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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, March 21, 2015


Setting up a large box horizontally over the sensory table was just the beginning.  Besides the large windows all around the big box, there was a big hole in the bottom. 
 And a channel box was embedded in the top running across the width of the large box.

To this Big Box Big Windows apparatus, I added another good size box inserted through one of the windows and supported by a second, smaller sensory table.

I cut holes in both sides of the white box and on each end.  You cannot see the hole on the end that is embedded in the big box, but it is there.

I inserted the white box into the big box to the edge of the window and the hole in the bottom.  I cut the hole of the white box on the end inside the big box so there would be no lip. That way the children could move the pellets into and out of this second box simply by pushing or sweeping.

I embedded another box that traverses the white box from the top of the box to the bottom of the clear sensory table.
With the column box embedded this way, I have increased the stability of the white box and the whole apparatus.  I cut a hole in the side of the column box to offer children an opportunity to pour into the column.  It is an inviting operation because the children have to reach into one box to pour into another box.  If children pour in the column box, there has to be an outlet.  That is why I cut a hole at the bottom of the column box. 

There is also a hole in the top of the column box so children can pour from the top.  That makes two ways the children can get the pellets to the bottom of the table: through the hole in the side or through the top. 

How do children find this top hole?  Most of them are too short to see it from the floor.  What is the impetus for them to check out this top level?  I am not sure why.  I do know that they will find the highest level of an apparatus and they will appropriate it for their own purposes.  If there is no hole on top, they will just pile pellets up there; if there is a hole, they create their own physical challenge to see if they can pour it in the hole.  Watch.

This short video shows the child working with his whole body and mind on the single task of getting the pellets into the hole at the top of the box.  I especially appreciate how he moves the bowl away from the hole to make it easier to balance which makes it easier for him to pour because he no longer needs to reach over the bowl.  How did he know to do this?  Was it simply an intuitive move on his part?

Let's take a video tour of the apparatus with the new addition.  The video shows seven different children engrossed in seven different operations (or variations thereof) in seven different locations around the apparatus.

More often than not, the sensory table is a very active place in my classroom.  It is a space that the children take over and get totally lost in time and place.

Saturday, March 14, 2015


The first time I set a box on top of the sensory table was for Big Box on Top in the spring of 2012.
It was a sturdy box with big holes cut on two sides to allow access into the table.  Inclined tubes were embedded to allow the children to transport the corn into, out of and through the box.

The second time I set a big box on top was in the spring of 2013 when I changed a wardrobe box from an incline apparatus to a Horizontal Wardrobe Box.

There are holes all around this box so the children can access the inside of the box from the ends or the sides.  There are also holes and a channel on top to extend play to the top of the box. There is another large hole inside on the bottom of the box so children can scoop down to the bottom of the actual sensory table.

The most recent box on top is similar to the Horizontal Wardrobe Box.  There are holes cut all around the box and trays are used to support the box across the width of the table.

This apparatus also has the big hole in the bottom of the box that provides access to the bottom of the sensory table.
The invitation to scoop from the bottom of the table poses physical challenges and unique spacial awareness such as being outside the box but operating inside the box through two different holes.

The windows for the current apparatus are bigger, thus Big Box Big Windows.  The bigger windows grant easier access for the children into the box.  In addition the holes on the sides are closer to the ends, again allowing easier access from the windows on the side.

For this apparatus, I added a channel on top of the box that is embedded across the width of the box.  The embedded box is longer than the big box is wide so there is an overhang with a cut-away so the children can more easily access the channel.
There are four holes in the embedded box.  There are two on the top, one on the side and one on the bottom.  The holes on the top are relatively small to retain the integrity and strength of the channel box.  Also, the top holes of the channel box do not align with the holes on the bottom of the channel but the hole on the bottom of the channel does line up with the hole at the bottom of the big box. Got that?  The reason I did this was to make moving pellets from the top of the apparatus into the bottom of the table a two-stage process.   

