Taking time to write down observations about children as they accomplish new tasks, meet new challenges, or try new activities, is one way to understand an individual child’s development and contribute to your curriculum planning. Assessments can be completed by creating portfolios of children’s work through photographs, written observations, or collections of their mark making and artwork. Assessing children’s progress can help providers understand how best to support children and in what areas they may need more assistance. Using observation and assessment to inform your curriculum is one way to ensure that children will remain engaged in the activities you plan. When activities are too easy or difficult, it is much more likely that children will “act out” by misusing materials or finding distractions.

Sharing your observations of children with families is one way to build professional relationships and demonstrate professional knowledge. Partnering with families and inviting them to share their observations of their children will help them feel valued and understood.

When planning a child-focused curriculum, it’s important to notice how children are using the materials. This observation form is made to be used repeatedly over the course of a week or two to allow providers to notice how children are using materials, and plan what additional materials or provocations can be added to extend childrens’ interests. There are also spaces to note early learning standards that children are addressing through interacting with the centers.

Interest Center Observations

Within the Reggio Emilia approach, and now in many early childhood programs, the environment where children spend their time is typically called the third teacher. The environment helps determines the flow of the day, what children learn and how they interact with one another. Having the right amount, variety, and types of materials in an early childhood classroom will make the day run more smoothly and will be more engaging for the children, thus in turn will make it easier for the teacher.  

Knowing the why, when, and how to rotate toys is important and a worthwhile task, based upon information gathered through child observations. Through observations of the children in care, we can determine if, when, and what types of materials need to be rotated in the environment. The provider knows the children in their care very well and soon can see patterns emerge that will help the provider make specific adjustments in the environment.  

Let’s consider some of the reasons why we rotate toys in a childcare environment.  

A child may have mastered a certain skill and by changing specific materials in the classroom we can help scaffold the child to the next skill level. Children learn through facing appropriate challenges, but it’s important to make the challenge achievable. We don’t want the child to feel frustrated or lose interest. A skilled teacher is able to observe students and notice these small changes and find materials that will spark curiosity and interest. We may want to teach a new skill. Placing new toys and materials in the classroom can help a child learn a new skill, such as sequencing, stacking, or balancing. We may also want to challenge that skill and make it slightly more difficult by adding something new to use. Safety is top priority so make sure that items placed in the environment are safe for all ages of the children in the classroom. This can be challenging in multi age programs but can be overcome with a little planning and thought. A child’s individual interests will also play a part in the items we choose. We know that children will play with things that interest them. Having materials of interest will mean the children will explore and play with things that interest them and that are relatable and familiar to them. Common household items that children are familiar with are good to add when possible. 

Now let’s take a look at when we might remove certain materials from the classroom environment. When children have lost interest, aren’t playing with as intended or are mistreating the materials, this is a good time to remove them and find materials that the children are interested in. Intended uses of toys and materials may vary from item to item. I believe that a toy does not necessarily have to be used exclusively for its intended purpose. I believe children should be able to use their imagination and creativity and use items in different ways, not just the way intended from the manufacturer. Items that are distracting and stress inducing should be removed. Some children are more sensitive to certain colors, sounds, and even how much is available in the environment for the children at one time. Remember less is more.  

Finally, how we display items in the environment helps convey to the children what is expected of them and where items belong. Neatly placing items on a shelf helps children put things away on their own.  Labeling shelves and baskets make clean up a breeze. They can also see and reach what they would like to play with, and this allows for independence. Placing similar items together on the shelf in an aesthetically pleasing way, where children can see them shows we care about our materials and toys, and they deserve a place in the space.  Don’t over crowd the environment. Less really is more in childcare. If too many choices are available to children, they don’t play well with any of them. Choose items that interest the children and things they are familiar with and see in their day to day lives. We want these items to be relatable to children and familiar. Children want to use “real” things they see in their everyday lives. If teaching a theme, we may want to choose items that relate to the theme being taught or based upon the current season. Rotating 1-2 things a week and making adjustments as needed is less stressful on children than changing everything at one time.  

Creating an organized and inviting environment is not difficult. With a little planning and time, you can create a relaxing and organized childcare space to enjoy for children and teachers alike.  

One of our favorite and must exciting activities is exploring worms. To start, we first figure out where worms live; often, children have seen worms out on the sidewalk or crawling on dirt and have a good idea of where to search for more. Exploring all the places in our outdoor space where they can live—asking children where they saw them and where they could have crawled under. By taking on this approach to finding the worms, we set the groundwork to learn more about worms’ habitat. Plus, it is fun to look for clues.

Once we decide where to look, the fun and messy part starts, children can use their hands, or I provide shovels so they can dig in the dirt. Figuring out what children are comfortable with is key; some will love to touch the dirt, while others may not want to. The same can be said for when we find a worm. Some children are curious and want to pick them up immediately. Others may want to see them from afar. We give children space and allow them to go at their own pace in the exploration.

