“Step away from the camera…”

It seems our sector has gone a little crazy with documentation.

There is a checklist for this and a form for that, we cross reference, do daily group learning stories and then we reflect on the day, and upon our own practice, and this is before we even get to the part where we are supposed to document each child’s individual learning over time.

Here’s the tricky part though; there is actually no prescribed amount of documentation we are obliged to create. The Education and Care Services National Regulations tell us we must document and assess a child’s learning, the Early Years Learning Framework goes into more detail about what we are aiming for, but nowhere does it say HOW we must observe (either in frequency or appearance). So, if there is no magical number we are trying to reach, why are we feeling so much pressure? Well, for one thing, a lot of it has to do with HOW we are gathering information about children’s experiences.

You know, when you think about it, as a society we seem to gather some joy in chronicling our daily lives through a lens – what we had for breakfast, the latte art our barista made exclusively for us, the way the sun shines just so on my face as I lift my chin and angle my head so… And let’s not get started on how children’s lives are chronicled from the moment of their first pre-natal scan through to their first tooth and so on. Now, there are many of us who have concerns around children’s rights and the ethics of this act, as we should be, so we will cover that at another time.  But, it does have implications for our work in documenting, assessing and communicating children’s learning.

For example, last week I visited a service where I was observing the practices in the kindy room. I had a comfy chair in a comfy part of the room, children came up to me as needed, but I wasn’t actively involved in their moments. But, it was during this time I realised we had a problem. An educator was taking photos (later to be used for writing up observations) and every learning area she visited, almost every child she took a photo of, the children would stop their play and smile for the camera.

Essentially, what this educator was left with, was a bunch of incredibly adorable pictures, showing children “having fun” at the service (because really, when the play (and learning) stopped for the camera, what was she left with)? But, you know, the parents will love them and that shows the Educators are doing a great job right? But here is what she missed: one child had spent the best part of 15 minutes trying to pull apart two pieces of lego – he smiles for her photo then immediately after the click he goes back to what he was doing – intense concentration, perseverance, trying to use his fingernails, and at times his teeth, to pull the pieces apart. Thirty seconds later he succeeds and that’s when you see a little face plastered in joy, pride and satisfaction. But no one is there to notice. Except me.

At another table, she snaps a photo of three little girls in the home corner – selling ice cream cones for 400 a piece. She knows this because she asks. Most likely she’ll remember that detail and it will go into her observation later under the photo. But what she doesn’t know is that the children have my credit card because I didn’t have any cash on me earlier to buy a coffee from them. They pass it around, taking turns to imitate the “beep” as they charge my account time after time and discuss whether it’s better to ask for real money or use the card. This is going to be an expensive day.  

So now this educator has her photos and observations, but what do they really mean? Why was this educator compelled to take these images, and to be honest, what does ‘learning’ really look like, and mean, for her?

The NQS & EYLF speak to us about documentation that is meaningful and authentic ’…educators search for appropriate ways to collect rich and meaningful information that depicts children’s learning in context, describes their progress and identifies their strengths, skills and understandings (pg 38 Guide to the NQS).

By changing our practices in tiny little ways, we can change what we see, and therefore what we choose to document.  For example, if the educator above had just sat, she would have had ample opportunity to observe children’s play in its purest form, without the interruption of an adult, nor the ‘view from behind the lens’ understanding. Knowing when to stay out of play, and when to be a player is an important aspect of our work. It also allows us time to think about the meaning of what I am observing and ask – is it learning or is it something else?

We find that most ‘learning stories’ (and other forms of information/data on children’s experiences) are really just a recount of an experience or exchange – they are not really observations of children learning and its certainly not building a picture of how and what they are learning ‘over time’.

So what to do? We advocate going back to basics. Sit first. Stay. Watch and Think (deeply). Talk with your colleagues about what you observed. That’s all.

Observing children’s play ‘au natural’ can give you some of the richest pieces of documentation you will ever find.  Getting a camera with a bit of a lens is also helpful – you can then zoom in from across the room and not interrupt the play with your presence if you need photos.

Another tiny little way to change our practice is to ask ourselves a simple question before we write or take a photo – Ask yourself, why is this moment significant? Asking this question will lead us to acknowledge what we know about this child as a learner, what we know about their relationships and how we can then use this evidence to progress and scaffold this child’s learning opportunities.

When you observe rich play, you will find that your writing becomes easier, the learning outcomes make themselves obvious, and you actually document less, because what you do document is rich and meaningful – to all who view it, families, colleagues and children alike.

I once spoke with a Director who said her team took over 300 photos a week. A week! Now I don’t know about you, but that’s a lot of sorting, filing, labelling and saving, even before we get to placing these images within written contexts.  (Hot tip – this is waaaay to much and if this is you- STOP.  When you are doing this, you are NOT observing children and you are certainly not building RELATIONSHIPS and being PRESENT).

There are so many questions surrounding documentation but here is one definite – spending time behind a camera and writing about a child’s life takes away from actually BEING in that child’s life. Don’t be afraid to give yourself time to look and observe deeply and be choosy about what you document. And the key question to ask ourselves constantly and reflect upon is…Why?

Contact us today and let our team of early years specialists work their magic.