How to Observe in Montessori and Why it is Important

With our fast-paced way of life, it can be hard to imagine sitting down and observing anything for more than a few seconds. However, it is through these moments of pausing that we can actually begin to see and understand more fully what is going on around us. I want to share with you how you can develop the art of observation and why observing is important in a Montessori environment, whether that be at home or school, or any environment in general. I hope by reading this you will learn more about how to observe a child in their environment to then be able to support them better.

Graphic saying "How to Observe Your Montessori Child" With an image of a young child putting colored hair binders on pegs.

Why Do We Need to Observe?

Observation is one of the essential elements of a well-functioning Montessori environment. Without it, it is like you are throwing a dart with your eyes closed; hoping that what you do will be what the child needs. Trust me, there is an easier way! Instead, by observing we can better understand a child, their needs, and how to prepare their environment to help them meet those needs. Here are four reasons why observation is important.

Observation helps us to understand the child and their needs.

By taking time to observe, we are able to notice things and see what a child may be struggling with, what they enjoy, or things we may need to go back and show them how to do again.

observation Allows us to see obstacles that the child faces and remove them.

There is a fine line in having children be challenged while having a certain level of joyful struggle, but also not struggling to the point that they don’t persevere because it is too hard and they are unable to complete something. This is why observation is so important. When we are observing we can see those moments that a child may be struggling with something, or see that something is too easy and therefore it is boring and not meeting their needs.

Observation helps us to notice the physical and psychological environment the child is in.

Based on what we see during our observation, we can ask, “Does this environment allow the children to think for themselves? Are the children inspired and allowed to act on their own ideas?” This may be especially beneficial in a Montessori school setting or when we are out and about in different environments that may not be prepared with the child’s needs in mind.

Observation helps us to see how the environment functions without our presence.

When we observe, we are removing ourselves from the equation temporarily. This is a great opportunity to see the dynamics of an environment when we aren’t involved. This can be so helpful because sometimes WE are the obstacle to a child. By removing ourselves we may notice the child is able to do something independently that we would have otherwise stepped in to help them with.

Metal fraction plates sitting on a table, child using fraction pies in a measuring frame. 3 pieces of paper on the table with colored fraction pieces on them.

What is Observation?

Observation is the tool that allows us to follow and support the child on their natural progress of development. If we are to methodically and spontaneously follow the child, we have to regularly observe. At first, we gather data, we are patient and objective while gathering the data. Then we reflect on the data. Finally, we arrive at a conclusion and take some action.

Dr. Montessori did not begin with a preconceived plan. She observed scientifically, thought about what she had seen, and then she responded appropriately. She would test out materials in the classroom and see who was attracted to them. For example, Dr. Montessori never intended to use large numbers with young children. In the beginning, she had the prejudices that children couldn’t do math, but to her surprise, it was the young ones who loved large numbers. We can do similar “tests” in our environments to see what is meeting the needs of the children.

“We should be patient with the little things, simple but very precious truths. It is not always imperative to see big things, but it is of paramount importance to see the beginnings of things. At their origins, there are little glimmers that can be recognized as soon as something new is developing.”

Maria Montessori, Education and peace, p. 85

What Do We Do with Our Observations?

Our observations are the reasons behind why we make adjustments to the prepared environment. They can give direction for what to present or represent to a child, what materials to rotate out or just a deeper insight into the mind and action of a child.

Adjustments to the Prepared environment

After we observe, we may find that we need to make adjustments to the prepared environment. For example, in our living room, our coffee table had these sharp scalloped edges on the bottom part of the table. When the twins crawled under the table they continued to bonk their heads on this. After I observed this a few times I drew the conclusion that having the table was not helping meet their needs and was more a point of frustration and pain. I decided to make a change. Conveniently, I was able to remove the legs of the table and put the coffee table on the floor. This worked out perfectly! It was their own little platform they could crawl on top of.

In this instance, I took my objective observations (they would bonk their head on the under edge of the coffee table), then I considered their needs and then took action with that information. I decided that this piece of furniture was not meeting their needs with the way it was currently functioning in the room , so I made the needed adjustments to the prepared environment to better meet their needs.

