Observation in Early Childhood Play

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Hopefully you are here because you already know that children learn best through play. Your next thought might be, ‘What is my role as a childhood educator then if children are supposed to learn from playing?’

One role we take on is that of observer. That may sound counter productive at first – aren’t teachers supposed to teach, not sit back and watch? However, choosing when to make the transition from observing to interacting is key to children’s play. You don’t want to disturb the flow and the potential for discoveries they may make on their own (not forgetting how much they learn from their peers), but sometimes you might be able to provide that connection from one idea to the next in order to help the children ‘click’.

As early childhood educators we are taught to use observation as a tool to not only document learning, but to then use these observations to plan for future opportunities as well as to assess current learning. It is also a key tool to find out more about children’s behaviour patterns and understanding of social and emotional development. Oh and don’t forget, it’s a way to find out about THEM as PEOPLE (and not data!) because remember, they are humans after all!

Children are able to demonstrate their learning best when they feel relaxed, comfortable and at ease i.e. when they are playing! If you are setting up activities for them to perform to then they will only perform to the ceiling that you provide – or worse, due to perceived pressure or stress to step up and perform. Play has no ceiling. Play has infinite possibilities. Children feel more comfortable to make mistakes, try again, not give up and actually ENJOY the learning process! Isn’t that what we all want? To be comfortable with making errors and enjoy learning?

‘But free, unstructured play will just cause chaos in my classroom!! I can’t let the children just run around choosing to do what they want!’

I see this argument a lot when educators talk about play vs structured play/teaching. The important to remember that the teacher isn’t simply stepping back and doing nothing. This is a time for observation, planning and assessment. It takes a skilled practitioner to be able to know when to watch, when to take notes, when to interact, when to wonder, when to infer and when to directly teach.

There is also a misconception that free play is lacking of structure. We structure the environment, the children structure their own learning and develop their rules for their own games and explorations. ‘Unstructured’ is what I think people mean when they want to describe a child-led environment – following the children’s interests and learning through play. Learning has to be relevant to the child in order for them to really learn something. Translating the play into what the children are learning is the skill needed by teachers to show others how children learn through play – not that it is a simply ‘unstructured’, ‘chaotic’ environment that is unfit for learning.

Why don’t you take some time to say ‘hello’ to observing? Take a breath, pause, be patient, watch. Take in what you see, what you think, what you wonder. Don’t make any snap decisions or judgements. Observe the play, look at the children’s facial expressions and body language. Smile! Let go of all your pre-conceived ideas and just notice where your attention is drawn. Spend time in their world. Did you find it easy or difficult? What hurdles did you come across? What went really well? Let me know in the comments and let’s have a discussion!

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Emma is The Play Coach who loves everything and anything to do with play. Play is children's work and she thinks it should be adult's work too. Connect with Emma for consultations and trainings that promote wonder, joy and well-being through the power of play.

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