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The Importance of Observing Children

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Young People
Wordcount: 5413 words Published: 14th Oct 2021

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This report discusses and evaluates the role of observation within an education setting. Section 1 details the importance of observing children followed by an evaluation of a range of observational techniques. Section 2 looks at the background of the child being observed in the report whilst section 3 makes reference to the appendix which contains 3 observations demonstrating a range of observational techniques. Section 4 contains an analysis of the child’s learning and developing needs. Section 5 makes recommendations to inform the future practice of the setting and its’ practitioners whilst section 6 reflects on the practitioner’s role in the observational process.

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Section 1 : The Importance of observing children.

Observation is a fundamental and crucial aspect of the practitioner’s role and enables them to understand children as learners and as individuals. Observations are an invaluable source of information which allows the practitioner to plan a more appropriate curriculum that supports children’s development according to their individual needs. It is an integral part of the assessment and planning cycle.

Observations involve watching children play and take part in activities both inside and outside the classroom. Observations allow the practitioner to acquire knowledge and understanding of what is interesting and motivating to children both as individuals and as groups. Children respond differently to activities, experiences, and areas of provision. They acquire skills, learning styles, friendships, and behavioural patterns which are individual to each child. Observations give the practitioner an opportunity to record this type of information as well as aiding them in determining where the child is on the learning continuum and highlighting any difficulties they may have. This information can have a very positive impact on children’s learning when used effectively in informing the planning process.

Observations give vital information regarding the effectiveness of provision. The development of areas within an educational setting takes into account their success with the children that use them. Observations are integral when evaluating such areas as they give a true record of how the children use the area and the effectiveness of it. Children’s behaviour, comments, body language and interactivity with their peers and practitioners give an invaluable insight into the effectiveness of the provision. Practitioners are responsible for facilitating a child’s learning. Observations allow the evaluation of the effectiveness of the practitioner’s role and can inform a practitioner of their professional developmental needs.

The planning process takes into account the needs of each individual child and this process is informed through the analysis / assessment of the observations carried out by the practitioner. Without such observations it would be an impossible task to ensure that the planned activities of the setting, the areas of provision, and the methods used by the practitioner were meeting the individual needs of each child. Such is the importance of observation.

As Sharman, Cross and Vennis (2007, p.9) state, ‘children and young people are unique and to be aware of their qualities we need to take an interest in what they are doing, listen to what they are saying, learn from what they are telling us.’

Evaluation of a range of techniques.

There are several different techniques that the practitioner may use when observing children and areas of provision. The observation method used will normally be determined by the purpose of the observation. Observation methods include narrative / free description, checklist / pre-coded, time sampling, event sampling, tracking, pie / bar charts, histograms and sociograms. Practitioners may carry out observations as either a participant or a non-participant observer. Each method of observation uses different techniques which may be more suited to observing particular characteristics or behaviours.

Free Description / Narrative : Free description or narrative observations involve watching a particular child or group of children or indeed an area of provision. The free description observation should record the name of the child, children or area being observed along with the date, time and name of the person carrying out the observation. Clear aims and objectives must be set prior to the start of the observation and should be detailed on the observation sheet. The practitioner should possess a sound understanding of the purpose of the observation and the benefits associated with it to help ensure that it is completed appropriately. It is important for the practitioner to decide whether they should observe as a participant or a non-participant. The practitioner should be aware of the affects their involvement may have on a child’s behaviour if observing as a participant. Similarly, when observing as a non-participant it is very important for the practitioner to draw as little attention to themselves as possible. The observation should also contain a conclusion and an evaluation of what has been recorded. Recommendations should then be made to move the child’s learning forward.

The practitioner records information in the present tense detailing what they observe as they observe it. This is done over a pre-set period of time which may be changed during the observation if deemed necessary. The practitioner should be mindful of the importance of remaining objective when recording details of the observation. It is important for them to ensure that personal opinions, experiences and / or prejudices do not affect their judgement. Each practitioner will however have their own perspectives and therefore it is good practice to use all practitioners within a setting to carry out observations over a period of time. This will help ensure that the information acquired will be balanced and provide a fuller picture of the child, children or area being observed.

Free description observations may be difficult to record as the practitioner may need to write a lot of information down in a short amount of time. There is the potential to miss important information. The practitioner’s judgement may be influenced by outside factors.

