OPAL Learning: The Importance of Observation in Early Years Teaching


two girls playing with sand

One of the best parts about being a nursery practitioner is being able to work with young children and see them progress through the early stages of their life.

You have a very important role to play as you shape their view of the world as they engage in experiences for the first time. One of the main reasons people choose this job is because of their love of children, and their genuine desire to give them the best start in life.

However, with so many assessments and tests to complete, are nursery practitioners spending enough time with children? Or is their day being taken up by marking work and collecting evidence instead?

Your day should be spent interacting with your class, nurturing their creativity and helping them to develop their imagination. Without spending time with children, nursery practitioners cannot truly observe them and are therefore unable to support their learning effectively.

Being buried under a pile of paperwork is not the best use of your time and does not provide the information you need to assist a child’s development.

However we have some good news. There is an alternative…

What is OPAL Learning?

OPAL stands for Observation of Play and Learning and was developed by Barnet Early Years Alliance. It’s an approach which aims to put the joy back into observing children!

As we’ve discussed, teachers can be so busy with their work that they’re detached from what is actually going on in front of them. This makes it difficult for them to effectively observe a child’s progress and identify opportunities for growth.

They’re so focussed on taking notes and concentrating on the paperwork side of things, that they are not truly in the moment and can miss important cues.

With OPAL, teachers can spend time playing and interacting with children instead of testing them. This means working with them to gain deeper knowledge of their interests, their likes and dislikes, and their strengths and weaknesses. Interacting with children is the best way of understanding them. When you know a child very well, you do not need long form observations to draw different conclusions.

Rather than making vague judgements and collecting evidence on computers, teachers can be in the moment and effectively tell the story behind the child by spending time with them.

OPAL also reduces time spent on paperwork. Teachers are usually under pressure to collect evidence for reports rather than truly observing the child. There are so many useful insights when children are interacting with their environment which provide an indication into their learning and development. However, these precious moments can be missed when the teacher is busy making notes.

What Are the Benefits of OPAL Learning?

There are endless benefits of OPAL for both the teacher and the child.

Let’s take a look…

    • Less pressure on the child. By using milestones which are age and stage appropriate, it celebrates each child as an individual and tells their story.
    • Less paperwork. Now this has got to be an obvious benefit! This approach gives teachers more time to spend with children, doing what they love. The milestones are clear, easy to understand, and only take a few minutes to complete.
    • Better attachment between a child and a teacher. By spending more time with children, nursery practitioners form better bonds with their children and get to know their interests.
    • Identify important developmental cues. Instead of relying on data, nursery practitioners are interacting with children and are therefore more likely to spot useful insights about their learning.
    • More focus on the individual child by identifying what they can do and what support they might need next.
    • Gives nursery practitioners more confidence when communicating with parents. They can discuss the child development milestones together and celebrate the child‘s learning.

two children sitting looking at a playbox

What Does OPAL Look Like?

Now we know what OPAL learning is and the benefits it can bring to both teachers and children, we need to understand what it looks like in practice. This enables nursery practitioners to incorporate the principles of this approach into their own setting.


Children do not develop at a ‘typical rate. Each child is different and OPAL takes this into consideration. It works on the basis of having simple, six-monthly developmental milestones, which are used to track a children’s developmental progress.

When looking at the statements, we assess if the child has met the milestones and simply put ‘yes’ or ‘not yet’. This approach to learning allows teachers to celebrate each child’s individuality and celebrate each child’s story. They can then identify what level of support children require.

Starting Points

When a child starts nursery, practitioners complete a ‘Starting Points’ assessment, which identifies which milestones the child has achieved.

For example if a child joins a nursery at 39 months, teachers would review the milestones for 36 months. This enables them to identify any children who are not reaching their milestones and those who may need additional support.


‘Spotlights’ are the name of observations and assessments in this approach to learning. Nursery practitioners sit back and observe children’s innovation, their creativity, their ideas, and their feelings.

These insights provide teachers with information that they can incorporate into their future practices. As a result, this helps them plan a nursery school environment which is tailored to the needs of the child and plays on their strengths and interests. Any type of planning should have a purpose and a meaning behind it, and should benefit the child in some way.

Spotlights are spread out over the course of a year as children reach their milestones at different points. This makes it much fairer on the child as they are being assessed against age-related milestones rather than using a broad age band which is not always an accurate measurement.

In turn, this reduces the amount of paper work for nursery practitioners to complete as it means all assessments aren’t falling around the same time. This is a huge advantage for a nursery practitioner as it frees up more of their time so they can enjoy interacting with the children.
two babies and woman sat on sofa

Working With Parents

Working with parents is essential to gain an insight into how children learn in a home setting. For example, children might feel more comfortable at home and be more confident engaging in certain activities. This includes participating in verbal interactions.

By working collaboratively with parents, nursery practitioners can build these activities into the classroom environment to support a child’s interests and to maximise their engagement.


‘Spotlights’ are reviewed after two months as the final part of the cycle. This gives teachers the opportunity to reflect on the child’s progress during this stage and what they have achieved so far.

Nursery practitioners review whether the learning opportunities and experiences planned have taken place and whether or not they have made a positive impact on the child’s learning.

Assessment of Our Own Practice

It’s clear that OPAL works in terms of being an assessment system. But, for it to keep working for children, it’s important nursery practitioners reflect on their own teaching practices. Nurseries should be a place where children are understood and valued.

By taking time to talk about children and reflect, teachers can ensure they are providing the best possible learning environment.

How Learning Journals Supports OPAL Learning

At Learning Journals we want to put the joy back into observing children!

We understand how busy nursery practitioners are and want to make your life as easy as possible. Observing children shouldn’t be stressful, it should provide an opportunity for you to engage and interact with children as they play.

By reducing the need for paperwork and collecting evidence, OPAL lets you observe children by truly being in the moment. This enables you to pick up on things that could affect a child’s learning and development rather than scribbling down lots of notes.

You don’t want to miss these precious moments as they provide useful insights about how a child is progressing through their early years.

With our online platform, you can record, upload and share limitless observations of a child so you’re not restricted when it comes to capturing content. You can also effectively manage a child’s spotlights and stay up to date with when they are next due.

Parents are able to access and comment on their child’s Spotlight online as well as being able to upload and share photos of their children. A wonderful way to truly work in partnership, sharing knowledge about children from both a classroom and home setting.

Request your free OPAL trial today and check it out for yourself!
teacher and child looking at a globe

OPAL Learning: The Importance of Observation in Early Years Teaching

Observing children should be a fun experience for a nursery school practitioner. It’s about understanding how children are progressing and identifying opportunities to help them grow and improve.

The focus should be on the child and what they need from their learning environment. Unfortunately, assessments take up so much of a nursery teacher’s day that they are spending less time interacting with children and more time collecting data.

However, OPAL seeks to change this by making these observations easier. Instead of testing children and focussing on collecting evidence, teachers can be in the moment and engage with children as they play.

Each child is completely different and this needs to be recognised. OPAL celebrates individuality and does not measure children against predetermined statements and vague judgements. By spending more time with children, this is the best way to get to know them and allows teachers to plan activities that support and inspire their class.

This puts the focus back on what is truly important – the child. Want to know more about OPAL learning and the benefits it can bring to your child’s learning? ? Request your free OPAL trial today and see for yourself!

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