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Early childhood education has been my life for over 30 years. I have taught all age groups from infants to 5-year-olds. I was a director for five years in the 1980s, but I returned to the classroom 22 years ago. My passion is watching the ways children explore and discover their world. In the classroom, everything starts with the reciprocal relationships between adults and children and between the children themselves. With that in mind, I plan and set up activities. But that is just the beginning. What actually happens is a flow that includes my efforts to invite, respond and support children's interface with those activities and with others in the room. Oh yeh, and along the way, the children change the activities to suit their own inventiveness and creativity. Now the processes become reciprocal with the children doing the inviting, responding and supporting. Young children are the best learners and teachers. I am truly fortunate to be a part of their journey.

Saturday, May 23, 2015


You know the feeling when you make something and it doesn't work the way you thought.  It may be something like: Why did I think that would work?  Or: It kind of works, but not the dramatic effect I was looking for.  No matter, it feels like a failure.

Here is a case in point.  I wanted to build a cardboard cascade so when the children poured sand down the apparatus, the sand would fall and flow over steps in such a way that it would look like a small bouncing waterfall.
You can already see part of the problem with the cascade.  The sand gets stuck on the steps, especially the steps on the right.

Let's take a look at the actual construction because it is not so straight forward.  The first thing to note is that there are two narrow boxes, one taped on top of the other.  The longest box is embedded through the rectangular box in the table.  The second box, the cascade box, is taped to the on top of the first box.  For all practical purposes, the children did not see two separate boxes, but saw one incline box. 

From the other side, you can see that the large rectangular box rests on a bin taped to the bottom of the table.  That was necessary for height to create a greater incline for the long, narrow box
I cut a large hole at the bottom of the box to create another space within the apparatus for the children's operations.

With a short video, let me show you why I think this was a failure.  In the video, two children are pouring sand down the cascade box.  As the child in the stripes says: "Put it down the chute." The focus for these children---and for almost all the children---was the sand going down the chute, not the cascade effect .  Watch and see if you agree.

To be honest, there really is something fetching about this video.  The child in the stripes placed a bucket in the tub at the bottom so when he pours sand down the chute, he fills his own bucket. And he lets his friend know by saying: "It's going in my bucket."

It is clear from the video that my perceived failure is not a failure for the children. They simply go about their business of discovering how the apparatus actually works.

I was pleased about a couple of other features of the apparatus that were not directly connected to the cascade. Both features included a bit of artifice.

When children poured sand into the top hole, the sand did not go down the cascade box. Rather it flowed through the bottom box all the way to the end. Inevitably, the children would pour in the top and look to see if it went down the cascade box. It took some serious investigation to figure out where the sand really came out.

The other subterfuge was the hole in the rectangular box just above the cascade box.  Where did that lead?  
Children would put sand and rocks in the hole, but the medium would just rest on a portion of the long narrow box embedded in the rectangular box.  If they would brush the sand or rocks to one side or the other, the medium would disappear.  Where did the medium go?  If you want to know, it went to the bottom of the big box.   
This child discovered the little stream of sand coming from a bottom corner of the box.  I don't think he troubled himself with where it came from.  Rather, he seemed to be fascinated by the tiny stream of sand coming out of the corner filling his scoop ever so slowly.

Cascade failure?  I guess I have to qualify the failure part.  I could not realize my idea of a cascade that I thought would capture the children's awe and attention.  I had a preconceived idea of how I thought it was suppose to work.  I am glad the children had no preconceived idea about how the apparatus should work because they ended up making more out of it than I could have imagined.   


Saturday, May 16, 2015


This year more than most I have returned to what I call keeping it simple at the sensory table. The latest setup is as simple as it gets.  It is my blue sensory table filled with Jurassic Sand. Next to the table is a smaller clear sensory table.  There is also a five gallon pail on the floor next to the sensory table.

Here is a view from the other end.  As you can see, the tables look warn with use, a lot of use. That is the setup.  Could it be any simpler?
It does not get much simpler than this.

This may be a common setup in many early childhood classrooms.  It is usually not in mine, so why did I revert to it this time?  I have to admit that time constraints were part of the initial reason. Building a new apparatus every week takes time.  In the spring, I seem to have less of it as we begin planning for end of the school year events. Once I decided on a simple setup, though, another reason came to the fore: Directly on the heels of a complex setup, what types of play would emerge with such a simple setup?  Would the children even choose to play here without an apparatus?

