported by video recordings in the classrooms and during playtime. Results revealed that the promotion of thought was scarce, and there were also few opportunities for playful learning. Thus, the most frequently encouraged thinking types were connections, explanations, self-questioning and inquiring, and thinking dispositions observed during play – such as being open, adventurous, curious, and willing to be intellectually careful. In sum, a proposal based on playful learning is designed to respond to the needs found to achieve the research goals.
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Evaluation and monitoring are important processes for recording the challenges, limitations and achievements of Early Childhood Education and Care systems. The aim of this paper is to establish that implementing evaluation practices is fundamental to the improvement of quality in the main dimensions of ECEC and to present major evaluation and monitoring models. By presenting evaluation practices and models, we hope to substantiate their cumulative value for investing in Early Childhood.
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A referential communication task of abstract figures was performed by 64 third- and fifth-grade speakers, who produced messages for an imaginary listener. The results revealed that 8-year-olds produced twice as many ambiguous messages as 10-year-olds, and that the mean length of message was twice as abbreviated in third than fifth graders. It is concluded that 8-year-olds use speech that is less adapted to an unknown decoder than 10-year-olds (who also produced some ambiguous messages). The roles of breakdown of egocentric speech and task difficulty are discussed.
Results of a cross-sectional study of how 102 children 3 to 9 years of age play and think about Tic Tac Toe are reported. An evolution in reasoning is described by 5 general levels of play: motor and individual play, egocentric play, cooperation in beginning competition, consolidation of defensive with simple offensive strategies and coordination of advanced offensive and defensive strategies. An 8-item Guttman Scale describes nine sublevels. Kohlberg's criteria are used to assess evidence for the hierarchical sequentiality of these levels, and their transformational rather than additive character is discussed. Educational implications are suggested.