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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, July 26, 2014


Let's talk a little bit about the capacity for the sensory table.  By capacity, I mean the number of children who can fit around the table and still be fully engaged.  Here is a hint: I don't know the answer.  But to get an idea, let's look at a new apparatus that was recently set up at the sensory table.

Someone in the office at school said: "I have a box for you." It was a computer box, the base of which was wider than the top so from the side it look like a triangle with the top cut off. And it was sturdy.  (If people know you build things, they develop an appreciation for materials such as cardboard boxes that are sturdy and have unusual shapes and, more importantly, they save them for you.  How great is that?)  In addition, the box was just as wide as my table so I could place it on the lip of the table resting above the table itself.
Because the computer box rested above the table, I combined it with the apparatus that was in the table the week before: Table Covering with Holes.  Two cardboard tubes were embedded through the box on opposing inclines. The shorter tube emptied back into the table through one of the holes.  This tube had a notch on the pouring/high end.  The longer tube emptied into the tub next to the table.  Besides having a notch cut out on each end, there were two sections cut out and one hole so the children could watch as the pellets race down this tube.

That is the apparatus.  It has holes, inclines, levels and many avenues for transporting the pellets. For children, it is inviting and fosters a wide range of exploration and play.

For an apparatus to have capacity, there also has to be a provision of loose parts.  Here is a picture of the loose parts that were offered on the shelf next to the table.  I call these Hodgepodge and Doohickies.

Now with the combination of the apparatus and the loose parts, we can get an idea of this setup's capacity.  Look at the picture below and count the number of children around the table.
There are nine children around the table, all totally engaged on multiple levels working on group and individual activities.  There are multiple points from which to gather the pellets and multiple points into which to pour the pellets.

This picture was taken on a day when school-age siblings were off of school, so not only were there more children than usual in the my classroom, but there was a wonderful mix of older and younger.  One of the main areas the older children gravitated to was the sensory table.  This is an instance where capacity was important.

Here is a little video which will give you a real appreciation of capacity.  The main group around the table decided to plug the longer tube and then watch all the pellets rush down the tube and then try to figure out a way to quickly stop the rushing pellets from spilling out.

Plugging the tube - a group effort from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

As you can see, it was a little rowdy but devoid of conflict.  By the end of the video, five children were concentrating their actions around the end of the tube where the pellets were exiting.

So how what is the capacity of the the sensory table?  As you saw, it is at least nine children at one time at this particular apparatus.  But I do not think that is the upper limit.  The upper limit will be determined by the children themselves.  The question then becomes, how will the children determine the upper limit?  

Saturday, July 19, 2014


Table Covering with Holes is a piece of plywood cut so it fits two inches inside the table. That creates a two-inch barrier to contain the medium. Legs are added to allow it to sit seven inches off the bottom of the table. That creates a space between the bottom of the table and the bottom of the apparatus.

As you can see, holes are cut of various sizes.  It is through these holes the children access what is at the bottom of the table.
Getting at the material through the apparatus adds a level of complexity both in terms of physical and mental operations for the children.  

Those operations subsequently change depending on the medium in the table.  I have written about some of the unique operations at this apparatus with pellets,  Jurassic Sand and water beads.  This past school year, I used the Table Covering with Holes with water and gems.  (They are called mosaic glass gems in craft stores.)

The first thing that impressed me was the degree of industriousness the children exhibited in collecting the gems.  Was it the sparkling gems in the water?  Was it the fine motor challenge of reaching through the holes to get the gems?  Whatever it was, there was certainly a lot of intense focus.
Some children had no preference.  Their main objective was to collect as many gems as they possibly could.

Others were particular about which ones they wanted.  Some wanted the big gems and some wanted gems of a certain color.

Sometimes the collecting looked more like cooking.  The child in the video below uses a cup in each hand to first strain the water from the bigger cup and then to scoop the gems out of the bigger cup.  Watch.

Another child combines sorting by color and washing the gems with a strainer.   For me, it looked like when I clean beans before I cook them.