To understand the type of play that emerged from this setup, you need to see the utensils and the loose parts that accompanied this setup.  Besides the usual spoons, scoops, cups and bowls, there were natural elements such as sticks, rocks and pinecones.

They did indeed play and play in some very engaging ways.  Let's start with the sticks.  For one child, the stick became a real tree that he planted in a cup and "watered" with the flowing sand.
The child who has planted to the tree is on the right.  If you look at the other two children, you see that they are mimicking the pouring of the child with the stick.  How does that happen?

Children love rocks.  They will collect them, pile them and bury them.  What one child discovered was marvelous in an ordinary sort of way.  The child in the video below realized he could make marks on a rock with another rock.

What made this marvelous and so ordinary were the words he used before he showed me that he could make marks on the rock.  He simply said: "Look what I can do."  Who needs paper?

The pine cones provided an invitation for the children to create little trees.  But when the "sand rain" came, one child noticed that the flow of the sand through the scales of the pine cone was a cascade of sorts.

A second child was also pouring sand on the same pine cone, but he was doing it fast.  The sudden downpour just accentuated the cascade of sand down and through the scales of the cone.

Later in the week, I added another implement: little minnow nets.  Children appreciated how the Jurassic Sand flows.  The minnow net slowed the process so the children could appreciate it even more.
Not only did it slow the process of sand flowing, but it also spread it out so the flow was more dispersed.

One thing I did not expect was to be transported back to the very first apparatus I used at the table: the Five Gallon Pail.  I forgot how important it is to be able to transport the sand out of the table into a simple bucket.  Not only is it important, but it can also be pretty exciting.  These boys are filling the bucket and squealing with joy.  Watch.

And it was not enough to just fill the bucket.  Each child had to take his turn to test his strength to see if he could lift the pail. None of them could, but then one child blurted out: "Teamwork. Everybody grab here."
Even with teamwork, though, they could barely move it.  That was not important.  What was important was the joint effort that created a bond that will carry over to other joint actions when they decide to work together as a group again.

I will continue to build, but I have a renewed appreciation for the simple.  

Can the simple inform the complex?  Can the complex inform the simple?  

Saturday, May 9, 2015


Two years ago, I wrote about an apparatus called the Oobleck Platform.  The frame of the Oobleck Platform is made from 3/4" PVC pipe.
The top is a sheet of 1/8" black plastic that I bought in the window section of a large hardware store. (The technical term for it is HDPE or high-density polyethylene.  In lay terms that is #2 plastic.) It is easy to cut with a utility knife and a straight edge.  I drilled the six rows of holes to allow the oobleck to flow through the sheet.

This year I added a PVC pipe that is cut in half lengthwise and attached from the Oobleck Platform to a second water table.
In essence what that did was provide yet another dimension---an incline---to an apparatus that already has several of the dimensions and elements from the list on the right-hand column of this blog.

For instance, the platform creates a horizontal surface on which the children do there operations. Watch how one child uses that horizontal surface to make a pancake.

If you have ever made pancakes on a griddle, you would have to agree that his operation with the oobleck on this surface sure looks a lot like making pancakes.   Where does that knowledge of his come from?

This platform is not just a horizontal surface.  It is also a second level the children use for their operations.  There is also a level underneath the platform, the bottom of the table, that the children access.
This child could have easily scooped oobleck on the sides of the apparatus, but this way she creates a challenge for herself by scooping oobleck from the table's bottom level in a more confined space underneath the platform within the frame of the apparatus. 

If you look at the child's hair, you can see strands of oobleck.  That is because she is also experiencing the oobleck dripping through the holes that were drilled in the in the plastic sheet. When oobleck is poured on the plastic sheet, the children get a unique view of oobleck going through small holes.  Watch.

Because of the physical characteristics of the oobleck, droplets form on the end and seem to pull a string of oobleck through the holes.  It seems like slow motion rain, oobleck rain.

Now lets contrast the motion of the oobleck dripping through the holes to the motion of the oobleck sliding down the inclined PVC pipe.  The child in the video likens it to flowing lava.

You can surely see why this looks like flowing lava.  Did you sense her anticipation as the "lava" gets closer and closer to her hand?   

By incorporating several dimensions and elements in one apparatus, the children are invited to play in many and varied ways.  And think about the role these dimensions and elements play in the transformation of the medium(the oobleck)by the children to make such a wide range of things from pancakes to lava.

