The Contribution of Documentation to the Quality of Early Childhood Education

Lilian G. Katz and Sylvia C. Chard

The municipal preprimary schools in the northern Italian city of Reggio Emilia have been attracting worldwide attention for more than a decade. The reasons are many and have been discussed by a number of observers and visitors (see Edwards, Gandini, & Forman, 1993, and Katz & Cesarone, 1994.) While interest in what is now called the “Reggio Emilia Approach” is focused on many of its impressive features, perhaps its unique contribution to early childhood education is the use of the documentation of children’s experience as a standard part of classroom practice.

Documentation, in the forms of observation of children and extensive recordkeeping, has long been encouraged and practiced in many early childhood programs. However, compared to these practices in other traditions, documentation in Reggio Emilia focuses more intensively on children’s experience, memories, thoughts, and ideas in the course of their work. Documentation practices in Reggio Emilia pre- primary schools provide inspiring examples of the importance of displaying children’s work with great care and attention to both the content and aesthetic aspects of the display.

Documentation typically includes samples of a child’s work at several different stages of completion; photographs showing work in progress; comments written by the teacher or other adults working with the children; transcriptions of children’s discussions, comments, and explanations of intentions about the activity; and comments made by parents. Observations, transcriptions of tape-recordings, and photographs of children discussing their work can be included. Examples of children’s work and written reflections on the processes in which the children engaged can be displayed in classrooms or hallways. The documents reveal how the children planned, carried out, and completed the displayed work.

It seems to us that high-quality documentation of children’s work and ideas contributes to the quality of an early childhood program in at least six ways.

  1. Enhancement of Children’s Learning Documentation can contribute to the extensiveness and depth of children’s learning from their projects and other work. As Loris Malaguzzi points out, through documentation children “become even more curious, interested, and confident as they contemplate the meaning of what they have achieved” (Malaguzzi, 1993, p. 63). The processes of preparing and displaying documentaries of the children’s experience and effort provides a kind of debriefing or re-visiting of experience during which new understandings can be clarified, deepened, and strengthened. Observation of the children in Reggio Emilia preprimary classes indicates that children also learn from and are stimulated by each other’s work in ways made visible through the documents displayed.

The documentation of the children’s ideas, thoughts, feelings, and reports are also available to the children to record, preserve, and stimulate their memories of significant experiences, thereby further enhancing their learning related to the topics investigated. In addition, a display documenting the work of one child or of a group often encourages other children to become involved in a new topic and to adopt a representational technique they might use. For example, Susan and Leroy had just done a survey of which grocery stores in town are patronized by the families of their classmates. When Susan wanted to make a graph of her data, she asked Jeff about the graph displayed of his survey about the kinds of cereal their class ate for breakfast. With adult encouragement, children can be resourceful in seeking the advice of classmates when they know about the work done by the other children throughout the stages of a project.

  1. Taking Children’s Ideas and Work Seriously Careful and attractive documentary displays can convey to children that their efforts, intentions, and ideas are taken seriously. These displays are not intended primarily to serve decorative or show-off purposes. For example, an important element in the project approach is the preparation of documents for display by which one group of children can let others in the class working on other aspects of the topic learn of their experience and findings. Taking children’s work seriously in this way encourages in them the disposition to approach their work responsibly, with energy and commitment, showing both delight and satisfaction in the processes and the results.
  2. Teacher Planning and Evaluation with Children One of the most salient features of project work is continuous planning based on the evaluation of work as it progresses. As the children undertake complex individual or small group collaborative tasks over a period of several days or weeks, the teachers examine the work each day and discuss with the children their ideas and the possibilities of new options for the following days. Planning decisions can be made on the basis of what individual or groups of children have found interesting, stimulating, puzzling, or challenging.

For example, in an early childhood center where the teachers engage weekly and often daily as well in review of children’s work, they plan activities for the following week collaboratively, based in part on their review. Experiences and activities are not planned too far in advance, so that new strands of work can emerge and be documented. At the end of the morning or of the school day, when the children are no longer present, teachers can reflect on the work in progress and the discussion which surrounded it, and consider possible new directions the work might take and what suggestions might support the work. They can also become aware of the participation and development of each individual child. This awareness enables the teacher to optimize the children’s chances of representing their ideas in interesting and satisfying ways. When teachers and children plan together with openness to each other’s ideas, the activity is likely to be undertaken with greater interest and representational skill than if the child had planned alone, or the teacher had been unaware of the challenge facing the child. The documentation provides a kind of ongoing planning and evaluation that can be done by the team of adults who work with the children.

  1. Parent Appreciation and Participation Documentation makes it possible for parents to become intimately and deeply aware of their children’s experience in the school. As Malaguzzi points out, documentation “introduces parents to a quality of knowing that tangibly changes their expectations. They reexamine their assumptions about their parenting roles and their views about the experience their children are living, and take a new and more inquisitive approach toward the whole school experience” (Malaguzzi, 1993, p. 64).

Parents’ comments on children’s work can also contribute to the value of documentation. Through learning about the work in which their children are engaged, parents may be able to contribute ideas for field experiences which the teachers may not have thought of, especially when parents can offer practical help in gaining access to a field site or relevant expert. In one classroom a parent brought in a turkey from her uncle’s farm after she learned that the teacher was helping the children grasp what a real live turkey looked like.

The opportunity to examine the documentation of a project in progress can also help parents to think of ways they might contribute their time and energy in their child’s classroom. There are many ways parents can be involved: listening to children’s intentions, helping them find the materials they need, making suggestions, helping children write their ideas, offering assistance in finding and reading books, and measuring or counting things in the context of the project.

  1. Teacher Research and Process Awareness Documentation is an important kind of teacher research, sharpening and focusing teachers’ attention on children’s plans and understandings and on their own role in children’s experiences. As teachers examine the children’s work and prepare the documentation of it, their own understanding of children’s development and insight into their learning is deepened in ways not likely to occur from inspecting test results. Documentation provides a basis for the modification and adjustment of teaching strategies, and a source of ideas for new strategies, while deepening teachers’ awareness of each child’s progress. On the basis of the rich data made available through documentation, teachers are able to make informed decisions about appropriate ways to support each child’s development and learning.

The final product of a child’s hard work rarely makes possible an appreciation of the false starts and persistent efforts entailed in the work. By examining the documented steps taken by children during their investigations and representational work, teachers and parents can appreciate the uniqueness of each child’s construction of his or her experience, and the ways group efforts contribute to their learning.

  1. Children’s Learning Made Visible Of particular relevance to American educators, documentation provides information about children’s learning and progress that cannot be demonstrated by the formal standardized tests and checklists we commonly employ. While U.S. teachers often gain important information and insight from their own first-hand observations of children, documentation of the children’s work in a wide variety of media provides compelling public evidence of the intellectual powers of young children that is not available in any other way that we know of.


The powerful contribution of documentation in these six ways is possible because children are engaged in absorbing, complex, interesting projects worthy of documentation. If, as is common in many traditional classrooms around the world, a large proportion of children’s time is devoted to making the same pictures with the same materials about the same topic on the same day in the same way, there would be little to document which would intrigue parents and provide rich content for teacher-parent or child-parent discussion!