Checklist / Pre-coded : Checklist or pre-coded observations may be set out in a variety of formats and are normally lists of particular skills within an area of learning. They require planning and preparation prior to the observation being carried out. Information about one child or a group of children can be recorded using the checklist or pre-coded method. Checklists or pre-coded observations should contain the name and age of the child, the number of adults and children present, the activity being observed, the area where the activity takes place, and the aims and objectives of the observation. The purpose of the observation influences the information contained within the checklist. For example, an observation with an aim of determining the fine motor skills of a particular child may contain such statements as: ‘can hold a pencil with tripod grip’ or ‘can control a pencil.’ (WAG, 2011, p.9)

These skills may be given a code to aid the practitioner carrying out the observation to complete it more easily. This would be particularly helpful when observing a number of children at the same time. Checklists can also be used to record activities and their progress.

It is vital to continuously refer to the aim of the observation when preparing the assessment criteria for the checklist. The practitioner should ensure that the criteria are both relevant and appropriate in aiding the assessment and analysis of a specified purpose. For example, the practitioner must ensure the criteria is age appropriate and provisions available to the child support the skill being observed. As with the free description observation it is extremely important for the practitioner to remain objective. All practitioners should perform similar observations to help ensure that the information acquired will be balanced and provide a fuller picture of the child, children or area being observed. It is good practice for a particular skill or behaviour to be observed several times before an overall judgement is made. The observation should include a conclusion and an evaluation of the recorded information and recommendations should be made.

Checklists and pre-coded observations can be restrictive as they require a simple yes, no or nearly answer to each criteria. The information recorded may not contain much detail or background information of the child.

Time sampling

Time sampling is a technique that requires the practitioner to observe the child, children or area over a matter of time. It can be used to monitor behaviour, social interactions and dynamics within groups, language skills, and usage of areas of provision.

Time sampling observations can be completed using written descriptions or pre-coded criteria. The practitioner should remain objective when completing the observation and a variety of staff should complete similar observations to ensure reliability. It is also important for the practitioner to be aware of their involvement and the affect this may have on the child or children being observed.

This type of observation is very adaptable and can be changed to suit the individual setting. It is a quick method for recording information. It can be used for individuals and groups. There is no requirement for a background knowledge of the child.

Time sampling observations do have some disadvantages. They provide information which can be time consuming to analyse. This type of observation may need to take place over a long period of time. There is a possibility that something significant may be missed if it does not happen within the observation time scale.


Another method of observing is tracking. Tracking can be used to record a child’s movements within the setting as well as the time they spend on a particular activity. It is an appropriate method of highlighting the areas of provision a child has a preference for along with the way in which the area is used.

Prior to the observation taking place the practitioner should complete a plan of the area and consider how they will record the movements of the child. A code may be used to aid with this. Times may be recorded if required. If it is necessary to record skills this can be done separately.

Tracking is advantageous as it can be used in any area of the setting, both indoors and outdoors. It supports the foundation phase curriculum which requires the usage of the outdoors as part of the child’s learning and involves less structured, more independent play. It can indicate more popular areas and provisions which allows the practitioner to see the preferences of the child and gives them the opportunity to adapt their planning to suit the child’s needs. It can also indicate the attention span of a particular child.

Tracking can become quite difficult if the practitioner has to track more than one child at a time. The plan may become untidy and hard to follow if the child visits lots of areas. Tracking is not particularly informative for outside professionals. A detailed description of the child’s movements may not be recorded and information can be limited.


Sociograms focus on social development. It shows how the child interacts with other children and adults and can demonstrate their popularity. Social observations can quickly show the social development of children. This information can be used by the practitioner to plan activities and experiences to further develop the child’s social development. Sociograms, however, do not describe the reasons why something has happened. They only detail what has happened.

Event Sampling

Event sampling is used to observe when an event has taken place. This type of observation can be used to record a child’s behavioural or emotional development. It can record any event and includes information detailing how and why the event has occurred. This type of observation can help the practitioner to analyse the cause and effect of certain relationships. The data collected may be produced as a chart making it easier for the practitioner to analyse.

Event sampling is not suitable for observing infrequent behaviour and only records the specific behaviour as detailed in the aim of the observation. The recorded data may be misinterpreted as the observation may not record any preceding behaviours. Event sampling can be used within an early years setting as it is adaptable and it provides evidence of a particular behaviour.

Pie / bar charts

Pie or bar charts can be used to give a visual representation of information recorded by the practitioner. It is an effective method to use with both individual children and groups and makes data easy to read. This type of observation is suitable for early years settings as it is very adaptable and can be used to record information such as: areas of provision used by girls or boys both indoors and outdoors (highlighting children’s preferences), which children participate in a particular activity (e.g. physical), or what children eat during snack time. This information can then inform a setting’s planning to make it more suitable to the children.

