Observation of and with children

Molly Manewal has worked with kids in many diverse settings, most recently in her own small schoolhouse for young children. She is currently beginning a sabbatical during which she’ll be living in Southeast Asia, mostly learning by observing—a not-so-simple act she understands deeply and writes about here.

I am incredibly lucky; I work with preschoolers. I get to sing songs, assist small seamstresses and carpenters, and act as an impartial (usually) intermediary for players in a hostile takeover or lovers’ spat. But, arguably, the best part of my work is simply watching kids. There is very little that goes on with their life at school of which I need to be an active part, so I get to watch them be their beautiful and fascinating selves.

For the most part, they are self-contained learners capable of far more than most people assume. What a joy it is to see a child come up against an obstacle, struggle with it, and emerge victorious. (Please see Kami Wilt's insightful guest post on frustration.) Although I help them in countless ways, nothing I do can give them that sense of accomplishment. I have knowledge and skills they don't yet have, and I can share these with them, but genuine and lasting learning results from their own impulses, their own work. To be truly helpful, I must remain loving and neutral, and observe what is happening with each child.

My training is primarily in the Montessori Method. Early in the twentieth century, Maria Montessori proposed a pedagogical system in which the innate drive toward self-construction was trusted and respected. This led to an indirect teaching style centered on observation. She saw the role of the guide (teacher) as that of witness and facilitator. In order to understand how we can support learners, we must first find out where they are. Observation is the starting point.

There is only one basis for observation: the children must be free to express themselves and thus reveal those needs and attitudes which would otherwise remain hidden or repressed in an environment that did not permit them to act spontaneously.

—Maria Montessori,
Discovery of the Child

I don't just love watching kids; I love watching other things too. I find value in stepping back and simply observing. Not only do I learn a great deal; I also feel grounded in my environment and appreciate my surroundings. I foster this practice in the children I get to interact with by availing them of the tools with which to observe.

We cannot create observers by saying, “observe,” but by giving them the power and the means for this observation, and these means are procured through education of the senses.

—Maria Montessori,
The Montessori Method

One of the most reliable ways to practice ob­ser­va­tion is to spend time in the natural world. I happen to love watching insects and find their lives mys­te­ri­ous and interesting. Most kids do also, so we watch a lot of bugs together. I emphasize just watching to see what the critters are going to do. It builds patience, trains focus, and yields rich rewards, such as discovering where the spider’s web comes from or which plants the swallowtails like the best. (This comes in handy when searching for baby caterpillars.)

When we are observing, we don't have an agenda, and when we don't have an agenda, we are open and receptive to learning. Just watching can help us simply to be with what is going on and truly see it. It also can give us a moment to ask our­selves, “Do I need to involve myself in this? Is this really any of my business?” Observation often keeps us from jumping to conclusions. It not only informs us about our world but also aids us in developing a practice of nonjudgment. We all value the skill of discernment because it helps us to make decisions, but I'm guessing most of us at some point wish we could be less judgmental.

If one of our goals as parents and educators is to foster in­de­pen­dence, we have to refrain from “helping” too much, an impulse that is sometimes difficult, or, for parents, perhaps well-nigh impossible, to control. But when we commit our­selves to observe more, to be still, then children have the chance to grapple with life. This is where true learning happens, through direct experience. So we support the children by show­ing that we honor the un­folding of who they are. We give them an encouraging smile or a sincere “You can do it”—all the while trust­ing that they will gain from their experience and will be okay.

Imagine if we tried to assist a butterfly in emerging from its chrysalis. We know (from squatting down quietly, watching it happen) that it would be a de­structive inter­ference to in­volve our­selves in that delicate yet com­pletely per­fect pro­cess. So, while child­ren need a safe, rich, and sup­port­ive en­vi­ron­ment, their un­fold­ing is something to be­hold, celebrate, and, for the most part, stay out of.

Molly Manewal