Monday, March 18, 2019


I was enjoying a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon with a walk through Seattle Center. As I approached a short flight of stairs, I found my way impeded by a girl of about five who was playfully descending by walking the full length of each step before stepping down, then walking the full length of the next step before stepping down, and so on.

I was in no hurry so I waited as she zig-zagged her way to the bottom, where her mother waited. When I interact with children I don't know in public, even if it's just to stay out of their way, I like to make friendly eye contact with their parent, but this mother was absorbed with her phone. I am in no way judging her for looking at her phone. For all I know she was dealing with something necessary. I only mention it because the girl was clearly feeling pretty happy with herself. She was beaming with what looked like pride as she followed her self-selected pattern of decent. Mostly, she was concentrating on her feet, but every now and then she looked up at her mother who was temporarily busy doing something else.

I waited until the girl had completed her game, after which she ran to her mother, who stashed her phone, and the two went off happily hand-in-hand, the girl skipping at her mother's hip. I stood there for a moment thinking about what I'd seen: a child on the quest to teach herself something about something, and judging by her behavior it looked to me like she was pretty satisfied about what she had learned, discovered, confirmed, or dismissed. I, a stranger who will likely never see her again, had witnessed it, while her parent had not.

Those of us in early childhood education spend much of our time and energy observing children and making educated guesses about what they may have learned doing this or that. Many of us are required to submit forms or write reports or otherwise document this "learning." But I worry about it. I know it's well-intended, I know that everyone from administrators to policy-makers to parents want some kind of evidence that learning is taking place, but it's hard for me to call this kind of thing "evidence," any more than I can place that label on standardized testing (or any testing for that matter). I mean, I can guess the girl on the stairs was learning something about patterns or gravity or her mom's patience, but not only do I not know, her mother, who is probably the person who knows her best in the world, doesn't know either, and not just because she wasn't watching. Indeed, even the girl herself may not know.

And had this mother been watching, it would have materially changed what her daughter learned. Had the girl found her mother looking at her when she looked up, it would have transformed the moment from one of internal motivation to one of external motivation. Had her mother been smiling, had she been wearing a look of anxiety, or one of impatience, everything about the situation, and therefor what was learned, would have changed. In fact, one could argue that adult observation actually derails the child's learning, especially if that child has come to expect that adult observation comes complete with "Atta girls" and "Be carefuls" and tut-tuts.

I spend much of my professional life observing children, which means that I am, for better or worse, part of what they are learning. There was a time when I moved around from place-to-place, sitting first with this group of children, then with that, engaging then moving on, but it became clear to me that when I did this, I materially altered their play, making myself too central. These days, I tend to perch myself in regular places, near, but not within the play. Sometimes I even leave the play yard or classroom altogether. My intent is to, as much as possible, become part of the "furniture." The children don't always allow that to happen, because, after all, we love each other, but I hope that they, as much as possible, forget about me, which they will never do as long as I'm correcting or suggesting or narrating. Several times a day, whenever I feel that I'm becoming too much a part of the play, I excuse myself for a time, heading off into a back hallway or the storage room to give the children a chance to return to their own things, confident that they are learning because they are playing, even if I'm not there to observe it.

And despite all of this, I will continue to observe, striving to be as unobtrusive as possible, not because I need to document someone else's learning, but rather because I want to deepen my own.

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