Pie or bar charts do not indicate why a particular event has taken place, only that it has happened. They may require a longer set up period than other types of observations and data may be more difficult to interpret.


Histograms can be used to plot the development of a child over a given period of time. The information gathered is detailed on a bar graph where each type of activity is shown in a continuous fashion. Histograms allow the practitioner to focus on a particular behaviour over a longer period of time. As with sociograms and pie / bar charts, histograms show that a particular behaviour has occurred but does not give the reason why it has happened.

Other types of observation may require slightly different formats. Samples of work are sometimes included for assessment purposes. Photographic and video observations are an effective way of documenting the child’s learning process. Photographs should always be annotated or cross-referenced to relevant written observations. Practitioners should request written parental permission for using photography and video devices to record and document children’s learning.

Section 2 : Background to the individual child.

The child is 2 years and 3 months old. She has attended the setting since the beginning of September 2012. She attends 5 morning sessions per week for 2.5 hours each session. She has 1 sibling which is 3 months old. The child’s mum has informed staff that since the arrival of the new baby the child’s behaviour has become much worse than it was previously. The child has exhibited such behaviour as biting, kicking, hitting, pushing, and screaming when she is at home and also outside. This behaviour is displayed when the child does not get what she wants.

The child lives on a council owned estate which is within a Communities First area. Communities First is a community focused programme that supports the Welsh Government’s Tackling Poverty agenda. It supports the most disadvantaged people in the most deprived areas with the aim of contributing to alleviating persistent poverty. Communities First works alongside other programmes with an aim of narrowing the education/skills, economic and health gaps between the most deprived and more affluent areas. (http://wales.gov.uk)

The area has also been highlighted as a Flying Start area. Flying Start is the Welsh Government targeted Early Years programme for families with children under 4 years of age in some of the most deprived areas of Wales. The core elements of the programme are drawn from a range of options that have been shown to influence positive outcomes for children and their families. These include free quality part-time childcare for 2-3 year olds, an enhanced health visiting service, access to parenting programmes, and early language development. (http://wales.gov.uk)

The child’s place at the setting is fully funded by the Flying Start Programme. The child’s mum does not work and is at home with the children during the day. The child’s dad works full time during the week and spends evenings and weekends at home. The child’s mum has informed staff at the setting that the child has many cousins. The child sees them on a regular basis. The child is not able to share or take turns with other members of her family and frequently exhibits the inappropriate behaviour mentioned above.

Section 3 – Evidence of 3 observations using different techniques.

Appendix 1 – evidence of a free description observation.

Appendix 2 – evidence of a time sample observation.

Appendix 3 – evidence of an event sample observation.

Analysis of the child’s learning and developing needs.

Child A’s mum informed staff at the setting that she does not share or take turns and exhibits inappropriate behaviour when she does not get what she wants. Mum has noticed that Child A’s behaviour has worsened since the arrival of their new baby.

As Dowling (2005, p.105) states, ‘we expect a child to show mixed behaviour when faced with the excitement, but also the threat of a new baby in the family.’

The free description observation highlighted the behaviour of Child A when she was placed in a position of taking turns and sharing a toy. Child A was observed snatching a doll from child B whilst playing in the home corner of the setting. When Child C tried to push the pushchair which was being played with by Child A, Child A began to scream and pinched Child C on the face.

Following a discussion with a practitioner within the setting Child A apologised to the affected parties however, Child A was then observed a short time later displaying the same behaviour.

As Dowling suggests children aged 2 – 2.5 years old are still developing their sharing and turn taking skills. They need to be encouraged and given opportunities to practice these skills through carefully planned activities.

Child A is not able to share or take turns. She does not communicate appropriately with her peers when she wants to play with something. She is not able to wait until the other child has finished playing with the item before taking it. Child A is able to apologise when supported by a practitioner.

The time sampling observation was carried out 1 week after the free description observation. Child A displayed similar behaviour during this observation as they did during the free description observation. Child B was playing with a plastic box in the maths area. Child A had attempted to take the box from Child B and when she was not given the box Child A hit and pinched the arm of Child B. Child A looked around the setting and made eye contact with one of the assistants. Child A lowered her head and looked at the floor. After the practitioner spoke to Child A she apologised to Child B. With help from the practitioner Child A collected a sand timer and waited until the sand had finished running into the other side. Child A was prompted to ask Child B if she could have her turn with the box. Both children complied with the practitioner’s requests and received praise. Child A smiled and took the box to the carpet area where she had her turn to play with it.

As Sharman, Cross and Venice (2000, p.130) states ‘the developmental milestones indicate that a child aged 2 – 2.5 years is egocentric. They see the world from their point of view. They are not able to share and will hold onto things with determination.’

