Careful Looking: A Window into a Child’s Mind

This blog is authored by infant teacher Lida Barthol.

At SEEC, we often talk about “careful looking” as a strategy for helping children engage with objects. But careful looking is not only a tool we employ during lessons, it is woven into every aspect of our work as teachers. Back in 2016, I trained with the Resources for Infant Educarers, an organization devoted to promoting respectful care for infants and toddlers. Part of that training involved observing infants at play for long stretches of time, noticing the tiny details in their movements and facial expressions. At the time, I didn’t fully understand what we were expected to gain through this observation. This year, though, I have finally started to process it — in large part thanks to a book I recently read, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell. Odell writes:

Practices of attention and curiosity are inherently open-ended, oriented toward something outside of ourselves. Through attention and curiosity, we can suspend our tendency toward instrumental understanding — seeing things or people one-dimensionally as the products of their functions — and instead sit with the unfathomable fact of their existence, which opens up toward us but can never be fully grasped or known. (p. 104)

It turns out, observing babies and young children is a bit like watching the ocean or the night sky: sometimes you just need to sit with the unfathomable fact of their existence. Beyond that, observation serves many practical functions in the classroom. It enables us to plan lessons; negotiate classroom dynamics; and notice not only the milestones, but the hundreds of in-between steps of each child’s development. And for parents who are now simultaneously negotiating working from home and home-schooling their kids, it can be an equally powerful tool.

 Back in March, many people waved goodbye to the last vestiges of a work-life/home-life balance. One particularly popular meme that surfaced in the spring depicted Dolly Parton, with the overlaid text, “When you’re working from home but you’re also a parent: working 9-9:10, 9:45-10, 10:20-10:35, 12:30-2:00, 2:15-2:16…” In other words, attention is in short supply. In fact, having the time and space to simply observe is a privilege. In other childcare jobs I’ve held, low ratios and unsupportive administration meant the day was about putting out fires (figuratively — except for once), sticking to a strict schedule, and rushing the kids around enough that they’ll nap well. If any of that sounds like a day in your home, I understand. Attention is a luxury, but it’s one that pays dividends. Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, says, “That kind of deep attention that we pay as children is something that I cherish, that I think we all can cherish and reclaim, because attention is that doorway to gratitude, the doorway to wonder, the doorway to reciprocity.” In the context of both teaching and parenting, giving yourself just a second to deeply see and appreciate that tiny, wise person in your life might be just the self-care you need. 

It can be hard to master the type of open awareness that Kimmerer describes, especially when so many demands are being made on our attention. Instead, I find it more helpful to keep some concrete questions in my mind while observing children at play. Here are just a few places to start:

Observing Movement — What is this child doing with their body? How are they doing it? How might they feel in their body? 

Developmental milestones can be an area of stress for new parents. It is important to remember that every baby reaches each milestone in their own time, in their own way. Paying attention not only to the milestones your child is working on, but to their own unique strategies for accomplishing those milestones, can give you a more robust sense of their motor development. 

Observing Perspective — What is this child noticing? What knowledge are they using right now? What might they feel about themselves in this moment? 

One of the things I find most rewarding about teaching is seeing how children express their unique perspectives from the very beginning. For every play activity we offer at school, there will never be two completely identical reactions — some children swim in paint, some use a brush, and some won’t touch it at all for weeks. When we pay attention to how our children authentically respond to the world, we get new information about who they are as learners and as people.

Observing Relationships — What social skills are at play here? What is being practiced? If there is conflict, how can I support each child with as little intervention as possible? How can we navigate this conflict in a way that honors the perspective of each child?

Once, as a teacher in the toddler room, my co-teacher Brandi and I pointed a projector at the wall and encouraged the kids to stand in the light and find their shadows. Two of our little guys (let’s call them G and J) marched back and forth with their arms in the air, watching as their shadows did the same. J tripped over his own feet and fell, but before I could offer help, G — who was about half his size — reached down, offered his little hands, and helped him up. Once they were both standing, G helped J brush himself off. For the next couple weeks, the kids would often playfully “fall down” and help each other up. We are often taught that young children are extremely self-centered, but when we know how to look for it, we see that they are also capable of deep levels of compassion and empathy. 

Observing Yourself — What is happening in my body? If there is stress, where is it coming from?

Even on the best possible day in the classroom, there will always be moments when it feels like everything might just fall apart. Sometimes it takes us too long to get back from a museum visit and suddenly the whole class is crying for a nap at once, or we come back from a summer day splashing in the sprinkler and find we need to change 8 wiggly babies out of soaking wet diapers and swimsuits in time to eat lunch. The best way that I have found to keep my cool in these moments is by paying attention to my own body and breath. Often, I realize that it’s not the crying babies that cause me stress, but rather, my adult expectations about how something is supposed to be — How can drinking one bottle take this long? It shouldn’t be this hard to get baby shoes on! Why aren’t you already asleep? Observing when these thoughts start to creep in helps me to deepen my patience and respond with compassion, even under pressure.

These are just a few examples for how we use observation as a tool in our teaching, but practicing awareness is a lifelong project. For those who are interested in learning more about the type of observation I practiced during my training with RIE, author and podcast host Janet Lansbury has shared an example on her blog. Tom Hobson, better known as Teacher Tom, has also written at length on his blog about his observations as a teacher in a cooperative school. For educators who are interested in going deeper, I highly recommend the book, The Art of Awareness: How Observation Can Transform Your Teaching by Deb Curtis and Margie Carter.