Quite honestly, we are making adjustments to things constantly throughout the day! However, sometimes (I’m guilty of this) we make changes too often and too quickly without reason. Maybe we only saw part of the struggle or didn’t allow enough time for something to unfold. Then we made a change without having enough information to support that adjustment.

Baby reaching for a wooden bell mobile

How to Observe

Formal vs. Informal Observation

A formal observation is when you intentionally take 5 or 10 minutes to sit down and observe. You don’t do anything else but watch, take notes, and focus on some element in the environment (I’ll share some ideas in just a bit!) In the classroom, I had to help the children know that observation was part of my work as their guide (teacher). I made a little sign that said “I am observing.” and I placed it on my computer, which is how I took observation notes. This worked really well because when children would come over to ask me something, they would see the sign and come back at another time (I was working with elementary age children so this worked well for that age).

Informal observation may be more like those mental notes throughout the day. The things you notice in passing. It may be worth having a little notebook somewhere in your home or classroom to just jot these things down throughout the day. They may be little notes like, “Johnny put shoes on the wrong feet. Re-present how to put your shoes on the correct feet.” All those small little observations and information help us to come back and address those things outside of the moment. However, if there are true safety concerns, go ahead and address those immediately.

Graphic saying "How to Observe in Montessori" With an image of a young child putting a ring on a dowel

Two Approaches to Observing

We can observe in two very different ways: We can focus on one thing or we can do a running record (what they do, say, how they move, etc.) Both of these approaches are helpful and it can be good to do a combination of both of them at different times.

What Observation Is Not

  • Observation is not us projecting what we think a child is doing or feeling.
  • Observation is not opinions. Rather, it is observable facts. For example you wouldn’t write “child is being lazy.” instead you would record what you see. “Child is resting their head on their arm with their eyes closed.”

Recording concrete and observable things is so beneficial. When we record what is actually happening, then we can draw conclusions and see patterns. This is especially important when dealing with challenging situations. Often times I would share observations with parents, and because of the nature of my observation notes I wasn’t being mean or rude, rather I was sharing objective truths of what I saw happen in the classroom or a conversation I heard. These observations are so important to have when we are trying to communicate something challenging that may be going on.

Close up of a child's hand reaching for Montessori geometry materials. On a table, there is a green board with two pink wooden sticks. Small cut-out paper children are moving across the lines representing a divergent line.

Montessori Observation Idea Starters FREE Downloadable Printable

Here is a list of content ideas for your time of observation. These could be used either in the home or in the classroom. You can choose just one idea during each observation time or a few.

When Observing One Child
  • What things are they choosing to work on?
  • What are their movements like?
  • What captures their attention?
  • What is their process moving from one activity to another?
When Observing a Baby
  • What gross motor skills are they practicing?
  • How do they hold or grasp an object?
  • Sleep: What is their quality of sleep? Positioning? How to they transition to waking up?
  • Clothing: Is the clothing a hindrance to their freedom of movement? Are there preferences towards specific clothing?
  • Eating: What foods? How much? Does it vary based on time of day?
When Observing in a Montessori Classroom Environment
  • Describe everything you can about the prepared environment
  • Describe the materials to the best of your ability. Are they ordered? Neat and clean? Inviting to the children?
  • Look for the human tendencies and psychological characteristics
  • Does the prepared environment offer opportunities for independence, both in action and in thinking?
  • What kind of work is going on? Group activities? Individual work? (True group work is when the children are collaborating. Parallel work-children are sitting next to each other doing the same work.)
  • Notice the groups (Same or different from day to day?)
  • Are adults initiating work or are the children?
  • What is the variety of work going on?
  • What is the care of the work being done?
  • What is the variety of expression (posters, dioramas, reports, etc)
  • Are the children finding their own answers? Or are they relying on the adults?
Graphic saying "How to Observe in a Montessori Classroom" With an image of a young child putting a ring on a dowel

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