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Blog post Part of series: Wellbeing and being outdoors

Taking notice: Children’s observation skills in nature as a basis for the development of early science education

Gregor Torkar, University of Ljubljana

‘In that earliest childhood, we get those invisible glasses through which we look at the world all our lives, and these glasses color our views.’
Lainšček, 2020

This beautiful quote from the Slovenian writer Feri Lainšček captures the essence of why educators should devote time to developing children’s observational skills starting in early childhood. Children are seekers of explanations to make sense of their experiences with nature. Young children’s fascination with the world around them is something education must capitalise on to develop their ‘invisible glasses’ (that is, their worldview) and foster scientific process skills. Children’s observations and investigations of the local environment enable them to identify and answer questions that trigger further curiosity. However, are their observations trivial and effortless, or do we, as teachers or parents, need to encourage and facilitate their observational skills?

Observation skills are more than ‘just looking’ at things or ‘just seeing’ things. Observations sometimes can be very specific, developed within a disciplinary framework, such as in ornithology: learning how to recognize bird songs, silhouettes and flying patterns. Observation is an important initial skill in the early years that helps children find and organise patterns in the observed natural world. Initially, children start observing using multiple senses simultaneously – sight, sound, smell, touch, taste – and gradually, step by step, they develop simple explanations of observations and complex interpretations of the world around them.

Just as children’s intuitive (spontaneous) concepts are gradually refined and replaced by scientific concepts (for instance, not all organisms that fly and have beaks are birds), intuitive observations are replaced with more selective, sophisticated, and theory-driven observations that lead to the development of scientific explanations of natural phenomena (Tomkins & Tunnicliffe, 2007). Progression from everyday to expert scientific skills of observation should be a more central focus of science teaching by providing extended time for careful observations, teachers’ encouragements, shared noticing and conversations between teachers and children, peer interaction, sketching and drawing, sculpture, diary-writing, and asking questions (see for example Eberbach & Crowley, 2017).

Observation plays a key role throughout the entire scientific investigation process, not only in the phase of data collection. Observations are not only supposed to serve to answer research questions and problems, but also to identify them. This identification function of observation is something that is neglected in education, and outdoor education should offer it more. As long as children lack awareness and so fail to see patterns in nature, negative human impacts in nature, or injustice and inequalities in human communities, they will not be capable of responding and acting sustainably.

‘As long as children lack awareness and so fail to see patterns in nature, negative human impacts in nature, or injustice and inequalities in human communities, they will not be capable of responding and acting sustainably.’

In children’s learning about nature, outdoor education is seen by many researchers as an optimal means of learning; the ongoing loss of human interactions with nature that is being replaced by the digital world, books and other vicarious experiences is viewed as one of the most fundamental challenges in today’s science education. Whether and how direct and vicarious experiences are associated with children’s development of observational skills, however, is still poorly understood.[1]

Our study (Klofutar, Jerman, & Torkar, 2020) evaluated the role of direct and vicarious experiences with forest organisms in fostering preschool children’s (age three to six) observational skills. We evaluated the effectiveness of an education programme in which participating preschool children learned about forest organisms through direct experiences in the forest. We compared it to another programme in which children learned this only in the classroom by watching videos, reading books, playing various table games and engaging in other vicarious experiences. The results indicate that both education programmes were successful in developing their observational skills, which means that short-term (week-long) interventions can have a significant effect on developing observation skills. However, direct experiences lead to a higher increase and persistence of skills acquired by participating children.

Developing skills of observation can help us to ‘catch sight of the beautiful’ (Aked et al., 2008, p. 8) and can give each of us unique ‘invisible glasses’ that ‘colour our world’ so that we can be aware of and appreciate what is happening in the moment. Reflecting on such experiences helps people of all ages to understand what matters to them and helps them to align their behaviours with their values; this, in turn, promotes wellbeing (Aked et al., 2008, p. 8). The project outlined in this blog post shows how starting this process at an early age could reap rich rewards for the future.


[1] For more, see the Nature, Outdoor Learning and Play BERA special interest group.


References

Aked, J., Marks, N., Cordon, C., & Thompson, S.  (2008) Five ways to wellbeing. New Economics Foundation. https://neweconomics.org/2008/10/five-ways-to-wellbeing

Eberbach, C., & Crowley, K. (2017). From seeing to observing: How parents and children learn to see science in a botanical garden. Journal of the Learning Sciences26(4), 608–642. https://doi.org/10.1080/10508406.2017.1308867

Klofutar, Š., Jerman, J., & Torkar, G. (2020). Direct versus vicarious experiences for developing children’s skills of observation in early science education. International Journal of Early Years Education, 1–18. https://doi.org/10.1080/09669760.2020.1814214

Lainšček, F. (2020, November 18). Feri Lainšek: Kurji pastir [Radio broadcast]. Val 2020. https://val202.rtvslo.si/2020/11/feri-lainscek-kurji-pastir/

Tomkins, S. P., & Tunnicliffe, S. D. (2001). Looking for ideas: Observation, interpretation and hypothesis-making by 12-year-old pupils undertaking science investigations. International Journal of Science Education23(8), 791–813. https://doi.org/10.1080/09500690119322