Margery B. Franklin (2004)

Guidelines for Observing Young Children in School

Note to the reader

This brief guide is intended for students and teachers who are interested in learning the basics of observing children in their everyday surroundings. My review of works in the field led me to the conclusion that most books on the subject set out a list of requirements for "objective observation" that are daunting to all but the most devoted researcher and, in fact, can become a screen rather than a window between observer and observed. For this reason, I have attempted to provide a series of guidelines that should make the process of observation engaging rather than tedious, while yielding textured, nuanced material for interpretation. Three helpful works on observing young children are cited on the last page.


There are many reasons for observing children in preschool classrooms and day care settings. Observing children in one of their natural habitats is an excellent way to gain understanding of how young children experience their worlds and function in complex environments. At the same time, observations provide grounding for interpreting theory. For example, if you are reading about stages of development in Erikson or Piaget, you can think about your observations in terms of these psychologists’ descriptions. Observations may provide illustrative material for a paper, or become the basis for developing a research project. Many classic studies in child development are based entirely on observational material. Teachers as well as psychologists depend on finegrained observation to develop their understanding of individual children as well as the functioning of a group.

Starting out

Instruction in observation previously emphasized the importance of being “objective,” of not letting your own views or biases determine what you see. It is now widely recognized that observation is always selective. What we attend to and how we see it are shaped by our interests, purposes, and past experience.

While we necessarily see the world through our own lenses or interpretative schemes, systematic observation requires being objective in a particular sense – becoming aware of our own perspectives, considering how our perspectives enter into our perceptions, trying to imagine the views of the other, and comparing our observations with those of other observers. When making observation notes, it is important to concentrate on meaningful description. Evaluative comments come later.

Observation is a primary way of learning about the world and our place in it. Scientists and artists spend a great deal of time observing their environments and the creatures that inhabit these environments. So do the rest of us, although we may not be conscious of doing so. While we are all “natural observers,” it takes time and patience to develop a systematic approach to observation. | Read the full paper»