Pedagogical Documentation and its links to Children’s Personal Social, and Emotional Well Being

Observations and documentation from a beginning of a project.

Recently I was interviewed by Kathy Brodie as part of the Spring 2017 Early Years Summit.  Here are some of the questions asked and my written responses (I go into more detail on the video, that can be accessed at the link at the end of this article.

What is pedagogical documentation?

Pedagogical documentation is the process of learning to understand what it is that children might be thinking.  It is a visible process of thinking and reflection on children’s learning.  It may take the form of photographs or film combined with notes of what children say and do.  So, for example you might be working with a small group of children on a shared enquiry.  I’ve been working with some educators who are interested in children’s theories about the sun and the moon.  As part of finding out what they know and think, the educators invited the children to draw their ideas, and in doing so, the educators took photographs and sometimes filmed the children,  and noting down the things they said and did.

We could say that pedagogical documentation is a research methodology in trying to find out and make visible and thus sharable what children say and do.  In using the traces of documentation, for example the films, the photographs the artefacts produced, the written dialogues of the children we can then use them  analyse with others to try and find out what is really going on and thus form a plan of what to do next.   In this way, pedagogical documentation is a form of ongoing professional development combined with planning,  But its most important use I think is when we use it back with the children, to re-offer what they have said and done, to show we value what they say and do and to work together to find ways to elaborate knowledge on the shared enquiry.

Pedagogical documentation works on many layers – it is for planning, for learning how children learn and think, its for making visible to others, like families what children are doing.  For me it differs form the usual formative assessment  that we do which tends to be for generating data on cohorts, for evidence for inspection.  Rarely are observations shared and used in a way that helps us to learn about children and for the children to see themselves as learners.

How can we use pedagogical documentation to help transform our thinking?

In collecting the traces of children’s experiences we can use these as visual aids and memoirs to re-create a context for learning.  In doing so, we analyse the pieces and try to see the bigger picture that sits behind them.  One thing I do is sit with educators and their traces of documentation and help them to piece together the bigger picture, of what we think children are thinking about.  So trying to go beyond the superficial.  In doing so, it awakens in us the pleasure of seeing children in richer ways – we begin to notice their strategies for learning, the patterns of their learning and in doing so it transforms our thinking of what children are capable of.  Loris Malaguzzi of the schools in Reggio Emilia, talked about the importance of standing aside for a while, and listening carefully because then, our teaching would be different from before.  I think what he meant was that the change occurs in us, that we see children and their amazing capabilities for deep thought and action.  This is what the process of pedagogical documentation does in transforming our thinking about how children are in the world.

How can this support young children’s personal, social and emotional development? 

I think there are some very clear links between the purpose and practice of pedagogical documentation and children’s personal, social and emotional development.  The action of pedagogical documentation often begins with the lifting of a pen to write or a camera to take a photograph.  In doing so you are showing that you are visibly listening, that you are valuing what that child or group of children are doing.  You are demonstrating and practising what  Carla Rinaldi calls the pedagogy of listening.  As a child you know that you are being noticed, listened too and thought about.

I first thought about this when I was in Reggio Emilia for the first time and was confronted with some A3 sized photographs of their youngest children in the infant toddler centres.  They were just simple black and white photographs of each of the children in that classroom, all presented just above floor level.  In a video I saw how the babies would crawl across the floor and find themselves and each other, often in pairs or in small groups: these encounters with photographs often resulted in much giggling, and pointing, and hands on printed faces found eyes and noses, that they then used to find their own nostrils and mouths.  It was a from of pedagogical documentation that created a context for encounter of self and of each other.  It was a powerful engagement and I realised just what a positive experience this was for the children.  Over time, as these photographs remained and the children got to know each other more they would point to each other as if saying, ‘thats you and that is me, we are together.’  It created a positive context for togetherness.

Another example displayed in a similar way was the story of how two children played with a doll together.  It was a very strong way to demonstrate collaboration and what that looked like for the very young children.  It modelled their positive interactions and how they were building a relationship together through the passing of a doll to each other.  Carlina Rinaldi again speaks of the process of documentation as “an act of caring, and an act of love and interaction.”

The simplest thing that we can do, is to turn the camera or the tablet around and engage with children with what we are doing.  So often, observations mean that the educator is busy writing and not interacting, or hid behind the lens of a camera or face down in a tablet.  This is not what we want to do.  But by turning the camera around we use it like a visual notebook, we can share with the child or group of children what we ourselves are valuing – and the children have always got something to say back to that!  It is often a way to engage in conversation about  what they are trying to understand, what they making sense of and what they are doing in relation to others.  This interaction may then lead to writing down more of what they say, we can say things like ‘that is really important what you say, I’m going to write it down.  Again it tells the child that what they have to say  or what they have done is interesting.

