Wednesday 7 September 2011

A Day in the Life of a Scientist

picture of emperor penguin chickMagda Gerber encourages us to 'observe more, do less'. While I wholeheartedly agree with the importance of observation, I also think it's not as easy as it sounds. Particularly when it comes to children. Particularly, when we are not sure what it is we are supposed to observe...

When I first started working with language and recording people I realised how difficult it is to just (!) listen. I set out to record people's conversations, and all (!) I had to do was sit there quietly, let them talk. And bite, bite and bite my tongue over and over again. Not to interrupt. Not to have hours of recordings of myself talking (that I can get, anytime I want:). It's not about pretending you're not there and if someone asks you something pretending you haven't heard. But it was about simply giving the people I was working with the time, space and floor to talk, and about quietly observing the interaction... like I said, easier said than done. But practice made it easier, after a few weeks I was enjoying it so much more, and noticing so much more than in the beginning (when all I could focus on was not to talk;) After a while I was getting so much into these conversations that were unfolding in front of my eyes (and ears), that every movement of the head, every laugh, every different tone of voice seemed (no, sorry, WAS) significant.

When I read about the importance of observing a child, and giving him the time, space and floor to interact with his environment on his own terms - in other words, giving him the opportunity to PLAY - I remembered how I learnt to do this for all the people whose conversations I recorded. And I decided to do just that. It made a world of difference.

So here is what I like to do, and if you have a moment, try and do the same - I promise you, you will get addicted to watching your child at play.

When I first started practising observation, this is what I saw: Antek is standing on a box. Now, he's getting down to the floor, picking something up. Now, he's playing with the boxes... not very exciting, I know. Bear with me.

Pawel and I like to watch things like 'Planet Earth' and other docummentaries about animals. It's fascinating, probably because, at least to me, I realise how much I can learn about them, and how wonderfully the are adapted to living in the environment they are in. I started observing Antek in the same way, as if I knew nothing about him. After a while it was much more fascinating than the secret life of penguins ;) The trick is also in realising that we really don't know what the penguins are trying to do. We can guess, and hypothesize, but we might be wrong. Which is why, it might be better to let penguins do what they're doing, and carefully observe, without trying to interfere...

The things I looked for in the beginning to help me focus on something were:

1. What is going on with his body?
2. What is going on emotionally?
3. What kind of learning is going on? (this one I owe to Polly Elam and Maureen Perry)

So, going back to Antek standing on that box... here is what I see:

Antek is now 15 months old, just learnt to walk. He is standing on a box - it's not too stable, so he has to be very focussed on not loosing balance. He is shifting his weight very slowly from one leg to the other, as if trying to see what difference it will make to his centre of gravity. His arms are slightly raised, but he is very stable. Slowly, very slowly, he lifts one foot just above the surface of the box, and regains his balance by firmly putting his weight onto the other foot. He bends his knee very carefully as if he didn't know where his left foot is going to land. Continuing to bend his right knee he places his left foot on the floor. He looks up at me and smiles :) Next, ge slowly gets down to the floor and picks up one of the empty cups. He looks around, as if he knew exactly what the plan is. He finds a bowl with a lot of little plastic caps in it and moves it closer, next he picks up a spoon (not an easy task, the spoon is big and he has to work hard to hold it in his hand) and carefully looks at it. He decides on a task: he starts transferring the caps from the bowl to the cup. Very slowly he keeps transferring the caps, one by one (working hard on something that resembles a tripod grip!!!). All of a sudden he stops, lowers his head and using his left hand removes the only green cap (all the other ones are white - that is pretty cool, you have to admit :) from the bowl. He puts that one aside. Clearly, this one was not part of the plan. He then finishes the task and when all the white caps are in the bowl he looks up and smiles at me again. He slowly grabs the cup full of caps in his right hand, moves carefully from sitting to squatting, and then, very slowly, still holding the full cup in his hand, straigthens his knees and stands up. He looks around the kitchen, balances on both feet, and with one sudden movement throws the cup up in the air and all the white plastic caps are flying everywhere! Well, that was unexpected :)

If you think you don't have time, your life is busy, you have stuff to do - I understand, so do I. But...this took about 5 minutes. It's not a lot, but a lot was going on. The great things about it is that you really learn so much about the penguins, pardon, your child... we learnt what kinds of things he liked to engage with (which helped in choosing toys that he would like), what he liked doing at that stage (which helped in deciding whether what he needed was a bowl full of small objects, a set of cups to stack, or a large box to push around the room), what he was working on physically (does he need a box to climb onto, or do we need to go to the playground more?). But above all, we realised that all he does is really pretty impressive - all the things we observed made us appreciate how wonderfully capable (and focussed!) he is :)

I enjoy watching Antek play, mainly because, at least to me, I realise how much I can learn about him, and how wonderfully he is adapted to living in the environment he is in. Once I got into the habit of quietly looking at his play, I realised that all the time, continuously, without a break, he is discovering something, working on something, mastering something, perfecting something. He is testing hypotheses, experimenting, exploring the world and all its wonders. And I realised that he is like a scientist at work - constantly looking for new things to try, to do and to experiment with.

If you can spare 5 minutes a day to do that, it will be worth it. These days, we hardly ever watch 'Planet Earth' anymore...

Foto from:


  1. Yet another wonderful post - thank you!

    I know what you're talking about - I LOVE watching Leander go about "business", stacking cups, carefully arranging them by size - and then throwing the lot on the floor.

    Absolute quality time - there is no better use of 5 minutes.

    But…it does take constant reminding to slow down and observe rather than find things that appear more important at the moment. That's something I need to work on.

  2. I love everything about this, Ania. But you probably knew that. :) Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing this experience and your superb insights. (And I want to hear more about your time with Polly and Maureen!)<3

  3. Jan - nice to hear from you ;) I agree: there is no better use of 5 minutes. And you know the best part - I had no idea how much can go on in 5 minutes!!!

    Janet - Thank you, as always, for support...I will e-mail you over the weekend. The training was absolutely amazing...

  4. Ania - so glad I found your blog via the ever-inspiring Janet Lansbury :) Lovely post on observation, the patience to really truly listen, and the world that opens up to us when we SEE and HEAR the children (without interrupting!). I will share this post with my teachers-in-training! cheers.

  5. @jeannezoo,

    Thank you for the comment, that's really nice :) I'm glad you enjoyed it, and also: I have just checked out your lovely lovely blog! :):)

    And thanks for sharing this one further :)