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 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 higher-tech gadgets or more modest technology, a "tech check" can help you get started. Here are some assessment ideas to utilize the technology you have:

  • Use a laptop, tablet, or smartphone to record observations and store developmental checklists. They’re mobile, so you can go wherever the action is, and you can easily transfer your notes to other devices.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Scan or make copies of children’s work, such as drawings or writing, to create a visual timeline that shows a child's skill development over time.
  • Make 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.
  • Make digital portfolios. You can include photos, audio, and video samples to view and evaluate with children. Digital portfolios are also easy to share with parents using email or a parent communication app that works for your classroom.
  • Use an audio recorder or voice-to-text software to document important discussions. Reviewing these conversations at a later date will provide insights regarding children's learning, thinking, and social skills.
  • 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 multimedia presentations about their work.
  • Take pictures 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. You can also create a slideshow for family nights about children's development in the program.
  • Film plays and performances that the children produce. Share the footage with the students and ask them about aspects of their play to gain a clearer understanding of what was taking place. Segments of the video can be included in their portfolios or used to create special videos for family night presentations.
  • Use video to document and analyze 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.

Involve Children in the Process

Children enjoy documenting the work that goes on in class. Here are some fun and interesting ways you can involve them:

  • Encourage children to take photos of important events, their own work, or the work of their peers.
  • Enter your digital photos into a program such as Kid Pix. Here children can use the computer's microphone to easily record their comments about what they see on the screen. These files can be emailed to parents, displayed in your classroom, or included in children's portfolios.
  • Invite children to record their own special songs or stories on their personal cassettes or interview a friend about their work. Color coding the tape recorder keys can help.

Collaborate With Parents

Technology can help strengthen partnerships with parents. Use journals, email, websites, apps, or online digital 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 recordings, 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, pull out information about class trends, or even 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. They should be involved in collecting and evaluating their work, be it on paper or through digital means.

Create slideshows, photo albums, wall panels, websites, or apps; 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. Thanks to technology's flexibility, this can also help next year's teachers readily access the same material, giving them a clear view of where each child is developmentally.

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 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.

Teacher Books and Resources

  • Focused Portfolios describes an assessment program and offers ordering information.
  • High Scope has ordering information on a variety of assessment materials.
  • Teaching Strategies is an early childhood education site for teachers and parents of children from birth to grade three.
  • Windows on Learning: Documenting Young Children's Work by Judy Harris Helm, Sallee Beneke, and Kathy Steinheimer
  • The Art of Awareness: How Observation Can Transform Your Teaching by Deb Curtis and Margie Carter