Category Archives: Observation

Inspiring Curiosity and Wonder

Each purple link in this post will take you to an ECE blogger 
that has inspired me in some way. Check the blog roll on
the left for more inspiration.

Young children are fascinated with anything that stimulates their senses. Consider the newborn that is drawn to human faces and the sound of Mommy’s voice, or the toddler who delights in blowing and chasing bubbles, and the preschooler who can’t get enough of GAK or OOBLEK. These experiences not only delight multiple senses, they inspire curiosity and wonder.

Childhood should be filled with the kinds of experience that engage the senses and challenge children to expand their thinking. Musings such as “I wonder what will happen if…” should be a mantra in any early childhood setting. To observe a child and see the concentration on his face, or the deliberateness in his hand movements is utterly fascinating. As an adult, watching this exploration from the outside makes me wonder what this child is thinking and what is motivating him. I wonder about what this child is wondering about.

Will he figure out how to make the mobile move?

Will she discover how to make a bubble land on her hand without popping?

Will he find a way to re-create the sound of crashing blocks using the musical instruments?

Then of course, my thoughts turn to how I can support this exploration.

  • What other materials can I provide to encourage the process of discovery?
  • What provocations can I set up to continue to spark this child’s curiosity and wonder?
  • How can I engage this child, either through an experience or a conversation, to learn more about what she is thinking or what motivates her?
  • How can I support the process of discovery without taking over, gently finding just the right words or interactions to extend the learning?

I am constantly fascinated by the depth of a child’s thinking and understanding. While their language skills and vocabulary may not provide a means of expression, their actions certainly do. This takes me back to the look of concentration, the focus of their attention, or the engagement of their hands.

When I visit a program where the teachers share this fascination, it’s obvious. The wonder and curiosity of the teachers, about the children, is so clearly evident in the layout of the environment, or the documentation that is displayed. How a teacher or caregiver sets up an invitation for play and learning is directly related to the value that caregiver places on capturing the hearts and minds of the children in their care.

I shared my excitement in a previous post about how fascinating it is to watch teachers truly engage with young children. I so truly enjoy watching teachers have conversations with children. I love to see their descriptions of various experiences through photos and written documentation. It’s especially gratifying for me to see (hear) the teachers voice in the documentation, opening the door to what makes that teacher wonder about the children.  To see the reflections of the teachers, and of the children is so delightful. Margie Carter and Deb Curtis from Harvesting Resources have written great articles and books about this kind of reflective practice that engages curiosity and wonder in teachers.

Sometimes, I don’t have the opportunity to be in a program with a caregiver to see all of the engaging experiences that take place, but I get to live it second hand when these caregivers share stories during a workshop with me. I live for the opportunity to talk with caregivers about what inspires them, what creates that sense of curiosity and wonder within them, and what they can do to continue to engage and inspire the children in their care. So a shout out to all my teacher friends who have allowed me the opportunity to question and challenge them about why they do what they do. The questions aren’t always easy, and they don’t always lead to answers, but the process is invigorating for me. I hope it is for them too!

So tell me what inspires you? What creates a sense of curiosity and wonder in your work with young children? I’d love to hear your ideas!

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Re-thinking teacher development

I just started teaching Child Growth and Development at the local community college, and most of my students have indicated that they intend to some day work with children, in some capacity. The first few classes have been quite interesting for me, as I try to get know my students. Many do not yet have hands-on experience with young children, some have children of their own. Child development theories and research are new to ALL of them. And this is a required class for any person pursuing work with young children in any capacity.

As I’ve reviewed our text to prepare for class, I’ve tried to find ways to make the technical and sometimes jargon filled content more relatable and tangible. What I’m finding so fascinating is that as an experienced educator, I can easily identify caregiving practices that are linked to specific development theories. But for my students, who have little or no work experience with children, that connection is irrelevant. Not only is there a lack of application of course content in their day to day lives, there is a lack of connection to the importance of understanding child development and why it is a critical element for successful teaching and caregiving.

In my role as trainer and consultant, I am constantly reading books and articles related to child development and best practices. I still find new research and its application fascinating. I believe in the importance of lifelong learning, but I meet many teachers who believe that they have a degree, and that’s good enough.

For some time, I have been concerned about the general lack of understanding of child development that I see in many teachers, new and experienced. Expectations of children are not aligned with DAP or any type of developmental continuum. In these classrooms, I see kindergarten skills being practiced in a 3-year old classroom. When I ask a teacher how she chose a specific activity, or what resource she used, the answer is often “I’ve always done this.”