Saturday, May 2, 2015


Last week in a post entitled Water Beads 1, I talked about how the water beads ended up all over the floor.  Whenever there is a huge mess at the sensory table, my first inclination is not to find fault with the children.  They are doing what they do best: explore and test.  Rather, my first inclination is to look for design flaws in the apparatus or the setup.  As I looked at the setup and how the children were using it, I figured out that the incline on the PVC half-pipe was too steep. That caused the water beads to race down the pipe and bounce all over the place.
Since it was not the children's fault and since I did not want to stop their rich play, I created a temporary cardboard patch to minimize the number of water beads bouncing onto the floor.

After class, I found a solution that was both simple and satisfactory: I removed the top of the Oobleck Platform so only the frame was left.  The children lost a second platform for their operations, but I was able to lower the incline for the PVC half-pipe and add an additional half-pipe.
This change made for a more open apparatus.  Children could pour and drop beads up, over, around and through the apparatus.

Did it make a difference in the number of water beads on the floor?  Yes it did.  Mind you, there were still plenty bouncing around, but not nearly as many as with the original setup?

An interesting question now becomes: Did it change the children's play and exploration?  Did removing the platform change the play of the children?  There was now one less platform for them to work on.  And if it changed the play, how did it change?  Was there some play that did not change?

Here are two videos showing basically the same operation: filling the tube with water beads.  The first video is with the black sheet of plastic on the frame and the second is with the sheet of plastic off.   See if there is a difference in operations.

Can in the tube from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Water bead water fall from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

There does seem to be a few differences.  In the first video with the plastic sheet over the tube, the tube does not get so full.  Also in the first video, the child is surprised at the juice container appearing in the tube. In the second video, the whole operation seemed to more intentional. Someone held the juice container so it blocked the water beads so the tube could fill up completely.  The child holding the second container to catch the beads waited patiently for the beads to be let loose and for them to fill and eventually overfill his container.  The reactions in the second video were also more boisterous from the children and the adults, too.

What brought about the change?  Was it because the children were building up experiences with the apparatus and the materials?  Was it because of the openness of the apparatus seen in the second video that allowed the children to monitor the whole process of filling up the tube and watching it empty?

There is one set of operations that did not change substantively: collecting the beads.  The video below shows the open setup without the plastic sheet.  You will see children collecting the water beads in a strainer.  There are so many hands in the video it is hard to tell who is just feeling the beads and who is adding to the beads in the strainer.  You can see that another set of hands pours beads down the clear tube for another child to collect in a copper pot.

Water bead collecting from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

This operation did not change substantively between the two setups.  There are pictures and movie clips at both setups of the children collecting the beads in all sorts of containers.   However, it probably is important to have at least one platform above the water for the children to more easily fill containers without having to hold and pour at the same time.

The absence of conflict in either setup during the operation of collecting beads is intriguing to say the least.  Is that because there were plenty of water beads?  Maybe.  In the last video, though, you did see multiple children working in the same container, the strainer.  Some had immersed their hands in the beads and some were in the process of adding still more beads to the strainer. No one questioned or challenged the other's intentions.  Why?  How did they arrive at this mutual dance?

And that is just one segment of the video.  The second segment shows other children cooperating in a mutual endeavor to pour and catch the water beads down the clear plastic tube.  Is that because there is a fascinating way to transport the beads from one point of the apparatus to another, from one level to another?  Does the mutuality of the transporting---pouring and catching---foster the positive interchange?

There are many and varied factors that could lead to so little conflict at the table.  Some are inherent in the questions raised above; some are unknown because I have not found the right questions.  Some may be so big or complicated that it would be difficult to tease out the factors. For instance, maybe we have been able as a group to create a culture of constructive negotiation, accommodation and cooperation.  If so, what are the factors, human and material, that have contributed to such a culture?  Where to begin?

Saturday, April 25, 2015


About three years ago, there was a phenomenon all over the blogosphere: Water Beads.  I even got in on the action by introducing water beads with an apparatus called Table Covering with Holes.

The table coverings sat seven inches off the bottom of the tables so the children would reach into the holes to collect the water beads.  Once they collected them, they rolled them down PVC half-pipes that were set on inclines.  The inclines were opposing so the beads could be transported back and forth between the two tables.

The beads were extremely attractive because of their features.  They were soft, slippery, and translucent.

That was over three years ago.  I remember vividly how much exploration water beads inspired in the children.  One boy even invented his own game using the water beads.

Water bead game from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Is he trying to roll the water bead across the top of the table or is he trying to get it back into a hole?  I am not sure, but I think it is the former.  In any case, his game is to roll the water bead and track where it goes.

