Full of surprises, children amaze us daily with their new discoveries and skills, learning as they experience the world around them. We now have the opportunity to embrace new tools to better tell the story of their growth and development. Let's look...

Four-year-old Sarah is sitting in the book corner, "reading" a book to her friend Ian. In the music area, Ana and Amanda have joyfully invented some new dance moves. Jeremy and Will are creating play dough sculptures that have taken on a new level of detail. Nadja is busy at the science table sketching the new growth of a bean plant. If our goal is to observe all that is going on here, this seems like observation overload. In the fast-paced world of young children, how can we possibly begin to keep up?

As an educator who is committed to providing the strongest learning experiences possible-as well as searching for new ways to grow professionally, you will find that strengthening observation and recording skills is key. Technology can help with these goals.

Do a Systems Check

Before you start to observe, you need to know what you are looking for A clear understanding of children's growth and development and an awareness of the goals for individual children and your program are a must. These create the framework for gathering information about children, measuring the learning taking place, and assessing the effectiveness of your program.

A periodic check of your observation and recording system is important. Ask children, parents, staff, and administrators about their learning goals for the year Then it's time to create your action plan.

Combine your own program goals with developmental guidelines based on accepted educational standards to create an assessment system. If you are looking for new ideas, use the Internet (or phone) to investigate some of the many different types of observation systems currently available. Whether you decide upon a prepared system or use the computer to create your own materials, it's important to come up with a process that can realistically be used on a regular basis in your classroom.

Once you have your system in place, it's time to gather samples of what the children can do.

Do a Tech Check

Look for ways to use technology to help make recording easier and more efficient during the busy times of the day. Then, when things quiet down, work with the samples you have collected. Whether you are using sophisticated computer equipment or more modest technology, a "tech check" can help you get started.

If you have a typewriter or a computer printer, you can ...

  • Type up children's dictation, so their stories and ideas will be easy to read on wall displays. You can also save copies for their portfolios.
  • Create a variety of forms to support the collection, storage, and reporting of observations. These can include a form to record notes about children's vocabulary development. Take advantage of the spellchecker and grammar checking features of some software programs.

Typed-up work is easy to read and copy for portfolio storage. Digital portfolios on the computer can store photos, audio, and video samples and can be viewed and evaluated with children. Laptop computers provide ease of use and can go wherever the action is. If you want to try something sophisticated, hand-held devices such as Palm Pilots are available that can store developmental checklists. You can record observations, and they can be easily downloaded to your computer later. No need to retype notes, as the data is there on the computer, ready to be used.

If you have a photocopier, you can ...

  • Copy children's work, such as drawings or writing, and store copies in their portfolios.
  • Adjust image size and arrange copies of similar work in sequence, creating a visual "time line" that clearly shows a child's skill development over time. You can also use your photocopy machine to make a copy of developmental milestone charts for each child. Use different colored highlighters to mark milestones reached during each quarter of the year. As you mark off what children have achieved, look ahead to the next set of goals and type up a list for each child. Consult these lists when you are doing your curriculum planning.

If you have a scanner, you can ...

  • Create electronic portfolios on your computer and store children's drawings or writing.
  • Share scanned images of children's work with families via e-mail and/or computer disc.

Scanning transforms images to a digital format. Digital images can be used in many ways. They can be stored in electronic portfolios or used with word processing or other programs to create newsletters, Web pages, or child-authored books.

If you have a tape recorder or computer microphone, you can ...

  • Document important discussions. Transcribing and reviewing these conversations at a later date will provide insights regarding children's learning, thinking, and social skills. When using a tape recorded remember to zero the counter when you start the tape. Note the counter number as you begin recording, so you can easily find what you need later
  • Take a language sample of children's storytelling as they use the flannel board with a familiar fairy tale or one they create. After several months, take another sample and compare.
  • Ask children to dictate the "story" about their work as they create a piece of art.
  • Include children's voices in multi-media presentations about their work.

Audio recording provides an opportunity to "listen" more closely to children's theories, problem-solving abilities, and ideas about their work (including the creation process and intent of their projects). When using computers, children can use text-to-speech software to hear their stories read back to them. When they compare early work with later work, they can "hear" how their stories have developed.

If you have a still camera or a digital camera, you can ...

  • Record examples of three-dimensional work created in various learning centers, such as art and woodworking projects, block towers, and culinary creations. Viewing photos later can help children recall and comment on the thinking and problem solving involved with their work. * Create a slide show for family nights about children's development in the program. (Use presentation software for a computerized slide show.)