This brings me back to my challenge with my community college students. If there is no pertinent reference point for understanding child development in a practical way, then everything I teach this year will become stuff to learn for the test, rather than stuff to learn for success as a caregiver. The child development information from this course will soon be tossed aside at the start of a new semester and new classes. The textbooks will either be sold back to the bookstore, or will gather dust on the shelf.

I have to admit, when I was in college, I memorized the developmental theories for the test, and never looked at that information again. Until I needed it for real life work with children.

Now, I wonder if our teacher education system is set up backwards. If understanding child development and developmental theories are crucial to understanding and implementing best practices, shouldn’t we wait and teach this information when our students have some hands-on experience working with children?

Shouldn’t we focus on training potential teachers on communication skills, how to have a conversation with a child, and how to ask open ended questions to extend learning?

Shouldn’t we focus on relationship building skills, so teachers know how to observe children to build relationships, and how to create partnerships with parents, and how to work as a professional in collaboration with other colleagues?

Shouldn’t we focus on training potential teachers on how to observe in a functional way rather than in a clinical way? If our only experience with observation is to sit on the side of the room while in someone else’s classroom or caregiving setting, with no interaction with children, we never learn the skills of observing and documenting while engaging in play with children.

If we want teachers to focus on learning through play, shouldn’t we include understanding the fundamentals of play in our pre-service coursework? Shouldn’t we give new teachers the tools to explain all of the learning that happens when children are playing so they are not constantly battling the play vs. academics challenge? And shouldn’t we encourage new teachers to personally engage in play?

Shouldn’t we focus on understanding what responsive caregiving is, what it looks like, and how it benefits children? This includes the power of differentiated instruction.

These are skills that all education professionals need to be successful, but so many pre-service training programs do not include them in their coursework. If we understand how to BE with children and how to build relationships with children, then the child development theories will start to make more sense. Then we can actually apply child development theories to support children’s play and learning.

New teachers and caregivers spend so much of their time figuring out how to make it through the day because we haven’t given them the skills to communicate and build relationships. So of course, the child development information gets tossed out the window.

Maybe it’s time to re-think teacher development, and focus on the power of play and the power of relationships, so we can start to recognize the importance of and value of understanding child development.

What Kind of Observer are You?

I had the opportunity to visit St. John’s Episcopal Preschool  in Washington, D.C. St. John’s program  is inspired by the philosophy of the preschools in Reggio Emilia, Italy. And inspired it is! When my good friend and colleague, DJ Jensen asked what I liked best about the program, I said “observing the teachers.”

I visit childcare centers and preschools several times a week, with an opportunity to observe teachers, their environments, and their interactions with young children. During my visit to St. John’s was the first time that I truly witnessed what I’ve been describing for all these years. Usually, what I see teachers doing is more of a “lifeguard” style of observing. Teachers scan the room frequently to make sure that everyone is safe. They look around to see where everyone is playing and with whom, but it rarely goes any deeper than that. Teachers capture the surface details of what’s going on, but typically miss the heart of what is happening.

Typically, when I ask teachers to review their observation notes and share one thing they learned, most teachers will tell me that their notes did not reveal anything of value. We tend to train teachers to observe in a clinical sense, removing them from the action and reporting the facts, just the facts. While there is value in that kind of observation for specific purposes, in general, this type of observing does not truly support observing to build relationships with children.

The teachers at St. John’s were actively engaged with the children during their play. They sat at the tables and on the floor and talked with the children. They asked questions, and they waited for responses. They showed a genuine interest in what each child was doing. While they engaged with the children, they took notes on what they saw and heard. They took notes on their conversations. Those notes sometimes made it into a documentation panel, which shows a period of extended exploration and learning. The documentation panels highlighted explorations and discoveries of the group as well as from individual children. Successes and failures were documented, with quotes and questions from both the teachers and children.

One thing I noted from the visit to St. John’s was the amount of TIME the teachers devoted to exploration and discovery. While these classrooms were busy, they lacked the frenetic pacing that so often occurs in many preschool classrooms. There were few transitions, which allowed for much more time for play, and the chance to explore everything in more depth. There was no pressure to “get things done,” as is so often the case in many programs.

When we can take the TIME to slow down and BE with children, we have the opportunity to rediscover the joy of being 2 or 3 or 4. When we slow down and BE with children, we can rediscover the reasons many of us became teachers in the first place. When we slow down to BE with children, we can learn:

  • What inspires curiosity and wonder in the child
  • What motivates the child and keeps him engaged
  • How does the child think and problem solve
  • Who is this child as a learner
  • What makes this child happy and joyful

This is the kind of observation that every child deserves.