Capturing the Moment

There are two ways to capture a moment in the early childhood world: experience and documentation.

Experience is as simple as it states, just taking a moment to experience the world with a child/children. No strings tied, no assessing, all joy. Taking that moment and making a memory. Sometimes the most important thing we can give children is to be fully present. To turn off our teacher brains and just be human with them: no checklists, cameras, or analysis involved.

The education world these days is filled with many outcomes and standards. Children are very aware of when we have them on our radar. Often shifts in behavior happen when a child feels they are being observed for assessment – authentically or not. Once while recording a set of children during a conflict (that they were beautifully resolving), the child leaned into the direction of my recorder and said, “Right, Anna? We should  just be friends”. While I am sure he was sincere in his response, I am also sure that his response was shaped by the fact that he was highly aware that he was being “documented”. So while, I thrive on taking note of what the children are doing – collecting authentic evidence, I also know that they deserve moments where I set the task of documenting aside. Moments where they can trust being their authentic self without judgement or the teacher paparazzi in their face.

However, documentation (from my experience) is the most authentic, meaningful, and developmentally appropriate method of capturing a moment and collecting evidence. One of my favorite sayings is “it is not what they know, but how they have come to know it” – meaning that the process of how a child learns is the most valuable part of the journey and not the collections of facts and rote skills they can ramble off or demonstrate on cue. A collected story or documentation shows that they have internalized a skill so deeply that they are able to use it in their life, play, and the real world. Which is much more relevant and important than being able to “test” correctly on a piece of information within one moment (e.g. find their friends name to put a letter in in by knowing it has an A first vs. one day in December pointing to an A on a pull out assessment, such as a DIBELS or Get it Got it Go).

Last year, I had a conversation with a parent about how her child was highly aware of having enough muffins in the package while grocery shopping for himself, his mom, his dad, and still enough for him to have one tomorrow. In his mind’s eye he calculated that he needed at least 4 muffins and that there were more than that (6). She wondered what was more valuable, that he could do that or was he behind on his skills because his fellow playmate could count to 100 and he could not. I hands down feel it is the muffin quantity. He was able to apply his knowledge to a real life context. He utilized his knowledge just as I had seen him do in the past when fixing a Tonka truck, he was looking for one round circle to replace a missing tire on a set of four. Navigating through daily challenges using problem solving and real world knowledge is most valuable.

The challenge for a teacher is that this type of knowledge is difficult to assess and monitor. It has to be captured. Documentation is truly the only way to understand, record, and collect evidence of learning during these moments because it is the map to how the child shows they know what they know. I could mark on a checklist that Jonathan knows how to identify the number 8 but if I snap a photo of him playing office with a keyboard and scribe a story or anecdotal note about how he noticed his glasses when turned make the shape of a number 8 just like on the keyboard – that shows context to the information gathered. It also is likely that this information will stay with the child for a lifetime. Brain research shows that we store memories by meaningful moments. Which would be more meaningful to you – reviewing a set of flashcards or learning how to write Mom on you picture of a rainbow for her?

Have you ever crammed for a test, remembering all of the vocabulary words for the next day, ace-ing it and then not remembering it when it came to finals time? Did you use the information in between that time? So why do we assume that children are vessels to carry facts? Why do we assume they should be assessed as so? or learn by collecting data and not memories?

Each year my methods for documentation varies – but it remains my life line to showing evidence of learning and communicating with families and the community. I tweak and learn things that improve my methods. There are a few things that stay the same: note taking, photos, and collecting samples of language and work. These are always elements I include. The devices I use, the methods I use to share the documentations, and my style of writing  documentations might change. This year there are two new elements to my documentation process: the use of a private education app Storypark and the style of sharing the information. I know tend to use a phone/tablet without access to personal information, work only when with the children (to take photos, videos, and notes). This makes my accessibility to a device easier, it fits in my apron pocket. My time is also saved by being able to link the stored photo or data to the app that is on the phone/tablet without using a lengthy download process by transferring them from a camera to another location or device for documenting.  As for the style shift, a new style that I have been fascinated by is called Learning Stories. It is a way of writing a letter directly to a child – noting the observations and possibilities of a particular experience. I find it to be very open, detailed oriented, and child honoring. A link to a detailed explanation and example can be seen here:


Also, here is one of my own examples of a Learning Story:



(* Name and Photos edited and limited for privacy)


I marvel at the way you play family. You can often be spotted mixing something tasty in the kitchen or being the caregiver of a baby doll. Often when walking by the dramatic play area or playhouse I hear you negotiating your role in the family such as Brother, Daddy, or even pet dog. You are ready to take on your character with eager commitment. It is evident that as you play this nurturing role, you pour yourself into it- with lots of love and attention. An extra pinch or salt, a few more stirs, a tender hug – as you are practicing these roles, you are building your skills to be a kind and compassionate friend,  a collaborative playmate, and a tender father (much later in you future, of course).
Here is your story of ‘You and Your Baby Crumb’ :
“There’s a baby in my tummy.
I’m having a baby.
She is going to be born in one day.
She will be 6.
Her name is Crumb, like a cracker.
Here she comes. (Pulls her out and gently and snuggles her).”
Your smile as you look down at Crumb says it all.

Learning Tags: Social Emotional, Joy and Wonder, Dramatic Play


As an early childhood educator I feel taking the time to capture the moment deepens our relationships with the children and our abilities to be mindful and reflective educators. So with no further rambling I invite you to capture a moment: create a memory through experience or collect one by documenting the moment. Join the world of authentic assessment, document learning.

Childhood Joy and Preservation, The How To Dos

Documentation – the life line to our work!

Progressive, play-based, and quality early childhood programs often use documentation as a source of sharing information with others and recording what children are learning. Communication and assessment are both critical pieces in the education field but how early childhood teachers and directors approach communication and assessment can be very unique compared to traditional school practices.
Documentation was a new concept to me many years ago while taking undergrad classes for my Education Degree. I was in an amazing infant and toddler course that asked us to create a photo tri-fold documentation of our observations during classroom field work. This was a challenge for me. Many of the teaching methods used at my field placement were breaking my heart and I had to deeply explore how I would document learning. I decided to do a broad spectrum of learning through play. While observing the children during free time and interacting with them during a few lessons I had done on play-dough and shaving cream my eyes were opened to how children were learning every second they engaged with their environment and peers. Suddenly all the child development research, brain research, and EC courses were making sense – I was watching it unfold in front of my eyes. As well as, watching it being challenged in a negative way in front of my eyes. My board showed children playing and learning:boys laughing and bonding over a dance in high-heels, children naming colors and textures with shaving cream, writing letters and drawing shapes with shaving cream and play-dough, engaging in narratives about family while molding play-dough people, peering through holes on the back of the shelf and figuring out covered holes were not visible, drawings of Mama’s and animals (labeled with Spanish and English vocabulary). All very solid indicators of learning and development. But the teachers viewed their state assessment packets in a very literal way. Circles were only counted as successful pieces if a child was sat down in a group and forced to draw one perfectly with a pencil. There were days I was ready to walk away – one particular day when a little boy cried until he threw up because he hated the pressure of the task so much. It is heartbreaking seeing 3 years old with so much anxiety about writing!
Our job as EC teachers is to inspire writing and not kill it. That state assessment could have been satisfied with a picture of him tracing a circle in shaving cream to represent a cow head (bright smile on his face at the time) just as much as the written sample they were trying to force out of him. But often teachers fear the loom of assessments and feel the only way to get a piece of evidence is to sit a child down and have them perform the exact booklet described task. If they need to know a-z then I must have them point at a-z on a flash card and name them. When the reality is how many times in a week do you hear the children identify letters. Everyday my preschoolers are reading their own names, their friend’s names, the signs around the room, the letters in the play materials… and so on and so forth. Documenting (anecdotal notes, photos, work samples) daily happenings of the day can provide evidence for children’s learning.
The reality is that documenting can be done in multiple ways. Choose a way that fits you, your program, and the children. Currently my program does a beautiful and well written newsletter every two weeks – documenting what the children have experienced and pulled from their experiences. Our photos and notes guide what interests we follow for planning curriculum and projects. We also use these gatherings combined with work samples to mark what developmental goals a child has achieved.
Documentation can be used for:
– assessment (Developmental summaries, Portfolios)
– communication (Newsletters, Displays)
– self reflection (the teachers and children can look at the documentations and improve practice or be inspired for what comes next in a project)
– a tool for planning (interests and areas for improvement can be noted for teachers and children so that an new project or play area can emerge or be adapted)