Where do the children learn these operations?  Do they naturally arise with the given medium and implements or are they recreating operations they see at home?

Two loose parts fostered a couple of new operations I had not seen with this apparatus before. Black packing sponges were the first of these loose parts.  Several of the children used them to "display" their collections.
Has she been to a jewelry shop or does she intuit that some of the gems look nice on the black sponges?

The second one was a clear plastic tube.  A child filled up the tube with the gems and then proceeded to pour water down the tube.  The water flowed in-between the gems creating something like a cylindrical water fountain. 
How cool is that?

We can deduce at least two factors that determine the operations that emerge with this apparatus. One is the medium (pellets, sand, water beads, gems) and the other is the provision of loose parts and implements. 

There is one other factor that determines what operations emerge: what the children themselves bring to the venture.  That is the biggest unknown but the source of the greatest creativity. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014


Look on the right-hand column of this blog under axioms.  Axiom #7 states that children will come up with activities and explorations that are tangential to the apparatus in the table.  What does that mean in real terms?

We can get an idea of what this means by looking at the latest apparatus that was in the sensory table: Vertical Tubes in a Box.

Let's say a child wants to fill his container.  If he is using the apparatus, he fills the container through one of the vertical tubes.
This child has placed a funnel on the top of one of the tubes and then placed his container underneath the tube.  He has increased his chances of success by placing a funnel in the bottle right under the tube.  Ingenious, no?

Another child fills this same bottle using the same funnel but does not use the apparatus. Instead, she fills the bottle on the shelf that holds the provisions for the table.  Watch.

To be sure, she is filling the bottle to pour down one of the tubes in the apparatus, but she could also fill the bottle the same way without the apparatus being in the table.  Thus her operation is tangential to the Vertical Tubes in a Box.  Is it important?  It does give us a idea of how this child understands the concept of full.

Look at the picture below.  Here, it is even more clear that the action around the table has very little to do with the apparatus.
This child decided to sit in the five-gallon pail.  Why?  I think part of the reason is because he is using his body to measure his physical world.  This child is finding out what his body can do, and in a way, he is measuring the volume of his body. There was one problem: he could not get out himself.  A friend was near and knew exactly how to help: tip him over---gently.
Neither the child's initial exploration of the pail with his body, not the subsequent actions to help him get out had anything to do with the apparatus in the table.  These actions were tangential to the Vertical Tubes in a Box.  Is it important?  It does give us an idea as to the extent a child will use his body to measure his world and how generous another child can be when help is needed.

Here is one final example.  In the video below, a child finds a certain fascination with doodling in the the sand that has spilled onto the floor next to the sand table.  In the process, she decides to trace her hand.

I was astounded when I saw this.  Never in a million years would I have thought that the sand spilled on the floor could be used as a doodling medium.  Again, the actions of the child were tangential to the Vertical Tubes in a Box.  Is it important?  It does leave us with an fleeting image of a child leaving her mark on her world.

What is the significance of tangential?  I think it has to do with the context as a whole in which the children operate.  If we only pay attention to the explorations directly connected with the apparatus, there are important inquiries---some rather captivating---that escape our focus.

Saturday, July 5, 2014


The first time I wrote about Vertical Tubes in a Box was in March 2011.  In that post, you can actually see how the original apparatus was built.  It is an apparatus so rich in potential that I bring it back almost every year.  Four other posts with this apparatus can be found hereherehere and here.

The apparatus itself has changed very little over the years.  There are five tubes embedded vertically in a long, narrow box.  And there are two tubes embedded horizontally in the same box.

I mentioned that this simple design is rich in potential.  For instance, children will figure out multiple ways to pour the sand down the tubes.  It is done with bottles and scoops.

The boy on the left is using a syringe to pour sand down a tube. The girl on the right is also using a syringe, but she is also pouring sand into the syringe from a bottle.  She looks like a scientist measuring the material for her experiment.

The children are always provided with a variety of scoops, containers and loose parts to use with their operations.