A great example of this way of working happens at Madeley Nursery School in Telford.  There they use reflective journals to collect traces of the children’s experiences.  Inside they lay photographs side by side with what children say and  do together with the questions and thoughts it arises for them as an educator.  The children are fascinated with these books, and so they should be, it is full of their adventures!

The reflective journals are used directly with the children, and this is important as they are not just collecting points of evidence but are used and often added to by the children.  A session might begin with a small group gathering, the reflective journal placed on the floor so all can see.  The educator would then use this journal to reflect back with children on what they have said and been doing.  It connects experiences over time and enables children to see themselves as a part of a group community.  It can also help create the conditions for building a sense of belonging by seeing yourself in connection with others.

The children also have individual books which they call “Celebration Books’.  These books are co-owned by the child and the family and are a site of celebrating learning and development.  Many places have these type of books, but what I find special here is that the parents contribute so much to the books, making connections between home and school.  The educators often find that what interests the children at home is what captivates them at nursery too and vice versa of course.  In terms of their personal, social and emotional development the child recognises themselves as powerful learners with something to offer the world.  The books are loved by the children, and the families and I mean loved.  They are containers of precious energy and opportunity.  Just looking at them makes them feel good about themselves and what they are learning about.  It brings back memories and it makes special seemingly ordinary moments.

At a nursery school in Wolverhampton called Ashmore Park Nursery, they display traces of the children’s drawing and painting, their models and makings so that children can see that their work again is valued but also to see their work in a context of others.  The children work in small groups, in an enquiry based way on shared provocations and ideas often raised by the children themselves.  In this way children working on shared ideas see the work of their peers.  They see that their idea can be similar or different to others and learn to understand that we all have different points of view (and can still live together).  This is something we can learn from the children as adults; this living with a multiplicity of ways of knowing and being.

So we could say, that at the heart of the process of pedagogical documentation and its subsequent sharing and publication to others (including children and their families) is that it values, relationships, listening, caring, meaning-making connection belonging and interaction as essential elements and outcomes.

What strategies for using pedagogical documentation would you suggest for practitioners, especially if this is a new idea for them?

I would always start small.  I’d buy a large notebook with blank pages in so that I could not just write but draw too.  Sometimes I like to draw how the children are drawing, copying the types of marks they are making in sequence.  I’d sit with a group of children and listen to their conversation and take notes on what I find interesting or have questions about.  I’d certainly take some photographs or maybe short snippets of film that I could look back at later.  I’d stick the photographs in the book, nothing fancy like a scrapbook, but just an ordered set of  written and visual notation.  And then I’d find someone who could talk to me about it – maybe in a reflection or planning meeting.  I’d like to find out what other people think about what was going on and see if it matched with my own thoughts or if the discussion offered new thoughts.  That often happens with me.

Alternatively I’d use film as my modality of collecting.  I’d take short snippets of film of no more than 5 minutes and use these in a staff meeting to share and find out from others what they think is going on and what questions it raises for them.  It is surprising when you do this, suddenly you start making connections, seeing familiar patterns of thoughts or play across different contexts.  You get to know the child or group of children even better.  Then I would use the film or the notes to think about what to offer next.  It might be more of the same, it might be a challenge or a provocation for thinking about something differently.  But always, I would use it back with the children.  They like to see themselves on film and it gives rise to useful information that you can use in your own thinking of what to do next.

To find out more, access the interview at The Spring Summit and access a wealth of other interviews by ECE specialists on the subject of children’s Personal, Social and Emotional Well-Being.

Drawing as Meaning Making

drawing-428383_1280From Reggio, we gain a perspective that the ‘Arts’ are equal and co-existing ‘languages’ of expression and communication alongside and together with other ‘languages’… of science… of mathematics… of written word… of other ways of knowing, describing and discovering the world.  Loris Malaguzzi’s poem,  “No Way.  The Hundred is There” is testament to this.