Child A is not able to take turns. She is not prepared to wait for her turn. Child A exhibits inappropriate behaviour when she is not given what she wants when she wants it. Child A is able to apologise when supported by a practitioner. She is also able to wait for her turn when supported by a practitioner and a visual timing device which in this case was a sand timer.

The third observation was an event sampling observation. This was carried out 2 weeks after the initial free description observation. The observation recorded the behaviour and social interactions of Child A during a morning session. Child A displayed inappropriate behaviour at several times during the day and in several areas of the classroom. She took what she wanted without asking and screamed when a child tried to take an item back or when they tried to take something that she was already playing with. Child A did not speak very much to the other children or to the practitioners in the setting. She apologised when prompted to do so by a practitioner. Child A was not always responsible for the incidents that took place.

As Dowling (2005, p.108) says ‘before children start to regulate their behaviour they must begin to learn about cause and effect’. ‘Children need to be able to empathise – to understand how others feel.’

Recommendations to inform future practice.

The first observation which was a free description concluded that Child A was not able to share. Child A showed very little understanding of this concept. She exhibited inappropriate behaviour to her peers when presented with a ‘sharing’ situation.

It is important for practitioners to understand how frustrating it can be for young children to share and to understand the concepts. The ability to share is developed over a period of time. Young children find it difficult to understand how others feel as they are not yet able to empathise.

Having more than one type of toy can be beneficial for young children as it gives them an opportunity to play in parallel with the same type of provision. Where possible, more than one of each provision should be made available to the children in each area of the setting.

As Fisher (1993, p.29) states ‘appropriately resourced and supported, child-initiated activity can bring about some of the most creative and innovative learning in the classroom”

Planning activities which encourage turn taking will allow the child to practice this skill and would also allow them to begin to realise that they will have their own opportunity to play with a particular item.

The second observation, time sampling, concluded that Child A cannot communicate her needs appropriately. Child A has not yet learnt to ask for what she wants. Instead she exhibits inappropriate behaviour such as pinching. Child A is able to apologise to the affected party when prompted to do so by one of the practitioners. She is also willing to wait for her turn when supported by a practitioner and a visual aid demonstrating a set amount of time – a sand timer.

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Encouraging Child A to ask for a particular item and rewarding her with praise when she does will reinforce to the child that it is appropriate behaviour. Skinner suggests that reinforcement of a particular behaviour will prompt a repeat of the same behaviour at a later time. Sharman, Cross and Vennis (2007, p.11) state, ‘children need adults to notice their achievements and provide an environment to support their further development.’

Games such as dominoes or snap cards will strengthen and support turn taking skills. Other activities which encourage turn taking will allow the child to decide when they have finished playing with a piece of equipment. Some children may be happy to give the item to someone else when they feel they have finished using it.

The third observation, time sampling, recorded some similar behaviours as the previous observations. Child A was not able to take turns when using the pencils. It also provided evidence that Child A is able to carry out some instructions such as tidying up. Child A was following an instruction and putting the cars away. She snatched one from another child to put it in the appropriate box. Child A was not able to ask for the car and just took it. Child A was also not able to share the parachute and she screamed when another child tried to hold it.

Where a child is not able to take turns, the practitioner should support them by explaining why they should take turns and will use an item to display a set amount of time, for example, a sand timer. Whilst a child waits for their turn the practitioner should support them by suggesting an activity to do. The practitioner will give the child simple choices to allow them to choose an item, game or activity for themselves and this will allow them to feel that they have made their own choice.

Reflect on your role in the observational process.

Through observations the practitioner is able to learn what the children know, evaluate their needs and plan appropriately to facilitate their learning. Staff training is an integral part of the setting’s self-evaluation process and allows the practitioner to consider the importance of observing children and developing the necessary skills. The practitioner will organise an allocated observation time and is more aware of the need for incidental observations.

The practitioner has a better understanding of the importance of gathering information from a range of contexts, both inside and outside the setting. Observations should be a constant source of vital information concerning both the children’s and the setting’s development. They should form a fair, rounded and holistic record over a period of time. The practitioner will address their observations during the setting’s weekly planning meeting and will share information between practitioners.

The practitioner further understands the need for the effective implementation of observations and their impact on the future planning of the setting to facilitate the learning needs of all the children.

As Fisher (2000. P.19) says, ‘ensure that the planned curriculum is appropriate. This leads to planning that is tailor-made for each child because the foundations of learning are unique.