If they are touching the worm, we talk about kindness, responsibility, respect, and compassion for the worm. Years ago, when we saw a worm or bug, I would immediately say, “look with your eyes, we might scare it or hurt it”. Over time I have learned the importance of having children experience holding insects, animals, and materials. I had to shift my thinking, and instead of avoiding the touching. I began to trust the children. Talking with them about how we treat animals and how we want to make sure we are caring for nature. Allowing them to take responsibility and feel proud of how they care for others helps them develop a great sense of self.


Why Observe Children?

Commonly heard responses are that early care and education (ECE) professionals observe children to monitor progress, to complete required assessments and screenings, and to identify learning or behavior challenges.

Observation is a core piece of the assessment process and continuous quality improvement (CQI) planning. ECE professionals use observation to document a child’s learning and to inform teaching practices. But another reason for observation is to spark learning and development.

Interactions come first

Research shows that young children’s learning occurs best within relationships and with rich interactions. Children need stimulating and focused interactions to learn. Researchers find that boosting children’s thinking skills through quality interactions is critical to children’s learning.

“Children benefit most when teachers engage in stimulating interactions that support learning and are emotionally supportive. Interactions that help children acquire new knowledge and skills provide input to children, elicit verbal responses and reactions from them, and foster engagement in and enjoyment of learning.” (Yoshikawa et al. 2013)

Quality interactions happen when a teacher intentionally plans and carefully thinks about how she approaches and responds to children. Emotionally supportive interactions help children develop a strong sense of well-being and security. Responsive interactions are responses and communication with children that meet their needs in the moment.

Most interactions with children offer ECE professionals the opportunity to engage, interact, instruct, and exchange information that supports healthy development and learning. Relationships between children and teachers grow stronger during everyday interactions. As children gain new information and ideas, ECE professionals can encourage them to share what they think and learn. Deeper thinking and learning engage children in the joy of learning and help to prepare children for new experiences and challenges.

Observation nurtures relationships and learning

Observation helps ECE professionals look at their interactions with children, and discover how important interactions are as they get to know and support children. Observation is a way to connect with children, to discover their connections to others and to their environment. Children who feel cared for, safe, and secure interact with others and engage in their world to learn. They are more likely to gain skills, and to do better as they enter school.

Use observation for an objective view of a child. When you really see the child, you get to know her and see more of her abilities, interests, and personal characteristics. Knowing each child helps you to plan individualized and developmentally informed activities. Look at what the child does and says without evaluating or labeling.

Find ways to build each child’s self-confidence. Reinforce success and effort. He may not be successful in all things but he can learn from failure as well as success. Encourage persistence, curiosity, taking on challenges, and trying new things.

Strengthen relationships as you learn more about the child. Talk to her about what she likes, and discuss shared interests to connect with her. Take her moods and approaches to situations into consideration, and let her know that you understand her perspective.

Observe to engage a child with you, other children, and the learning environment. Set up the environment with activities and materials that appeal to him, address his individual needs, and support his development.

Reflect on observations to assess each child’s progress, understand her needs and personality, improve teaching practices, and plan curriculum. Put ideas into practice to enhance learning and relationships.

Verify questions and concerns about a child. Talk to families and staff about him. Follow up if development or behavior is not typical.

Be aware of the quality of interactions with each child. Step back and consider how and why you and other staff interact with her. Do all interactions nurture relationships and learning?

Make tweaks, or small changes, while observing and afterwards. If something doesn’t work, try another approach or activity instead of “pushing through” with plans. Reflect on why something didn’t work, brainstorm ways to improve activities, and think of new activities to try.

Use information from observations to inform program practices and policies. Take a broad look at how the program supports all children and learning. Use the information for CQI plans.

Make observation an ongoing practice, a part of all interactions and activities, and watch for small changes and individual traits. Ongoing observation offers a chance to be proactive, to prevent problems.

Take notes, either during activities or shortly afterwards. It is easy to forget the quick “aha” moments when you are busy with teaching and care tasks, not to mention all the unplanned interruptions that pop up! Notes also make it easier to identify patterns and growth.

Interaction, relationships, and connections offer the deepest support to learning. Observation connects many pieces of information to give ECE professionals a better picture of each child. Observation is an ongoing, integral part of a quality ECE program, and professionals play an important part.

PDF Version


Emergent curriculum resource guide written by Elizabeth Jones​ adapted by Town Square for Family Child Care Providers

Emergent Curriculum

Explore different strategies and approaches to assessment in this virtual training for family childcare providers. Develop an understanding of the different types of documentation, then explore strategies for documenting children’s behaviors, skills, and interests, and finally develop a plan for using documentation to communicate with families.


Town Square Indiana modules can be found in Indiana Learning Paths. Please follow the link below to log into your I-lead account and click on “Start Your Indiana Learning Path”. Once in Indiana Learning Paths please search for:

Town Square – Strategies and approaches to assessment