Materials in this context are referred to as languages that are capable of expression and communication.  However, it suggests that there is an ‘if’ there somewhere…

When working with early childhood educators, one of the things we jointly ponder is the issue of skills and if children must first understand the sensorial properties of materials such as clay, paint, charcoal, markers etc. to then be able to engage in representational, expressive and communicative purposes.  It sometimes seems as if children are asking of materials in their first encounters what is this, what does it do… and then through working with it begin to ask what if or how can I use this?  It fits in a similar way to how Anna Craft (2002) described ‘Possibility Thinking’ as a slide between a realm of finding out and discovering something before using it to represent a specific thought or idea.

Sylvia Kind (2010) challenges this however, saying that: “It is not necessarily a linear progression from experimentation to communication.”  Instead, Kind invites us to think about children’s artistic languages as “explorations in interrogating spaces and investigating relationships, and as a social process of making meaning and as generative acts.”  Therefore children can and do make meaning in complex ways during and simultaneously whilst exploring properties and affordances (the skills) of using any such media.

I have wondered for a long time about the process of meaning making in the act of drawing and in how that meaning can change across contexts.  For example, I once watched a child drawing and after a while she declared to me it was a cat.  Not five minutes later the same child, with the same drawing, told another educator it was a Beanie Baby.  I was left feeling a little confused, was I wrong in my understanding or was the child wrong?  Well it’s not going to be the child, it will always be me!  It seems that meaning making is far more complex, and more generative of multiple meanings that may or may not connect in a logical manner.


I find this particular drawing that I have shared in a TEDx talk here fascinating for many reasons.  One, because it ‘represents’ something huge and almost unimaginable neatly contained on a single piece of paper.  Two, because the narrative that accompanies it is a strong theory of how the sun and moon works, and three, because of the sheer beauty and aesthetic of it from such a young child.  But let us not (as my good friend and colleague Louise Lowings would say) get lost in the awe and wonder of it, for it might just dazzle us into doing and thinking nothing more about this,  thus remaining fixed and static in our thinking ourselves.

If we take this drawing as simply an expression or communication of what she knows and understands then we would be in danger of just saying she is wrong in her thinking.  The meaning as dictated through her words would be interpreted as singular and unchangeable.  But Sylvia Kind is suggesting that there is more going on.

Now I read this drawing as a generative act, of thinking in action; an active inquiry into the physics of the solar system.  She is not only actively trying to explain something but is also at the same time trying to understand it herself through the action of drawing and the movement of the material across a piece of paper.  It is rich in description, of texture, space, relations, and movement made in a social engagement between where the marker meets the paper, herself and the atelierista who was observing and listening closely to what she was doing and saying.  There was an interaction, it was intra-active.  An encounter between what she knew and what she was becoming to know.  She was drawing objects as she thought them, not as she saw them (to paraphrase Pablo Picasso).  And of course there is the interaction with the audience, of who views the work and their own meaning making.

When viewing a piece of art, we the audience, are drawn into the world of making sense and meaning of that work, its materials, its presence.  The meaning making therefore does not just lie with the maker but simultaneously sits with the viewer too.  Therefore, this drawing is part of a complex creative process, what Sylvia Kind calls an object of encounter rather than just being a drawing that represents or communicates a fixed thought.  Rather it is relational and interdependent.

“…art as a state of encounter considers that meanings are constituted in the relation between things and in movements of disruption of previously held ideas.”

Kind (2010)

So, and with this is mind, I can now re-describe this drawing as an encounter or event as being:

Sociable – and in a process of exchange with others (those who were present but also those who are and become the audience)

Relational – in that it is situated with an interdependent system of meaning making where ideas connect with those in the making, a sense of becoming

Generative – of negotiating meaning, knowledge and understanding with and through the materials to hand


It means as educators we need to:

Be open – to the complex and fluid thinking and action of children

Hold an awareness – of our our positioning as audience or partner in drawing

To recognise – that their meaning making is neither fixed or static

To act in researchful ways  – to listen and look out for the connections and interdependencies that become visible (or remain invisible) between the context – maker – audience that are not always logical in order, or sequence

To adjust our pedagogy – to see drawing and other forms of making thinking visible as an encounter or event with many possible directions and not a simple linear journey from developing skills and understanding affordances to expression and communication of a singular thought.



Malaguzzi, L.  No Way.  The Hundred is There.  Accessed at on 5th March 2017

Craft, A. (2002). Creativity and Early Years Education. London: Routledge.

Kind, S. (2010) Art Encounters: Movements in the Visual Arts and Early Childhood Education in Flow, Rhythms, & Intensities of Early Childhood Education Curriculum.  Ed. Pacini-Ketchabaw, V.  New York: Peter Lang.