The evaluation of the setting which involves all staff helps to ensure that the learning environment supports children in initiating their own learning. The practitioner is fully aware that observations must be fed into the assessment process for individual children. Parents will be further encouraged to contribute to observations through informal and formal discussions with the practitioner. Proformas will be used to ensure consistency of information within each type of observation. Photographic evidence will be annotated to support observations to document the children’s learning.

Sharman, Cross and Vennis (2007, p.2) cites the work of CACHE (2005) who states that ‘play workers exist to support children’s natural play and they do this by creating spaces where play can happen. Then they unobtrusively observe, intervene very occasionally, and then reflect on what they have seen and done.’


Appendix 1

Observation 1 : Free Description / Narrative.

Date : 23rd October 2012

Time Commenced : 09:40 Time Completed : 09:45

Number of Children : 3 Area : Ty Bach Twt

Name of Child : Child A Age : 2yrs 3mths

Aim : To observe the behaviour of Child A during ‘free play’.

Objectives : To observe and record Child A’s ability to share.

Child A is playing in the home corner of the setting with 2 other children. Child A snatches a doll from Child B. Child B does not attempt to take the doll back. Child A puts the doll in a pushchair. Child C takes hold of the handles of the pushchair and tries to push it. Child A begins to scream and grabs the handles of the pushchair. Child A pulls the pushchair away from Child C. Child C keeps hold of the pushchair. Child A keeps one hand on the pushchair and uses the other hand to pinch Child C on the face. A practitioner intervenes at this point. The practitioner speaks to Child A.

‘Don’t do that. It isn’t nice. You mustn’t pinch. It hurts. Child B was playing with the doll. Can you give the doll back to child B please. Would you like to play with this doll instead?’

Child A lowers her head. The practitioner asks Child A to look at her. Child A does not respond. The practitioner asks Child A to look at her again. Child A makes eye contact with the practitioner.

P-‘Can you give the doll back to Child B please. You can play with this doll if you want to’.

Child A gives the doll back to Child B.

P-‘Can you say sorry to Child B for snatching the doll?’ Child A ‘Sorry’. P-‘Da iawn Child A.’

You can have a turn of that doll when Child B has finished playing with it.

P-‘Child C wants to play with the pushchair with you. He is your friend. You will make Child C sad if you pinch him. Can you say sorry to Child C please for pinching him.’

Child A ‘Sorry’.

P-‘Da iawn. Merch dda. Can you push the baby together? That’s a nice thing to do. Mae’n neis i rannu.’

Child A nods. Child A and Child C push the pushchair across the room. Child A grabs Child C’s hands and pinches them. Child C lets go of the pushchair and Child A runs across the room with it. The same practitioner intervenes.

Conclusion : Child A wanted to play with a doll that was being played with by Child B. Child A snatched the doll from Child B and did not ask if she could play with it. When Child C attempted to use the pushchair that Child A was playing with, Child A screamed and pinched Child C on the face. Later, Child A agreed to allow Child C to push the pushchair with her, but after a very short period of time Child A pinched Child C’s hands. Child A ran across the room with the pushchair when Child C let go of it.

Evaluation : Child A is not able to share or take turns. She does not communicate appropriately with her peers when she wants to play with something. She is not able to wait until the other child has finished playing with the item before taking it. Child A is able to apologise when supported by a practitioner.

Recommendations :

Give opportunities to practice sharing and turn taking skills through carefully planned activities.

Encourage the child to share and remind them that it is nice to share with their friends.

Give immediate praise when child shares or takes turns.

Appendix 2

Observation 2 : Time Sampling.

Date : 2nd November 2012

Time Commenced : 10:20 Time Completed : 10:27

Number of Children : 2 Area : Maths Area

Name of Child : Child A Age : 2yrs 3mths

Aim : To observe a target child interacting with a child of similar age whilst playing in the maths area.

Objectives : To observe and record Child A’s social interactions.

Child A has just entered the maths area and looks at the jigsaw puzzles on the table. Child A approaches the table and starts to take the pieces out of the jigsaw. Another child is already playing in the area. Child B takes a plastic box from a shelving unit and begins to shake it. Child A looks at Child B and the box. Child A approaches Child B and attempts to take the box from her. Child B does not allow Child A to take the box. Child A hits Child B on the arm then pinches it. Child B starts to cry. Child B continues to hold the plastic box. Child A looks around the setting and makes eye contact with a practitioner. Child A lowers her head and looks at the floor. Child A lets go of the plastic box. The practitioner walks over to Child A and kneels down. The practitioner asks Child A to look at her. Child A does not respond. The practitioner again asks Child A to look at her.


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