Teaching and learning

How to write better early years observations

The Importance of Observation in Early Childhood Education
A cartoon image of an early years educator dancing amongst observations
August 15, 2018
Reading time:
a light bulb with the letter p inside it

a black and white image of two hearts

famly icon - piggy bank

a black and white image of two houses



a black and white image of a bunny and a bottle


a black and white heart icon

With Famly since

In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.

  • Observations in early education are an incredibly powerful tool to help you understand a child and their learning journey – but they shouldn’t just be a paperwork hassle.
  • It is recommended to take a less-is-more attitude and focus on fewer, but more insightful observations
  • We’ll explain what a great observation looks like and how best to use them. We’ve also got some great tips to help educators understand how to make their observations more impactful.

Observations support educators in sharing information about a child's development with parents and carers, underpinning that all-important partnership between educators and parents.

So what makes a great observation?

Let's get into it.

What can you learn from observing children?

In essence, it’s all about understanding the children in your setting, including how they’re developing, what they've been up to, and what they're learning through their play. But observations also

  • Provide a space to record and celebrate children's achievements and interests
  • Help you improve and develop your center for the children in it, informing planning, and staff training. A good observation enables educators to see how children are processing through the areas of learning and development
  • Allow parents to understand the progress their child is making, including how they might improve the home learning environment.
  • Are one type of formative assessment that feeds into the summative assessments you might make later on.

An early years child using scissors to cut paper at their nursery

How to assess children's progress in early education?

Although your center may have its own guidance for how you should write observations, these tips provide some general, good practice advice.

1. A rich description

An observation should be descriptive. It doesn’t need to be a novel, but it should tell the full story of the interaction. Take this example from Dr. Julian Grenier’s piece on observations in Nursery World:

"Clive said to Jason, ‘Jump!’ Jason jumped and landed in the puddle. ‘I do it,’ said Clive, and he had a turn but missed the puddle. Jason said, ‘Oh no, Clive, you have to do it like this.’ He jumped again. ‘You look at the puddle and jump on it.’ Clive said, ‘OK, Jason.’ He got on the step and had another go.

‘Look at the puddle, Clive. Ready, jump!’ said Jason. This time Clive landed in the puddle. He laughed."

It's short but descriptive and tells you the story of the interaction. You can clearly see the value here over ‘Clive loved jumping in the puddle’, for example.

The use of quotes is a great way to show the child’s own voice very clearly.

Reflection point: In your latest observations...

  • Can you hear the child’s voice?
  • Do you get a feel for the child’s play?

2. What should you include?

Elsewhere, Dr. Grenier has talked about focusing on some key things in your observation:

  • Focus on the length of time that the child was engaged in the activity.
  • Write exactly what they were doing, with details about resources and words they used.
  • Ask yourself, what does that mean for the child’s learning?

Reflection point: In your latest observations...

  • Do you get a feel for some progress in a child’s learning?
  • Or does it explain where they might need further support?

3. Interpreting what you're seeing

A skilled educator who knows the children well, will be able to interpret what is going on as children learn and play. This adds a rich layer of detail to your observations.

This might be recognising certain skills emerging in the child, it might be noticing a schema that the child is displaying an interest in, or you might be explaining the thinking behind their actions.

Reflection point: In your latest observations...

  • Is it clear why you chose to record the observation? What learning took place? Why was that moment or experience special?
  • Can it be understood why this activity or developmental event was relevant to this unique child and their progress or interests?

An early years educator supports two preschoolers with a painting and mark-making activity

4. Include what you did too

It's important to note how you interacted with the child during the event you're observing to show how you're helping to scaffold that child’s play and learning.

Reflection point: In your latest observations...

  • Have you noted how you extended the learning opportunity?
  • Have you recorded the open-ended questions you asked?

Free guide

How to navigate the EYFS

Download now
a purple background with the words tips and tricks to navigate the eyfs

Ideas to improve your observations in the early years

Let’s look at some ideas to boost your educators' confidence and help deliver better-written observations.

1. Give staff the time to record their observations

All these ideas are useless if you can’t give staff the time they need.

Some educators may prefer to have time away from the children to write their observations, so that when they are with the children, they are fully present and engaged. Others may prefer to write observations while they are with the children.

There is no right or wrong way, but instead, it is whatever enables the educator to write the most insightful and useful observation. 

2. Observations frameworks

One great framework for educators is to think of ‘What? Why? How?’. It goes like this:

  • What have I observed?
  • Why was it important?
  • How has it improved my knowledge of myself or the child?

This can help staff to focus on everything we talking about in the beginning of the article. The description, the thinking behind the action, and the adult’s role.

‍If ‘‘What? Why? How’ isn’t working for you, here’s a handy little acronym that might do the trick. SHARE stands for:

  • The Spark – What started the moment?
  • What Happened? – Describe the moment, and what went on.
  • The Assessment – What is your assessment of the meaning behind what happened?
  • The Response – What did you do to extend or scaffold the moment?
  • The End Result – What happened after your response?

Two early years children paint with paintbrushes at their nursery

3. Stop requiring a specific amount of observations

No child’s learning was ever helped simply because something was written down. With fewer, but more meaningful observations, it’ll feel much more manageable for staff, and better for the children who get more time back with their teachers.

The big ideas

download pdf
graphical user interface, text, application
Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

Picture of a Guidance document
UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

Get famly free

Try learning journals for free

Add observations, and build digital learning journals to share with families instantly. All with your completely free 14-day trial.

Get started