Finding Ways to Extend Observations

During the past week I have discussed a lot about observations. One thing that I have found when talking to educators is that they are not quite sure what to do with their observations once they have made them. Here is a list of ways that I use observations:

1. Complete Developmental Assessments

During an observation, I am completely in tune with a child. I am following his actions, his language, and his social interactions. These aspects of observation can come in handy when completing developmental assessments, and it doesn’t require you to ask a child to try to perform a task out of the context of play or life. We have all heard of, seen, or experienced test anxiety. Asking a child to perform out of context can bring test anxiety to life, but in a classroom that uses observation as a tool, children can experience this anxiety less because we can see the development happening in and throughout the classroom.

2. Develop Learning Projects and Activities

This is where the creativity of the teacher can really shine through. By using the amazing amount of information that has been gathered through observation, teachers can sit down and plan extended learning projects and basic activities to expand children’s knowledge. There are many wonderful resources to help with this, as well. Pinterest is where I get a lot of ideas for the classroom, as well as different educational blogs and sites. The early childhood online community is a treasure trove of ideas, information, and inspiration. Many of the blogs I read are listed in the “What I’m Reading” section on the right.

3. Define an Effective Classroom Environment

The interests and ideas of the children are always changing. Therefore, the environment that they learn in should always be changing as well. I have never viewed classroom design as a static process for this reason.

There are many aspects of the classroom that can be affected by observing children. The first is the overall layout of the classroom. If the furniture arrangement allows for too much high-energy movement, it may be time for a change. Likewise, if an area of the classroom sees a lot of attention but is cluttered and cramped, it may be necessary to either expand the area or move it to a more accessible area of the classroom.

One of the most dynamic aspects of the classroom should be the materials that the children interact with. Providing new materials on a regular basis can allow the children to be continuously exploring their environment because it never grows old. I have read stories of teachers who found curious objects, trays, or items in thrift stores and added them to the classroom environment simply because they were curious about how the children would interact with it.

Maria Montessori maintained that children should be surrounded by materials that are aesthetically pleasing (Lillard, 2007). The reason for this is that children are drawn to them, as most people are to beautiful objects. Different textures, weights, and beautiful colors are calming to a child. Have you ever picked up a “worry stone” at a tourist gift shop? The smooth texture and features of the stone are supposed to have a calming effect to those who use them. One item that I have always loved to hold in my hand is a glass sphere. The smoothness of the sphere, along with the weight of the glass, never fails to trigger a calm in me. Usually I wonder how someone goes about making a glass sphere like that, or wonder about why it is so heavy. If a child’s environment can trigger these kinds of questions, true learning can begin.

The Theory of Concentrated Attention

For the past few weeks, my research has taken me in very unexpected (although not unwelcome) areas. I have been reading a book that has been very enlightening to me, and that I hope to review before my school semester starts. It ties a lot of basic principles together that I have been hard-pressed to try to work out for myself. It has also taken my research into discipline, punishments, rewards, classroom management, and curriculum into new areas which I had not foreseen. Suffice to say that I have been very surprised at how much the book has impacted me, for I had planned for my research to go a very different direction than the one it has taken.

According to this book, the phrase “theory of concentrated attention” was first used by Maria Montessori in 1917. John Dewey also used a version of the phrase: “theory of undivided interest”. Basically this theory pertains to any activity that children engage in independently that holds their interest in such a way that outside distractions do not disturb them for an amount of time that seems impossible for their age.

I have often seen this type of thing happen in my classroom and have marveled at it. I once saw a girl – a two-year-old – take her shoe off and work to put it back on her foot repeatedly for days until she had mastered putting her shoe back on her foot. When she was working with that shoe, nothing would distract her. I recently saw another two-year-old girl working with a lacing card not far from where her friends were playing a pretend game with their baby dolls – a game that she frequently plays with them. It is amazing to see a child enter this state because their demeanor changes; they become calmer, focused, and very in-tune to the task at hand.

Usually when anyone thinks of a two-year-old, they think of a wild child who tears through the room completely full of energy and spark. While this is true, two-year-olds (and other ages as well – I only single them out because I work with this age every day) exhibit an amazing capacity to concentrate on certain activities – as long as those activities are interesting to the child. Our job then, as teachers, is to come up with those activities that will hold the child’s interest and attention.

Very soon I will be doing a post about how curriculum goes hand-in-hand with discipline, but the idea that the activities that we provide need to be ones that hold our children’s interest hits very close to the theme of that topic. When children are engaged in an activity that interests them, they no longer have a need to go tearing around a room or bugging their friends to the point that there is an altercation. They become calmer and more able to work productively with others. It is a winning theory for the classroom.

But another point that I want to make at this time is that sometimes the activity that the child becomes interested in isn’t one that you have provided as a teacher. Concerning the child who worked so long on learning how to put her shoe on: if I, as her teacher, had fussed at her about taking her shoes off, took her shoes from her, and put them back on her feet myself, she never would have learned the skill of putting her shoes on her feet. Teachers need to be sensitive to what children are trying to accomplish on their own and less quick to judge what is right and wrong for a child to do. If we take a step back and observe what children are doing in any given moment, and try to put those actions into an objective developmental perspective rather than a judgmental perspective, we may see that there is more learning going on in “mistaken behaviors” than we may realize. And the reason why our field has chosen to label these behaviors as mistaken is not because the child is mistaken in doing them, but because it is so easy to mistake these behaviors for discipline issues. They usually are, in fact, experimental issues.

Children are like scientists; they constantly want to learn more about the world around them. If they aren’t given engaging activities to do, they will make some up for themselves. These activities could be anything from hitting their friends to find out what will happen, to hitting an object with another object to find out what will happen. To curtail these behaviors, ¬†providing engaging activities and teaching the children how to properly explore with the materials for the activities is a must. It will lead to a much calmer, more focused classroom.

And you may even see the wonder of a child as they are so focused on the activity that you have provided that nothing else in the room matters.

A Word About Motivation in the Classroom

Since recently doing research on past and present studies on child psychology, child development, and the way children learn, I have been extremely interested in what motivates children to learn. Actually, I have been interested in it longer than that; I have watched as children in my own class have seemed bored or listless, fighting over the same toys for lack of anything better to do, and have seemed bored or talkative during circle times.

I have completely changed my approach to each of these areas, making each optional for the children rather than mandatory. I have even made art optional and more child-directed; I set out the supplies and stand as a guide and the children can come do their art however they wish. Since I have three-year-olds in my class, more guidance is required than would be for a six-year-old or even a four-year-old class, but when the children sit down to do their art now, they are engaged because they made the choice to do art. Just yesterday I sat and watched a boy cut paper with scissors for over an hour, watching the way his hands worked the scissors and trying to figure out the best and most effective way to cut the paper. It is moments like these that make my job worth it – the moments of watching a child explore and discover and show in many ways the fact that they are learning, even if they don’t have a teacher there to tell them what to do all of the time.

So after that experience, added to the research I have recently been doing, I was delighted to come across this blog post talking about motivation. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did!