If you are using a digital camera, photos can be downloaded to the computer and printed out with a color printer Digital cameras do not use film, so there is no cost for film and developing. Images can be sent to parents via e-mail. Photos from a still camera can also be scanned into your computer.

If you have a video camera or a digital video camera, you can ...

  • Share with children video footage of their play. As they revisit the experience, ask them about aspects of their play to gain a clearer understanding of what was taking place. * Videotape important moments in children's play or document special productions such as puppet shows. Include segments in their portfolios and/or create special videos for family night presentations. Videos can feature learning taking place in different developmental areas: How are children interacting with others? With whom are they playing? (social emotional) What skills are they exhibiting on the playground? (large muscle) How are they tackling a challenging scientific or math problem? (problem solving)
  • Use video for staff training purposes. The same video segment can be viewed in a variety of ways, including looking at traits of individual children, recording how learning centers are used, selecting samples for documentation, and analyzing what these samples convey.

With video, you can capture action and emotion, immediately replay scenes in the viewfinder, and look very closely at events taking place in your program. Digital video gives you the capability of downloading footage to your computer and using software to easily edit the material.

Lights! Camera! Action!

So much of young children's learning is action packed and "hands-on." Consider the activities offered in your room and imagine what you could record with the creative use of a tape recorder or a video camera. An actual sample of children singing a song or performing a dramatization will allow children and parents to better experience the emotion and excitement of the moment.

The video camera can also be set up on a tripod to record transition times and document how change affects different children. This can provide important insights regarding individual children and the smooth functioning of the program. Children reviewing video clips of their play can more vividly recall the actions and emotions they experienced. Deeper insights into their thinking and problem solving can occur with skillful questioning as exact scenes are revisited using video.

Digital video cameras, similar to other technology continue to improve in quality while prices decrease. Many are lightweight and compact, and most will take still photos as well. User-friendly software programs exist, making movie editing extraordinarily easy. (See ECT, April 2001.)

Put Parents in the Process

Technology can help strengthen partnerships with parents. Use journals, e-mail, Web sites, or online electronic portfolio systems to communicate and collaborate, together monitoring children's growth and development.

Putting It All Together

Periodic review of all the observations you've collected is critical to ongoing assessment of students' progress. Look at all the samples, including children's written work, anecdotes, audio and video tapes, photos, developmental records, and curriculum plans to evaluate how their performance matches your program's goals. This will guide your daily decisions about the children and your curriculum. It's important that your storage system for documentation allows for easy access to samples throughout the year.

Laurie, a teacher of 5- and 6-year-olds, set up a simple spreadsheet on her laptop. As each child reads, she quickly adds his reading level. The spreadsheet allows her to manipulate all information entered. She can look at an individual's progress or pull out information about class trends. With a few mouse clicks, she can produce an appealing and informative graph. Children and parents are thrilled to see growth portrayed so dramatically in this way.

Celebrate Accomplishments!

Include "Portfolio Days" in your calendar so you can spend time with your children reviewing their work.

Laurie's 5- and 6-year-olds save their computer work on floppy disks. However, electronic products could just as easily be kept on the computer itself. This makes it easy to collect items for an electronic portfolio. Some teachers even burn a CD-ROM for each child, so at the end of the year, children leave with a vivid multimedia picture of what they have accomplished. Thanks to technology's flexibility, next year's teachers can readily access the same material, giving them a clear view of where each child is developmentally. One grandmother, living in another state, couldn't believe her good fortune to receive a CD copy of the child's yearlong portfolio.

Create slide shows, photo albums, wall panels, Web sites-there are many avenues for displaying samples of children's work and showcasing their growth. Meet with parents or family members at least two or three times a year to take a closer look. Use your documentation to share what you are seeing and to influence subsequent steps in planning your program. Children should be involved in collecting and evaluating their work, be it on paper or through electronic means.

Trying New Technology

To accurately assess your equipment needs and answer questions about selecting and using new technologies, it's important to consult with others who are experienced in using that technology. Parents of children in your group or other tech-savvy community members may be delighted to share their expertise. Online, the NAEYC Technology Caucus offers the website Technology and Young Children (www.techandyoungchildren.org ) and an Internet discussion group on this topic.

Technology can enrich the quality of your documentation material and support your educational efforts. So try something new, rediscover something you already have, and take a closer look at children's learning using technology today.