Tina Tacken, leader of the infant and toddler space at the AUT Childcare Centre, discusses how she balances Magda Gerber’s concept of respectful practice, which trusts in a child’s competence to guide his/her own learning, with the need to develop a rich language environment which builds up children’s early literacy skills.
Why is observation so important?
Observation is part of how we grow our understanding of each child.This is especially important for adults who work with infants and toddlers, as we need to understand a child and what they are communicating in order to best meet their physical and emotional needs. Though careful observation we are able to learn how each child communicates, where they are developmentally, what they are curious or passionate about and how they engage with others, and gain a deeper understanding of why they do what they do.
Observation is also our way of slowing down to see the world as the child does. To take note of moments we might otherwise take for granted, and to see how meaningful they really are for the child. Observations, and subsequent learning stories, are also a way to share this knowledge with parents and whānau, so they too can better understand the wonder of what their child is up to, and to be able to share insights of their own. This enables us to build a shared understanding of this wonderful and unique person.
Observation throughout the day enables us to see and respond quickly to the cues of infants and toddlers who still predominately communicate non-verbally. In this way we see when they are rubbing their eyes to show they are tried, or pointing out a bottle, or crouching down indicating they have done a bowel motion, and we are able to acknowledge what they are expressing and to respond to it. This in turn builds their sense of security and belong at the centre, and their trust in us, that we see them, know them, and will take good care of them.
How and what do you observe?
I like to observe when I can sit in a quiet spot and watch what is unfolding in front of me. If I can, I write as I watch, or record a video of what is happening, so that I can go back and unpack it further away from the moment.
As I observe I try to focus on facts first, looking at what the child is doing, how they are moving, what is happening around them. I then consider what this might mean, trying to be open minded as I do so. I draw on my knowledge of child development, and refer to the goals and learning outcomes described in Te Whāriki to help understand and identify knowledge, skills and dispositions. I consider different aspects of what I see, considering their curiosity, physical development, social skills, cognitive style of thinking, how they currently see the world and how knowledge changes or is confirmed as they explore, and so on.
Most of all I try my best to be present as much as possible, and take regular moments to pause and really see what is happening around me.
How do you interpret what you observe and what do you do as a result of your observations?
I bring my observations and reflections together in my learning stories, which start with drawing the reader into the moment and creating a picture of what happened. I then begin to unpack what I observed, acknowledging and celebrating the skills and knowledge evident in the moment, and linking back to previous stories that show a progression of learning, as well as to Te Whāriki and relevant developmental knowledge. I recognise too that it is impossible to identify every learning moment in a child’s life, as this learning is constant and fluid. Nevertheless, by observing and sharing we are drawing attention to the fact that there is so much learning occurring in what others might dismiss as play.
My observations (both informal and through learning stories) also inform how I engage with each child, as well as how I set up the environment so that it is relevant to them developmentally, as well as being interesting for them. It is through my observations that I know how a child likes to be settled when they are upset, how they like to go to sleep, when they are hungry or tired, where their Zone of Proximal Development is, that is, what they can achieve on their own and what they need help with. Observation is also very useful for understanding moments considered to be developmentally challenging, as I am able to look at why they might be hitting, what is happening around them in the moment, what happened before, and what factors might be impacting them, such as feeling overwhelmed with noise or people, or getting very hungry, or needing some more quality one-on-one time.
How do you incorporate the verbal and non-verbal cues you observe into a rich language environment?
A rich language environment is one that is relevant and engaging for the child. My teaching practice is heavily influenced by Educaring® and the idea of respectful practice with others, especially the idea of working in partnership with others. I try to practise this in all my interactions with children and with my colleagues, to role model the idea of respectful engagements for children. We converse with children in every aspect of their day, inviting their participation both verbally and with actions. Conversations unfold in care moments as we sit around a table during a meal, as we change a nappy together, in the sleep room, and as we play together in the environment. We converse though speaking clearly, and pausing for a response, our gaze engaged, our body language open and inviting, and we listen to what they express, acknowledging what they have said, through their words and actions, and with our own, back and forth until the conversation’s natural ending.
In our centre we have books for children to read, and they will chose their favourites to bring to us to read, and to talk together about the images we see. We sing the songs they love over and over, so they learn the words and sentences with us, as well as the actions they relate to. What is important in this is that the child is choosing what is important, as well as acknowledging the need for repetition for the child to be able to have the time to process and practice their new knowledge. This is supported by research that describes how rhymes and songs help children to grasp the flow of sentences, the tempo of talking, and to link words to visuals, as well as to cement the concept that words have meanings that can be read and repeated.