Grant holder
Rosie Flewitt and Kate Cowan, UCL Institute of Education
Project status

Observation and Digital Documentation of Play in Early Years Classrooms

In this study, researchers worked with educators to develop an early childhood pedagogy of observation, documentation and assessment that brings Froebelian principles of the ‘uniqueness of every child’s capacity and potential’ and ‘holistic nature of development’ to documentation practices in contemporary early years settings.

Download a free copy of the Guidance for Practitioners on Digital Documentation, Cowan & Flewitt, 2020

Project summary

Observations of play in early childhood education have typically been documented in paper-based formats (e.g. scrapbooks, written notes, printed photographs) as part of assessment practices.

However, there is a growing trend in early childhood education towards using commercial software to record learning in digital formats, where video, audio, photographs and writing can be combined. These multi-media forms of ‘digital documentation’ offer new possibilities to recognise, represent and value children’s multiple signs of learning in new ways, and to share these narratives with parents and children.

Yet there is little research-based guidance on digital documentation, so early education assessment practices run the risk of being guided by commercial drivers rather than by child-centred learning theories.

In this study, the researchers worked with educators to develop an early childhood pedagogy of observation, documentation and assessment that brings Froebelian principles of the ‘uniqueness of every child’s capacity and potential’ and ‘holistic nature of development’ to documentation practices in contemporary early years settings.

Fieldwork included case studies of children aged 3-5 years living with disadvantage and/or in the early stages of learning English in three diverse multicultural early years settings in London.

The study design was framed by a multimodal social semiotic perspective on learning (Kress 2010) and an ethnographic approach to social science enquiry.

Data generation included video recordings, examples of documentation of children’s learning, interviews with educators, parent questionnaires and video-prompted discussions with children.

Thematic and fine grained multimodal analysis of video extracts resulted in rich findings regarding the opportunities and constraints of different approaches used by the participating settings in their observation and documentation of young children’s learning.


Published in the International Journal of Early Years Education (Dec 2021)

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Key findings

  1. Early childhood education settings have diverse approaches to observing and documenting children’s learning, depending on who and what the documentation is for, and this is linked to each setting’s ethos;
  2. Practitioners found it harder to observe and document children who did not communicate confidently in English, who spent extended periods playing outside/in physical play, and who did not seek out adult interaction or produce things that acted as traces of their learning (e.g drawings, paintings). This highlighted characteristics of children whose ‘signs of learning’ are more likely to go unnoticed;
  3. Practitioners valued observation and documentation as part of their child-centred pedagogy, yet felt this was in tension with the summative assessment requirements of the EYFS national curriculum;
  4. Parents appreciated documentation of their children’s learning, and found digital documentation more accessible than paper-based formats. Parent perspectives on their child’s documentation added valuable insights for practitioners, yet most parents did not contribute to their children’s documentation, irrespective of the format;
  5. Children enjoyed reviewing and sharing their documentation, and this prompted metacognitive reflection on their own learning. However, most digital documentation software is designed for adult use and does not currently facilitate children’s independent access or contribution to their own documentation;
  6. Video was identified as having valuable potential for observing and documenting children’s play, giving value to aspects of play that might otherwise be overlooked, for supporting reflection, and for letting parents and children know that play is valued;
  7. Video observations and documentation presented challenges: time needed to record and re-watch material; impact of digital devices on interactions with children; the digital documentation software design creating tensions with enquiry-based approaches to early learning;
  8. The participatory research design of this study supported practitioners to reflect critically on their own practice, address challenges, and creatively implement changes relating to the use of digital tools and the embedding of core Froebelian principles in their observation and documentation practices.

Next steps

The researchers plan to take forward the findings of this valuable and original study focus on the need to promote assessment practices in early childhood education that recognise and more fully capture the holistic nature of development and every child’s unique capacity and potential. Next steps towards achieving this include:

  1. Raising awareness of the need to recognise and value children’s silent signs of learning, which may be hard to observe and document and are often overlooked;
  2. Exploring the potentials of digital documentation for critical reflection on learning, including using video as a tool for prompting children’s own recall;
  3. Supporting early educators to find ways to include parents and children in documentations processes;
  4. Working with digital software designers to explore more accessible, child-friendly documentation interfaces that support documentation of enquiry-based learning, and proactively encourage parental contributions;
  5. Developing an international network for research on early years digital documentation.

These aims will be achieved through ongoing activity, including:

  • a dissemination event that brings together practitioners, academics and software designers to share key research findings and consider potential for change (London, UK, January 2019)
  • presentation of findings at leading international education research conferences
  • publication of academic and practitioner-oriented papers to promote the value for educators, parents and children of observation and documentation processes that recognise and value children’s silent signs of learning; ongoing liaison with digital software designers
  • founding an international network that brings together likeminded academics and practitioners who share a commitment to improving early childhood education observation and documentation.

Featured in Nursery World

A article published in September 2019

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Publications arising from the research

An article by Kate Cowan and Rosie Flewitt has now been published in the International Journal of Early Years Education (Dec 2021).

The findings from the project were also used in this blog post for Tapestry (Nov 2021).

Interim findings were presented at the International Froebel Society Conference (Hiroshima, Japan. September 2018). Findings and recommendations were shared at the Reconceptualising Early Childhood Literacies Conference (Manchester, UK. March 2019), the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting (Toronto, Canada. April 2019) and the UK Literacy Association Annual Conference (Sheffield, UK. July 2019).

The findings were reported in: Cowan and Flewitt ‘Towards valuing children’s signs of learning’. In C. Cameron and P. Moss (2020) (Eds.) Early Childhood Education and Care in England: Towards Transformative Change. UCL IOE Press.

Cowan and Flewitt are founder members of the recently formed, international network: Research on Early Childhood Digital Documentation (REDD), in collaboration with researchers at the University of Agder (Norway) and the University of Helsinki (Finland). As founders, Cowan and Flewitt plan to take forward the research findings through comparisons of international practice, fostering joint publications and symposia, and developing proposals for future research projects.

Toddlers, tech and talk

Professor Flewitt is leading a 2022 - 2024 research project looking at how very young children learn language and literacy at home in a digital age.

Find out more

Research documents

Final Research Report Valuing Young Children's Signs of Learning, Cowan and Flewitt 2019