Cockfosters Nursery Early Years Education Early Years Foundation Stage Enfield Nursery Hadley Wood Nursery Montessori Pre-School Learning Research on Early Years Development

Observing Children: the crucial role of purposeful observation in our nursery

About purposeful observation

Observation of children’s activities, interests, and interactions by our early years teachers is an integral part of our daily routine. It is a crucial responsibility of every practitioner to ensure that accurate, purposeful observations are recorded on all children, not just their key children. Observations are as important as every other part of the practitioners’ role. Time is made to discuss and evaluate observations as a team so as to inform children’s individual profiles accordingly and to set targets for learning, which in turn inform all future planning.

Why is it important?

Observation for us is the key to effective planning and assessment. Here are some of the reasons why we observe children, and why it’s important to do so consistently and with due care:

  • To find out more about the children as individuals and evaluate their needs;
  • To monitor and assess the development of each child, using the particular child’s starting point as the baseline;
  • To plan the experiences each child needs in order to extend their learning in a way that is meaningful for them;
  • To be able to provide summaries of children’s learning, make judgements, set targets and plan ways forward for individual children;
  • To enable our staff team to evaluate the effectiveness of the provision and its organisation and to inform future experiences/curriculum planning;
  • To communicate evidence of progress to parents, carers and other professionals to ensure continuity of learning (e.g., when a child moves on to Primary School);

What do we know about young children’s learning?

Research conducted at the Experiential Education Centre at Leuven University, under the supervision of Prof. Ferre Laevers, tells us children are at their highest peak of learning when (1) they are involved and (2) their well-being is cared for.

In other words, an unhappy or neglected child will not be able to learn effectively, or reach a satisfactory level of deep learning. However, even if a child is safe and their well-being is cared for, if they are not involved, that is, if they do not become immersed in their activity at some point, then again they will not be able to extend their learning.

So what does involvement and well-being look like?

At Alphablocks Nursery School, we always aim to ensure that children are:

  • Able to concentrate and stay focused, persisting at activities they like;
  • Reaching or operating at the very limits of their capabilities;
  • Able to stay interested, motivated, fascinated;
  • Kept mentally active;
  • Fully experiencing sensations and meanings;
  • Enjoying the satisfaction of the exploratory drive.


The boy in the picture is fully focused on writing. Materials are provided in all areas. The girl, Coco, is feeling happy and at ease, recreating her own washing line, interpreting in her own way the narrative in Jez Alborough’s book “The Washing Line”.

Here, children feel at ease, and this allows them to be in touch with their feelings and emotions, act spontaneously and enjoy experiences. This, really, is the only viable way to let them be open to new ideas, show vitality and build their self-confidence.

The role of observation in the Early Years Foundation Stage

Start with the child!

  • Observe children to find out about their needs, what they are interested in and what they can do.
  • Note children’s responses in different situations.
  • Analyse your observations and highlight children’s achievements or their need for further support.
  • Involve parents as part of the ongoing observation and assessment process.

Okay, then what?

We reflect on the significance of the learning that has been observed. We think about the observation and ask “so what?” – what information has it added? We think about the context for the experience/activity, e.g. the number, names and make up of the group and whether the activity is adult-led or independent. We write what we hear and see, in detail, for instance we record the actual speech and describe the actions. Then we link the observations to development & progress. We assess the child’s progress & learning with regard to the six areas of learning in the EYFS. We focus on what children can do – all their significant achievements – never what they can’t do.

We look for new skills that children may have developed. We think carefully about children’s developmental needs. This provides us with a judgement basis to plan about their next steps in the development. This then helps us decide what to focus on, what to built on, what the child needs and what our plan of action is.

A real-world example

Coco said:

You know some numbers are short, like 6, because it goes 1,2,3…6 and some numbers are long, like number 20 is long, because it goes 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,….20.

Some numbers are really long like 120. Some numbers give you another number like 3 and 4 is seven and two 3’s are …. I think 6.

(She then used her fingers to verify this.)

What this tell us about her learning: Coco understands that numbers are a sequence (a fundamental concept in mathematics, which can further be built upon in many ways).

In addition, she does the following:

  • Extends her vocabulary, especially by grouping objects;
  • Links statements and sticks to a main theme or intention;
  • Uses talk to organise, sequence and clarify thinking, ideas, feelings and events;
  • Counts objects to 10, and beginning to count beyond 10;
  • Finds the total number of items in two groups by counting all of them;
  • In practical activities and discussion, beginning to use the vocabulary involved in adding and subtracting;
  • Begins to identify own mathematical problems based on own interests and fascinations.

It tells us that Coco is a creative thinker because she has her own ideas, thinking of ideas and finding ways to solve problems. She is making links and noticing patterns in their experience, making predictions and testing their ideas.

So, based on all this, what is next for Coco’s learning?

  • We are going to be offering her opportunities to test her ideas in different contexts and solve problems with numbers.
  • We are going to be offering Coco opportunities to explore bigger numbers and creating number lines.

At Alphablocks Nursery School we devote a lot of time getting to know our children. We observe them to find out what fascinates them so we can make effective individualised plans that will develop their dispositions and attitudes towards deep, lifelong learning.

We hope you enjoyed this post, please do get in touch with any ideas, comments or suggestions.


Alphablocks Nursery School & Pre-Prep in Hadley Wood, London, provides outstanding early education to children between 2 and 5 years old. We empower children to become confident learners in a well-planned environment, tailoring the learning journey of each child to its individual strengths and interests, and through a unique combination of different teaching methodologies.  We serve the local communities of Enfield, Cockfosters, Oakwood, Potters Bar, High Barnet, Southgate, and surrounding areas.