Why Observe Children at Play?

My days seem so much longer during these weeks of social distancing. How about you? Without the regular commitments that keep us on the run and all the people home all the time, days seem to go on and on and on.

But while being home together, some of this ‘extra’ time we’ve been given can be used to practice our observation skills.

 

Educators use observation in classrooms to better understand how their students learn.  Observation helps them tailor the learning environment to each individual child. What they observe helps them better meet the needs of each of their students.

The Benefits of Observation

But observation is not just for teachers.  Parents can also see benefits from observing their children at play.  By watching, without influencing or interfering, we can gain insight into the connection between our children’s motives and behaviors.  Understanding what is triggering a behavior can help us help them navigate their reactions and feelings. 

In a recent article on being home for extended time with preschoolers, Teacher Tom encourages, “Instead of feeling like you need to fill their days with “enrichment,” I urge you to instead simply observe them at play: no “good jobs,” no unsolicited advice, no using the moment to answer email or check social media. Ask yourself, what are they teaching themselves right now? What theories stand behind their play? What are the driving questions they are trying to answer? I like to think of it as listening with all of my senses, with my full self. What will you do with the data you collect? Nothing. Be satisfied that you now know it. Better understanding our loved ones is an end unto itself.”

That is really the key: observation leads to better understanding.  Ready to spend a little time observing? Here are some tips for observing children at play.

Choose a time when your child is playing independently.  Sit where you are not a distraction and avoid calling attention to yourself.  Have a notebook and pen handy in case you want to write down your observations.  If your child tries to engage you in their activity, reassure them that you are nearby, but are busy doing your work.  

Observe what your child has chosen to play with.  What do they choose?  Do they use a single toy for long periods of time, or move about the room playing briefly with many different toys? How do they play with them? Do they invent new ways to use their toys, or use them the same way each time

Observe their interactions with others.  If you have other children in the home, how do they interact with others? What role do they take within the group? Do they initiate play or wait to be invited? What types of activities do they enjoy with others?  What do they enjoy doing alone? Do they look for your direction and attention? How do they ask for help? 

Observe their use of language. How do they use language?  Are they easy to understand? Do they make their wishes known verbally?  Are there other ways they express their needs? If you observe multiple times over the course of a week, do you see patterns of behavior?  Are there clues that lead up to a meltdown or a tantrum?   

Observe how they move. How much do they climb, run, skip, and jump?  Are they confident or hesitant in their movements? How is their balance? What physical activities do they enjoy? Does physical exertion change their mood?

Using what you observe

Teachers use the things they learn through observation to structure classroom experiences for individualized learning.  As parents we can use our observations just to know and understand our kids a little bit better, as Teacher Tom suggests.

But we can also use what we learn by being intentional about observation to adjust our parenting. Do you notice that meltdowns happen just before 11:00 each morning?

Would offering a snack and a change of scenery at 10:30 help ease them through this time of day?

 

My 6th grader was struggling with middle school last Fall.  So many classrooms and teachers, lots of responsibility for getting herself and her things where they need to be when they need to be there.  By observing when she struggled the most, I deduced that she was overwhelmed with the responsibility of all those choices. So we pulled back a bit on the independence and took away some of her choices. You could almost hear an audible sigh of relief. 

Some of what we observe confirms what we already know about our kids.  But some will provide new insights and maybe even an ‘ah ha’. When we take a step back, and spend some time observing our children we give ourselves the gift of intentional time spent understanding them better.

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own.  You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.