Observation is the early childhood teacher’s most effective means of assessment. Margaret Cooney

This week I challenged myself to become a better participant observer of the children with whom I work.  Sally Cartwright (1994) writes about the importance of teachers becoming skilled observers; that is, watching and listening, but not necessarily interacting with children while they play.  As I saw during my week long challenge (which I found so rewarding I am making it a daily practice), children’s engagement in sustained, masterful play increases when an adult is close by actively observing.

Children are intelligent.  They know when the play or work they do is an important contribution to their growth and surrounding community.  When we are participant observers of children, we show them that their ideas, their words, their actions are important.  By mid-week of my observation challenge, I wrote about and took pictures of children building zoos, firemen boats, and long train tunnels.  Each of these projects lasted at least 20 minutes and when asked, the children had great detail to share about their thinking behind these intricate creations.  I was grateful for the effect my close observations had on the children’s masterful play and…

Observing children will teach you a great deal, not only about children but about yourself. Margie Carter

During my week of being a participant observer, I understood more clearly Deb Curtis’ (2009) words, “…we could never teach [children] all there is to know about these wonders in the world.”  I am continuing to uncover my role as an observer and facilitator of children’s development.  The masterful play with building materials that I observed this week helped me understand how powerless I am to teach children all they need to know.  If I step in and explain the science of building a taller smoke stack on a firemen boat, then I am interfering with the child’s exploration.  Rather, in my observations I can see into a child’s thought process by allowing them to build and rebuild a tall tower that continues to fall for lack of a sturdy base.

Observing children truly does teach us about the children and ourselves.  One day, I recorded observation notes on children’s fascination with spiders and spider webs.  Excited that they had all shown a keen interest in the same thing, I began planning enrichment opportunities for the next day.  However, in my observations the following day, the children did not notice the spider webs that still graced corners of their outdoor play space.  I pointed to one web and engage a child in conversation about spider homes, but it quickly fizzled.  There interest had peaked my own, but for them it was just a fleeting moment in the week.  Rather than push my own agenda and go forward with spider studies, I had to be patient and continue participating in observation to find in the children’s play an abiding interest.  While I was disappointed to see spiders leave the agenda, I learned how important it is to put our adult agenda’s or assumptions aside to really see the child’s thinking.

This week I truly was observing to learn from the children and my growth as an observer and educator only ignited my desire to continue being a participant observer.


Carter, M. (1997). Observations that make a difference, Childcare Information Exchange, 9, 8-10.

Cartwright, S. (1994) Training teachers to observe: When we really see the child. Exchange, 9, 3-5.

Cooney, M. (1997) Observing children’s play. Childcare Information Exchange, 11, 23-26.

Curtis, D. (2009). Seeing children’s lively minds at work, Exchange, March/April, 24-28.

*see links to some of these references in my Inspiration: Literature & Film page

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