The beauty of the loose parts is that the children combine them in various ways to create their own tools for pouring.  It can be as simple as inserting a clear plastic tube into the end of a bottle of sand to direct the sand into a tube.

And sometimes the pouring operations take on a complexity all their own that only the children can create.  The child in these photos has a involved process of pouring beginning with filling up his tube/bottle device using a funnel and then emptying the tube/bottle device into another clear tube that has been inserted into one of the vertical tubes in the box.
There is another realm of rich potential for this apparatus and that is in the realm of physical challenges. When there is a vertical dimension to an apparatus, the children are encouraged to go vertical.  There are always at least five little stools next to the table for the children to use if they want to get a perspective from a little different height.  For some children that is not enough. Some children feel compelled to go even higher and they do.
As you can see from the picture, two of the children have climbed onto the lip of the table.  They do that to get a better view of their own operation of pouring sand in the tube.  Is this safe?  The table is robust and the apparatus is firmly secured to the table so it will not topple over.  Is that enough to make it safe for the children to climb onto the table?

Some children can push the physical potential even further.  In the picture below, a girl has draped herself over the apparatus to spoon some sand from tray supporting the apparatus.  Her feet are no longer on the table, so the apparatus is supporting her whole body weight.
Think about what this child is doing.  She is scooping sand from a tray that she could easily completed with her feet on the ground.  Why does she have to make spooning the sand such a physical challenge? And, again, is it safe?

In looking over the documentation for this apparatus for this year, I was surprised at the depth of potential in the physical realm.  Does it show itself because there is something inherent in the verticalness of the apparatus?  Is it because children are allowed to go vertical?  Is it because the children themselves need a way to go vertical?   

Saturday, June 28, 2014


I have finished my training tour in the UK.  I must say that I have gotten a little tired of hearing myself talk.  What I did not get tired of was all the great conversations I had with a variety of practitioners. The other thing I never grew tired of was watching the building process of others unfold and witnessing  their inventiveness and creativity.

All of the talks and workshops started with an opportunity to review documentation highlighting different constructions.

The next part of any presentation was the talk and the PowerPoint.  In Wales, I was a keynote with Elizabeth Jarman at their conference called The Potential of Provision.

Half of the presentations in the UK also included actual building where the practitioners could try to create their own structures. That was when the real fun began.  And it always began with gathering the materials and discussing the possibilities.
That takes a lot of communication and collaboration.  Those processes, though, do not stop once the building begins.  Those processes take on immediate significance as the groups tried to create a shared construction.
For some it was the first time using a power tool.

For others, it was not.

Needless to say, they was always a bit of fun.

In the end, no two structures were the same.

And so many of the structures had totally unique elements as a result of the creativity of the builders themselves.

Now that the UK tour is over, I have begun to think about the sustainability of the building process for the participants.  I know from over 25 years of building experience that some of the creations will die a quick death once the children have at them.  When that happens, what will be the response of their creators?  Will it be a once-and-done?  "Oh, I have tried that and it did not work." Or will it be an opportunity to learn a bit about the construction and materials and how the children approach them so the building process can be improved upon?  Or will it be an opportunity to bring the children into the process?  And when all is said and done, what factors will encourage continued building?  Will it be availability of resources?  Will it be support and encouragement of colleagues?  Will it be the children and their needs?  What will it be?

Thank you UK practitioners who attended the talks and workshops.  It was brilliant; you were brilliant.

Saturday, June 21, 2014


I did not think that I would do any original building posts on my trip to the UK and the Netherlands. I did a building workshop up in Aberdeenshire and watched the participants build things using the materials provided and their imagination.  No two were alike.

They inspired me.  I ended up taking some of the left over materials so I could make an apparatus or two to show early years practitioners in Edinburgh the following day.  When I reached Edinburgh, I got settled and took the materials I acquired in Aberdeenshire to build an apparatus or two.  What else does one do in Edinburgh?