I decided to bring back the water beads.  To do that, I combined the beads with the small Table Covering with Holes and the Oobleck Platform.
The idea was to provide two platforms on which the children could do their operations.  In addition, the frame for the Oobleck Platform anchored tubes running back and forth between the two tables.

Needless to say, this was an irresistible invitation to play and discover all the features of both the apparatus and the water beads.
There are 10 children with smocks already at the table with an 11th child in the back of the picture going for a smock.  Did I say irresistible?  

Here are the provisions for play for this setup.   There are all kinds of containers and scoops plus two different sizes of minnow nets.
I would not recommend purple water beads.  They bled and stained everything they came in contact with.  Note the small metal pan on the top in the middle that is circled.  You can still see the stains from the purple water beads.

The two platforms added a second level above the water at each of the tables so the children could do their work above the water with multiple containers at the same time.  By being able to  use multiple containers at the same time, children could create and combine operations to author more elaborate play.  
There were many new surprises in their play.  One of the surprises had to do with the clear plastic tube. One of the children discovered that the empty plastic juice can fit perfectly into the the clear plastic tube.  Watch what happens.

When the video starts, the can is in the middle of the tube.  Someone pours beads down the tube that hit the can.  The can slowly starts to move and then picks up speed until it hits a child's container at the end of the tube.  It is a surprise, but a good surprise because when he removes the can, he is able to quickly fill his container with the gush of water beads behind the can.  

There is an important point to make here.  I do not do much testing on an apparatus once I set it up.  I had no idea the can would fit in the tube.  The testing, by default, is the children's' endeavor. And they do it quite well.  In many ways they are more creative because they bring all ideas to the table without censuring themselves.

Another surprise had to do with the PVC half-pipe that was attached to the Oobleck Platform on the top. Because the incline was so great, the water beads would bounce all over the place and onto the floor when children poured the beads down this incline.  Watch.

It may be hard to see, but when the child dumps his big minnow net of water beads, they go all over.  I had to rig up a quick patch because there were so many beads bouncing on the floor.  You can see the cardboard patch below taped to the lip of the table to prevent spillage.

Here is another important point.  All the water beads on the floor were not the children's fault. They were just doing what they do best: test the apparatus. This was a design flaw on my part.  When I put the apparatus together, I made the incline too steep so when the children poured the beads they raced down the pipe and did what they do best: bounce all over the place.

When I saw the large number of water beads that were bouncing out of the table and onto the floor, I had two immediate choices.  The first was to shut down the activity.  The second was the patch.  I chose the patch because the fault was mine that the beads were going all over the place. The children's play was too rich to stop, so I needed a quick solution mid "bead-stream" that would work until I could find an adequate solution for the problem I had created.  

Stay tuned for Water Beads 2.

A word of caution about water beads.  If you read the label it says to keep out of the reach of young children.  It also says things like it will plug up plumbing.  You will have to think what that means for you.  For me it meant knowing the children in my classroom and knowing when to supervise more closely.  The week I had them out, I did not have any children try to put them in their mouths.  Oh, and it also meant I could not pour any down the drain.

Sunday, April 19, 2015


Last week when I was looking over my pictures for the Giant Sponge with Jewels, I came upon a set of pictures that gave me pause.  The set of pictures forms a series of actions at the sensory table between two children over the course of 10 minutes.  (The series covers a span of 10 minutes, but the play lasted much longer than that.)  When I saw the pictures, I began to wonder if the pictures captured how separate actions by children become one action.  In other words, how does "my" project and "your" project become "our" project?  And how does that impact the overall experience of the children?

Let's look at the sequence.  One girl is lifting a corner of the sponge to look for the jewels that are underneath. The other girl is watching her intently.

The first child is collecting the jewels she retrieved from under the sponge in a plastic juice can. The other girl is collecting suds in a pot.

The first child offers the second child a pink cup.  She has already filled her plastic juice container and seems to be encouraging the second child to put jewels in the pink cup.  Is this the initial offer for joint play?  This is certainly a physical overture with their arms crossing over into the space of the other. 

The second child takes the pink cup and fills it with jewels.  Are they now planning out a joint activity?  The second child has not moved, but the first child has moved to the second child's right side.  This is beginning to look like a social dance with a hint of anticipation and joy.

The second child has filled up the pink cup and now moves to her left. As she move, she has her eye on the silver bowl.

The second child places the pink cup into the silver bowl.  The first child has not moved, but is watching the actions of the second child.

