That one stuck with me. Those are the words of Dr. Stella Louis, who has built a career on understanding play, and understanding how we can use observations to better understand the meaning behind children’s behaviour.
Stella is an early years consultant, trainer and author who works with nursery settings, charities and local authorities across the UK. She’s worked as a nursery worker and a researcher — that is to say, she comes to this conversation with a wide and detailed understanding of children’s learning and development. Her work is particularly focused on the importance of observations, and how we can use them to improve our daily practice.
At this year’s Nursery World Show, Stella and I had a conversation about what’s going on with observations in the Early Years sector right now, and how we can learn to use them to better support children.
You can check out snippets from the interview and read key takeaways below, or scroll to the bottom of the page to watch the full 15 minute interview.
Observations are critical for the Early Years sector. They’re a major tool for understanding children’s development — they show us how children are learning, and what we need to focus on. But according to Stella, the Early Years sector is diluting their use of observations.
Stella believes too many practitioners match their observations to fit curriculum goals, which makes them more of a superficial checklist, with less focus on children’s individual growth.
Observations should be a responsive tool, not just filling out a log book. When you’re watching children, you need to be curious and reflective — why might a child be doing what they’re doing? What’s their goal? Practitioners need to condition themselves to see the meaning in behaviours they might think are innocuous.
This is where a better understanding of child development comes into play. Stella believes practitioners, especially those new to the sector, need more resources to help them understand how to make meaningful observations. If you can’t tell what a child is doing or you think their actions are not important, that’s not the child’s fault, she says.
In the full interview below (from around the 3:45 mark), Stella explains why she thinks Development Matters is useful, but why it’s also important practitioners don’t rely on it alone.
It’s outcome-based, not process-based, she says — it incentivises practitioners to look for how children’s behaviours match an existing rubric, rather than understanding the children on their own terms. She believes we should take a less linear approach to growth, swapping out “school readiness” for her preferred term, “intellectual readiness”.
Practitioners will always have commitments to curriculum, but we can work to make that relationship better. A first step, Stella says, is focusing more on educating new practitioners about child development. She believes Development Matters should give practitioners more resources to study and learn about child development, so they have a stronger knowledge base for supporting the children in their care. That, she says, trumps a national interest in meeting curriculum goals.
So how do we help practitioners understand the deep nature of child observations?
A good start is recognising that observations aren’t a one-size-fits-all affair — different folks, different strokes, as Stella says. She believes the sector can be more proactive in helping practitioners come together to share knowledge and pool resources, so new practitioners can get a deeper understanding of child development and behaviour.
Practitioners already know their children so well — the next step is giving them the resources to record what they’re seeing, and recognising important behaviours. In other words, Stella says, better observations need a better knowledge base. We need Early Years practitioners to read, learn and study to better understand how children learn and develop.
If we’re looking for a specific place to start rethinking observations, Stella recommends play.
Play is a huge part of children’s growth — it’s how they learn about themselves, their friends and relationships, and the world around them. She points to Tina Bruce’s Features of Play to help us understand the structure and value of play in children’s worlds.
Knowing those features, Stella says, helps us know what to look for as we make observations. If you don’t see certain features in play, maybe you need to help out, to offer structure and encouragement. This models stronger observations — reading children’s behaviour on their terms, and using it to inform our response as teachers and practitioners.
At 13:45 in the full interview below, you can hear why the work of German pedagogue Friedrich Froebel has been one of Stella’s strongest inspirations. Froebel was one of the first prominent voices to advocate for children’s unique needs and capabilities, and helped model a more individually-focused approach toward early education.
For Stella, Froebelian pedagogy has been an influence on her work for decades, helping shape her approach to educational policy and practice. And Froebel’s principles are particularly relevant in the context of observations, she says. It’s about meeting children where they’re at, and connecting with what they know.
Here’s the full interview with Stella Louis, where she and I discuss:
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.