I began with two butter boxes side-by-side.  If I wanted to be real simple I could just tape the two together and I would have two spaces for children to pour into and take out of.

But there was a third box that I wanted to put on top of the two boxes.  To do that I had to create a ledge or platform to put it on.  To do that I planned to insert one box partially inside the other.  I had to cut all the flaps off one box, but keep the flaps on the other.

The next step was to cut slits on two sides and the bottom of the box that still had the flaps and then insert that box into the other.

The two boxes are taped together and the flaps folded over to make a platform for the third box to go on top.  It is a smaller box with a hole cut out of the bottom to attach it to the structure.

It is a simple structure, but an interesting structure that has an element I have never used in my building before. By combining the two boxes in the way outlined above, a chamber is created under the little box on top.  When children pour sand into the top, it drops down into the chamber. On one side there is an outlet, but the other side of the chamber is closed.  That way, when children begin to fill the side with no outlet, they start to experience volume at an elemental level.

Here is a picture of the finished apparatus.  Mind you, it is not fully duct taped, nor has it been tested   by my expert R&D crew back in the USA.  It will be on the testing block come Fall when classes start up again.

P. S.  I would have loved to get out the hotel in Edinburgh to see the sites, but on the way in I popped a tire on a sharp curb.  I was not going to go driving around the city after that.  Building in the hotel room was good therapy for me.

P.P.S.  If you want to see how someone is using the ideas in this blog in a really unique way, check out Juliet Robertson's latest post at Creative Star Learning called: The "Sensori" Water Station.  I am blow away by her ideas.  They are much better than the piddly little box structure in this post.

Sunday, June 15, 2014


What does the North Sea have to do with Sand and Water Tables?

This blog, Sand and Water Tables, has brought me to the North Sea.  I am in Aberdeen Scotland for a talk and a workshop on sand and water play to early childhood practitioners on Saturday, June 14th.  From there, I head to Edinburgh, Newcastle, Birmingham, Derby, Bournemouth, Odstock, Andover, Cwmbran, and Newport before catching a ferry to the Netherlands to do a workshop in Rotterdam.

How does a journey like this come together?  It does not happen alone.  For well over two years I watched to see where people were coming from when they visited the blog.  I especially remember mapping all the places in the UK.  I also remember thinking that it would be quite exciting to try to do a tour of the UK.

About a year and a half ago, I did a silly thing.  I mentioned the idea via email to three people I knew who followed my blog.  Julia Robertson of Creative Star Learning, Peter Ellse of Cosy and Nancy Adamson of Odstock Day Nursery all said yes, come to the UK and we will help.  I must say that Juliet was especially encouraging.  That was enough for me to put out the word that I would come, so here I am.

(By the way, Juliet's book Dirty Teaching has just been published and is available on Amazon in the UK.  The book is written for practitioners who want to teach outside.  It is aimed at the primary grades, but has plenty of insight for all teachers at all levels.  You really should check it out and have it in your library.)

I was talking to my colleague and mentor, Lani Shapiro, before the trip.  I expressed a lot of apprehension and excitement about this endeavor.  She uses the analogy which I quite like.  I am like a child going to a new playground.  Like that child, I am not sure of the rules and conventions of the new playground and hope the new players are willing to accept me and to play along.

I have 13 presentations is 18 days.  I hope to reflect on the trip, but it may be hit and miss until I get back to the States.

The journey to the new playground begins.

P.S.  I wrote this a couple of days ago.  I now have a presentation and a workshop under my belt. I can tell you that there was no need to worry about the players in this new playground.  They were welcoming and kind and gracious beyond description.  Thank you players from Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire.  If the rest of the new playgrounds are anything like this one, I am in for a treat.  I need to give a special thank you to Heather Smith who arranged the first gig in Aberdeen at King's College and took the time to ferry me around and show me some of the sights.  I need a to give an extra special thanks to Juliet who has taken an inordinate amount of time out of her busy schedule to talk for hours and exchange thoughts, ideas and experiences both on a professional and personal level.