The first child has now moved back around so she is again on the second child's left side.  The second child is still depositing jewels in the cup and it looks like the first child is about to pick up the pink cup. At this point, their actions really seem in sync.

After a gap in the series, we can see the empty pink cup on the sponge so one of the children must have emptied the jewels into the steel bowl in the corner of the table.  The second child is pouring jewels and suds from a copper pot into that same bowl.  The first child is waiting in the wings with a handful of jewels.

The first child deposits her jewels in the bowl.  The bowl is now full and the bubble cake is ready to bake.  (It was soup at one point, but it has just now become bubble cake.)

They could have easily continued on their path of collecting their own jewels and suds, but instead, they decided to work together to produce a bubble cake. What is it about the materials that help fosters the transition from a solitary play scenario to a shared play scenario?   What is it about how the children act on those materials that brings them together in a joint endeavor?  

For sure, the materials are open-ended.  There is no right or wrong way to use the sponge, implements, bubbles or gems.  For their part, the children are driven to research the materials in the their immediate world in an effort to build understanding of how the world works.  When it is done socially, the narrative changes from simply exploring how the physical world works to also exploring how the social world works.  So, does the physical narrative necessarily come before the social narrative?  Does the social narrative then take precedence over the physical?  

In this play scenario, does collecting suds and jewels separately necessarily precede collecting them together in one pot so the children can make bubble cake?  In other words, would there have been a bubble cake without first exploring the materials physically on their own?  Once the social narrative begins, does it usurp the exploration in such a way that the story they create becomes more important and fulfilling than exploring the physical properties of the materials?  What do you think?  

Saturday, April 11, 2015


The Giant Sponge is a sponge that is as big as the sensory table. Maybe calling it a sponge is not technically correct.  It is foam mattress bedding that I cut to fit in the table.  (This "sponge" was given to me by a colleague who could not stand the condition of my original giant sponge that I had been using for over a decade.)
As far as apparatuses go, this is one of the simplest.  I put it in the table, add dish soap and just enough water so the sponge does not float.  I have written about this apparatus four different times:  hereherehere and here.  Of all the apparatuses I have written about, this one has gotten the most hits.  It just seems to soak them up :-)

Because I rarely do the exact same setup from year-to-year, there are always changes.  It is hard to change the actual sponge, but what I can do is change the loose parts that are available for the children to use.  Here is a picture of the loose parts next to the table from this year.
There is the usual assortment of hodgepodge and doohickies plus some small sponges and some boomwhackers.  The boomwhackers are musical instruments, but I have set them out as sturdy tubes to be used with this apparatus.

I added one more set of loose parts to this years setup: glass gems.  These are smooth glass pieces that are available in craft stores.
As you can see, I put the gems in a second, smaller table next to the bigger, blue table.  Why didn't I put them on the shelves next to the table?  I am not sure how conscious my decision was, but they are highlighted better this way.  What would you think is the first thing many children do with the gems?
I am sure you guessed it.  A child naturally wants to dump them all out.  But what happens next?
What happens next is some splendid fine motor work that involves transporting and dropping the gems into small containers on the floor.  This child could have just dropped handful of gems into the red container, but he chose to drop them in one-by-one using a pincher grip.

In fact, if you provide glass gems, collecting the gems seems to be the most conventional of operations for the children.

But, by combining loose parts,  leave it to the children to find an unconventional way to collect them.
Give the children credit, too, because this was more than a "collecting gems" activity.  By combining loose parts, they created a new container to increase volume or holding capacity.  And imagine their experience when they pour water into the top to see what happens.   Can they fill the water up to the top of the yellow tube?

One operation that was truly unique with the glass gems was pouring them with a scoop into a clear plastic bottle.  It was unique because of the aural aspect of the operation.  Watch---and listen.

There seems to be a zen-like quality to this child's actions.  He carefully and purposefully scoops and pours to an inner rhythm.  The distinct sound of the gems steadily sliding from the scoop into the clear plastic bottle only adds the impression.

With the Giant Sponge, the children still did plenty of other operations with the sponge itself such as making and collecting copious amounts suds.  Here is one example:

One of the features of suds is that it has volume but hardly any weight.  Also, as you could see in the video, the suds stick to spoons, hands and containers so they make life interesting for a child who wants to pour or deposit the suds to a container.  

Whether the children are working with the loose parts or the apparatus itself, the children are always posing their own questions and probing for answers.  You also see that they are good at passing their own tests---in best sense of that word.