What is Participant Observation in Childcare and Why is it Important?


Participant observation is used to understand a group from an insider’s point of view.  In early learning centres in Australia, educators regularly conduct participant observations as they direct activities and supervise children’s play. 

Planning meaningful programmes

child care plainfield il base programmes around children’s own interests which promotes effective engagement in the activities.  Young children are not always able to verbalise their thoughts clearly which is where participation observation comes in handy.  Joining in with children’s play, listening to them chatter as they play and watching the areas they are drawn to gives a strong indication of how to plan a suitable programme around the child’s interests.  Offering a range of activities indoors and outdoors is the basis for the observations, and these records can then be used to build on the lessons that are most appealing and successful.

Assessing activities

Caroline is a senior childcare educator at Bluebird Early Education St Mary’s in NSW.  She finds that ongoing observations of the children in her care can unravel contexts and roles children assign themselves and others during play, including gender roles.  From a participant’s point of view, she can observe how the children perceive the activities that she plans and leads.  She can find out children’s individual learning styles and participation as they play independently.  

Discovering the child’s point of view

Participant observation of young children in a childcare setting provides valuable information about how children interact with peers; adults; and their environment and illustrates the way they participate in activities.  Keeping records of these observations allows the researcher or educator to understand how the child views the world and allows an insight into the layers of the child’s experience.  

Literacy, Numeracy and Science

Curriculum areas such as maths, language and science are introduced in childcare centres through activities such as water and sand play, gardening, counting, music and reading aloud.  In order to create effective activities and learning centres, educators observe how children react and what they take away from their participation.

This may be in the form of art, talking, or new behaviour.  Because educators like Caroline have a baseline of each child’s behaviour from daily records of observations, they can assess the child’s development and see how effective their programmes are. 

Addressing concerns

Taking and recording daily observations can help to identify any concerns about the child and allow a quick intervention.  As well as cognitive development, educators regularly observe children’s social and emotional behaviours, keep a record of whose company they prefer and how they interact with others.  These records provide a snapshot of the child’s social growth including their resilience, adaptability and levels of empathy. 

In a childcare setting, participant observation is used to learn more about the child’s own interests in order to plan a programme that is relevant to the child; to record the child’s development; and to ensure children are meeting developmental milestones adequately.  

The observations allow educators to become highly in tune with the children’s needs and create the best environment for their healthy development.