Documentation is about recording what the children do and say. It is important to write what they say verbatim so that what they know and what vocabulary they use is accurately represented. It is best to have a system and dedicated place for collecting documentations (camera, notebook, live-scribe, sound recording device, or some other portfolio for collecting written anecdotal notes). However, great opportunities happen on the fly and if you need to improvise then do! Don’t miss something great because you didn’t have the tools with you. I have used a sharpie, with a sleeve and tape when necessary.

iphone spring 2013 356

Study the art of observation. Know what you are looking for. I recommend the book “The Art of Awareness” by Deb Curtis and Margie Carter. Also a mini resource to get you started is an article put out in a NAEYC publication called: “One Teacher, 20 Preschoolers, and a Goldfish Environmental Awareness, Emergent Curriculum, and Documentation” by Ann Lewin Benham – Many resources on Reggio Emilia show a beautiful and meaningful way of capturing children’s work. A recent article I found that describes the Reggio perspective nicely can be found at:

It is important to capture the joys of childhood and the deep learning children are doing. A picture says a thousand words but a note or recording paired with that picture clarifies what really is happening.
Questions I ask myself while documenting:
– Did I record enough samples of child language to accurately represent the ideas they are sharing?
– Did I describe or note key words from the event enough that I will remember what was happening?
– Did I make note of the moment that represents growth, progress, skill, or personality (this is just as important as skill – did the event show us something new about how the child thinks or who she is as a person? We value children and not just academia).
– Did I take photos that show progression of the project and ideas (not just cute photos).
– Did I add my own bias or falsely interpret the happenings or am I sure that I am presenting clear and accurate evidence?

What do you see?


I see:
A child that can match letters to letters (one to one correspondence and spatial/graphic relationships). He can sort from a pile of a variety of letters (letter identification and math). He can name each letter as he strings it (alphabetic awareness and fine motor). He can make the decision to put a different letter on his string but will say that he knows that the letter is not is in his name (self-awareness and independence). When asked he says that he did his name but he likes the other letters. He pretends they are shark teeth after completing the work and pretends to attack others hands with it as he laughs(joy, social interaction, imagination, and object representation).

Now tell me a 10 minute worksheet or skill and drill activity can get more than that! Bring learning alive! Let them play! It is your job to stage the environment so that they will show you just how much they know. Your job is putting it down on paper and collecting supporting evidence.

Last year I went to the National NAEYC Expo and one of the sessions I was handed this flyer on documentation (credit to the McCormick Tribune Foundation and Chicago Children’s Museum). I love it and had to share it!

I encourage you to explore how you record and share what your children do. What do you use for meaningful assessment? Do you use documentation? Can you incorporate it? How can you improve how you track and share what children learn? What is your next step in the process?

Documentation is hard. But, I feel it is the most authentic form of assessment I have found in the early childhood arena. It allows me to say Yes to play. Yes – you can work with real and meaningful materials. You can learn and grow. I will do my job of putting it on paper. I can’t support asking a child to do that job (unless it is a piece of their own written work or drawings). I can’t justify telling a child to abandon real work, tangible materials, and complex projects so that they can fill out a worksheet as a piece of evidence for a parent or the powers to be. I will do that part. I will translate the meaningful experiences they are having into evidence. If it must be on paper let me be the one to fill out that paper. The value of a child’s work must be honored in what they do and not only what they can put on paper with pencil. Learning is so much more than collecting bits of skills and information and regurgitating for others to see.
Let’s let children do what they do best! They will show us what they know if we just give them time, space, and material.

“Children are likely to live up to what you believe of them.”

– Lady Bird Johnson, Former First Lady