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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Cavanagh


Updated: Jan 4, 2023

Over the past few weeks I have been watching and rewatching videos of Magic Acorns’ projects. It has got me thinking about two things in particular. Firstly, the art of observing and what is needed for observations to be meaningful and useful. We all know it is an essential part of work in early childhood and yet it can sometimes seem as if it is a tick box exercise. How often do we merely describe what a child is doing? When do we ever stop to consider what else we might be seeing? There may be breadth of observations, through use of photos, videos, post-it notes etc but is there any depth to them? How can we see beyond what we’re seeing? Have we actually lost the knack of using our instincts and intuition when thinking about our observations as perhaps we have become so insidiously enmeshed into the neoliberal world of testing and assessment that currently exists, even in early childhood. As Alison Clark (2020) says ‘When measurement is the dominant discourse, this can permeate practices and relationships within ECEC’ (p.156). Are our observations merely objective or is there any space for interpretation? What might be unfolding beneath what we can see? Fleet, Patterson & Robertson (2017) talk of the need for observations to go deeper so we can really see a child’s way of being and knowing. Froebel (1782-1852) believed very much in the power of observation and saw it as the key to unlocking this. ‘My teachers are the children themselves…and I follow them like a faithful, trustful scholar’ (p.10) (Froebel in Murray, 1929). He wanted children to have the opportunity to develop in their own way and at their own pace and it was through careful observation that Froebel believed he could best help children achieve this. Of course, we can never know for certain what a child is thinking as we observe them but by using our instincts and our intuition, by deeply thinking about what we are seeing, by being open to possibilities, we may have a clearer understanding of their inner worlds.

I feel my observations of Magic Acorns’ work have become deeper through my unexpected meanderings into the world of posthumanism. Recognising that my world view is just one view, that my biases and opinions may be limiting other interpretations, is very freeing. Allowing myself to be open to different possibilities about what I’m watching has broadened my understanding and made me reflect on the evolving fusion of connectedness. A boy sitting on the floor playing with his dinosaurs on a gathering drum opposite an adult play partner – how do they all intra-act, how do they connect, nothing happening in isolation, each part playing a role in the narrative? Tsing (2015), encouraging us to embrace a broader worldview, despite possibly making us feel vulnerable, says ‘Unpredictable encounters transform us; we are not in control, even of ourselves.’ (p.20) Observation, then, through a posthuman lens encourages us to be open and curious about what might happen, if we allow the unexpected to unfold as it wishes.

When watching Magic Acorns’ videos there is a sense of this – children’s inner worlds unfolding. There is a slowness, calmness, quietness to the videos, a very natural unhurried feel – children are happy, adults are happy, everything in its own time, there is no sense of urgency. Time is not pressured – it allows what is within the children, the adults, the space, the objects to emerge, to connect, to form, to become known and then become unknown again in a constant shifting of entanglements. It connects all these things without any thought of a ‘catch up’ agenda. This current agenda is so invasive that our sense of time is being skewed. We feel constantly under pressure to move onto the next thing, to be searching for what comes next instead of focusing on the here and now.

So this was the second thing that I got to think about when watching the videos – time.

What is time and how does our relationship with time manifest itself? How does it impact our interactions with children and how does it impact our observations of children? Is education a race? Using terminology such as ‘catch up’ certainly implies so. But how will we ever catch up if we are always striving for the next thing? Regardless of how fast we are going, how will we ever reach the finish line? We all know the story of the hare and the tortoise – it doesn’t end well for the hare. More haste, less speed springs to mind. Should we be thinking instead about less haste, more speed? Can we achieve more by slowing down? Slow is not interested in the next thing. Slow is interested in the here and now. Does slow allow for adults to have time for the deeper levels of observation I was talking about above? Does it enable us to see beyond what we’re seeing, to notice what is unfolding, emerging? Does it offer an opportunity or moment of epiphany or intensity?

Froebel believed in giving children time and space to discover their inner selves and to allow that to unfold in a way that was meaningful to the children and which connected them to the world around them. White (1907), talking about Froebel’s principles and his book ‘The Education of Man’, says that for Froebel ‘Everything in nature unfolded or developed its essence, doing this unconsciously according to the laws of the universe’ (pg 40).

There is a time for slow and also a time for quick. For both to be effective, there must be balance. Our current distorted sense of time needs a reset. I am reminded of my dancing lessons, where I am forever saying ‘slow, slow, quick, quick, slow’. These work together to allow the steps to combine with the music and my partner, with the floor and the movement around the room. A time for quick and a time for slow – a balance that allows connections to flourish.

Clark, A. (2020) ‘The need for transformative change’, in C. Cameron and P. Moss (eds.) Transforming Early Childhood in England: Towards a democratic education. UCL Press, pp.134-150

Fleet, A., Robertson, J. and Patterson, C. (2017) Pedagogical documentation in early years practice: seeing through multiple perspectives. London: Sage Publications

Froebel, F. (1929) Extracts from Letters Written by F. Froebel, in E.Murray (ed.), trans E. Michaelis and H. Keatly Moore in 1891. London: Froebel Society

Tsing, A.L. (2015) The Mushroom at the End of the World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

White, J. (1907) The Educational Ideas of Froebel. London: University Tutorial Press


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