Practitioner Insights on Observing Children

Project author:

Project summary:

A qualitative study using questionnaires and focus groups to gather practitioner opinion and practice in relation to observing children in the early years setting.

An practitioner observes a child playing with blocks


This project examines practitioner insights on observing children in the setting.  In particular, it focuses on how observations are carried out, and the impact observations have on the children and setting.

It takes into account the various techniques that practitioners use when observing children.  What happens once the observation is complete and how the information gathered about the child is used throughout the setting is examined.

This enquiry matters because observing is a daily part of the practitioner’s role.  My purpose in undertaking this work is to celebrate this fundamental skill recognising the impact on children and practitioners.


Froebel believed that observation was key in supporting the child’s learning.  This is shown as each Froebelian principle is either guided or supported through meaningful observations.  Within the setting observing is a daily part of the nursery routine.  During play experiences you witness practitioners scribbling down a note, pausing to watch a group play or following a child around the setting.  The planned learning experiences revolve around the children’s interests and supporting their development which the practitioners acquire though discussion and observation.  Demonstrating that observation is embedded into the settings culture and ethos.

Despite this, the importance and impact of observations are rarely acknowledged.  It is an expected part of a practitioner’s role which requires training and skill.  The researcher wants to highlight this area so practitioners can be aware of its importance and realise that observing children in an essential aspect of their role.


When considering how to explore observations in the setting the initial idea was to compare different practitioner observations.  However, it was soon realised that it would not give an accurate representation, this was due to the differing methods that practitioners use to record observations.  Therefore, questionnaires and focus groups were used to gain a deeper understanding of how the individual practitioners carried out observations.

When planning the project I believed that it would be both practitioners and children participating.  However, when I considered the timescale of the project as well as ethical considerations surrounding children’s understanding of consent I decided that only practitioners would be involved.  Even though I currently decided against having children as participants within this project it would be interesting to gain their opinions within a future study.  Overall, the study had 17 participants including Teachers, Child Development Officers and Playworkers.

Observation is more than watching, it means listening carefully, being open and wanting to know more.” (Tovey, 2017)

Tovey, H. (2013) Bringing the Froebel Approach to your Early Years Practice, London: Routledge. (p. 112)


Initially, I assumed that all practitioners had the same experience with observations when it came to training.  During the focus group I discovered that this was not the case as the participants discussed how they carry out observations.  It was discovered that from the NNEB qualified to HNC qualified participant observation was included and valued in their training.  They described the different techniques which they were “taught” to observe, these foundations appeared to be reflected in their current observations.  Some practitioners are more likely to record longer detailed observation whereas others would record notes on many children at a time.  At this stage it was agreed that there was no correct way to observe it was what happened next with the information that was gathered.

Reflection is a key component which was evident throughout the participant dialogue.   Without reflection the observation holds little value as it is just notes on what the child is doing at that specific moment in time.  When a practitioner reflects upon an observation it allows the information to be taken forward.  It is reflection that has a true impact on the children as it allows for next steps to be developed.  The development of play experiences that challenge and focus on the children’s interests are also created.

In response to questions the researcher was able to learn that the practitioner’s knowledge of child development is essential when observing.  Participants repeatedly highlighted this in relation to setting up the environment, providing challenge, supporting children to achieve.  Demonstrating that training and awareness of child development is essential to observations.  Another approach that was mentioned was skilful questioning.  Questioning allows the practitioner to explore the child’s knowledge and thinking behind their actions.  A participant described that sometimes it is necessary to revisit the observation with the child to gain their insight to fully understand what was happening.

Although practitioners revisited observations they rarely shared with other practitioners.  Some staff were apprehensive about sharing as they did not want them to be compared and judged.  These fears should hopefully be alleviated through training as confidence builds.   Others discussed timescales as why they rarely share not only due to lack of time but also how quickly children can move interests or develop their skills.   This seemed to only relate to their own group of children as they pass on information to the child’s keyworker if they observed something interesting.


Practitioners in this setting utilise observation skills to ascertain the children’s skills and development.  How observations are recorded varies between practitioners, however, all reflect upon their observations.  The reflection allows practitioners to provide the children relevant, quality experiences to support their development.

The research opened a future development opportunity as practitioners expressed the need for training in observations.   For these practitioners and to upskill others, guidance to relevant reading will be provided. It will also be organised for observations to be carried out alongside a buddy to share different observational techniques and to build confidence in sharing their observations.

Research implications

To be completed

Practitioner enquiry

To be completed

Leadership learning

To be completed

Author and role

To be completed

Comments from other network members

What did you appreciate about this research? What forward-looking questions did it raise for you?

  1. Magdalena Debicka-Krawczyk
    Magdalena Debicka-Krawczyk
    24 May 2022 at 5:52 am

    This project touches on a very important issue for me as a practitioner. Observation without reflection is just a note. Deeper reflection is not possible without relevant knowledge. Thank you very much.

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  2. Michaela McCune
    Michaela McCune
    25 May 2022 at 1:58 pm

    This is a really intersying project. Observation is such an important aspect of our role as educators and I completely agree that, without reflection, observations are simply notes and don’t give us a holistic view of the child. Moderation and having a ‘buddy’ system seems like a very positive way to address staff confidence.

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  3. Fiona Ferguson
    Fiona Ferguson
    25 May 2022 at 3:03 pm

    It’s heartening to see the recognition of how important observation is for educators. Too often this is ignored and educators need to embrace observation as part of getting to know learners holistically and therefore being able to support their learning to meet their individual needs.

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  4. Dyan Spence
    Dyan Spence
    28 May 2022 at 8:39 am

    This is a very insightful, interesting and thought provoking project. We often regard observation as ‘part of the paperwork’ that is expected of staff to record the children’s progress but we forget that it’s actually giving us a picture of the child’s ‘inner self’. This was really interesting reading and has made me think about how we can better the process of observing our young learners. Thank you 😊

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  5. Jacqueline Stewart
    Jacqueline Stewart
    30 May 2022 at 11:58 am

    This was a really interesting read and made me reflect more on our practice. we are planning on some work and training throughout the summer on observations.

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