Let's see how that works.  In the video below, someone dropped pellets down the top holes so there are already some pellets in the channel.  The child uses one of the small brooms that is always at the sensory table to sweep the pellets down the hole in the bottom of the channel box.

This child does more than simply complete the second stage of moving the pellets to the bottom of the table.  At the beginning of the video, she references her sweeping action through the hole in the side of the  channel.  To do that, she begins with a plan of action.  She looks down the channel to see where the pellets are.  As she pulls her head around to watch the pellets drop through the hole, she keeps her broom inside the channel.  Once she has a clear view of the hole, she begins to sweep.  She then alternates between watching the hole where the pellets drop and her own sweeping action through a side window in the channel. Have you ever tried to sweep without looking directly at what you are sweeping?  When she no longer gets any pellets to fall down and only sees the bottom bristles of the broom, she brings her head back around so she can see where the pellets are that she wants to sweep down the hole.  It is still not an easy task, though, because she is sweeping at eye-level away from her body in a space that is only as tall as her little broom.

Out of cardboard, I rarely make the same apparatus twice.  If I have a box that can go on top of the table, it will become something different from previous box on top apparatus.  Why?  Because there are too many potential configurations to settle on just one.  In addition, those new configurations open up new possibilities for play and exploration first, for me and then, for the children.  This becomes a virtuous circle because as I watch children play and explore, I get new ideas for possible configurations, which gives me a new opportunity to play and explore, which in turn…

Saturday, March 7, 2015


The apparatus Horizontal Tubes in Boxes offers plenty of opportunity for children to work on and through horizontal planes.  The horizontal planes in this apparatus are long cardboard tubes so children use homemade plungers to reach into the tubes to push pellets through or pull them out.

What happens to children's play and explorations when vertical tubes are added to the horizontal tubes?
You can see from the picture above that children still work horizontally through the long tubes either using their arms or using the plungers.

What does change, though, is that children start to go vertical with their operations.  They do not use plungers in the vertical tubes, but they do reach as high as they can to pour the corn into the vertical tubes.
Do you know how hard it is to pour corn into a tube that is over your head?  Expect some spillage. Sometimes it even drops into your sleeve or down your neck.  That just adds to the sensory experience, right? Also expect some good large muscle work coupled with balance and eye-to-hand coordination.  The child above is using his left hand for stability as he stands on his tiptoes to empty his bowl into the clear tube.  In other words, he is pouring with every fiber in his body.

When I say the children start to go vertical, I also mean that they go vertical with their whole body.
This child has climbed up onto the lip of the table between the two boxes.  He can now pour the corn into the tubes without having to reach over his head.  

In their quest to go vertical, some children will actually climb on the apparatus.  Look at the pink shoe in the picture below.  It is suspended in air which means the other foot is standing on a cardboard tube.
Is that safe?  I know the structure is strong and supports her weight and I look to see how stable she is.  I conclude that it is safe. 

You could even analyze this gestalt further and talk about how the children are using their bodies to create multiple points of stability.
I will go so far as to say that this space off the ground and between the boxes offers a comfortable place for these children to add another dimension to the explorations and operations.

The vertical tubes seem to invite one type of operation that I rarely see with the horizontal tubes: children will often jam-pack the tube to create blockage.  Vertical holes need to be tested and filled with any and all objects within reach.  It must seem like a real-life puzzle to see what can fit in the hole---or what can be forced into the hole.  

There is a corresponding reverse operation to blocking the tube, namely, unblocking the tube.   In the video below, one of the vertical tubes is clogged. Two children try to free the tube of objects blocking the flow of corn.

As you can see, it may take great effort to unclog the tube.  I chuckled when I heard the drama in boy's lowered and strained voice say: "Ah, I can't get this one out!"

There may be yet another effect on children's play and exploration by adding vertical tubes to the horizontal tubes.  If you look at the number of children in the picture below, you might very well conclude that the additional tubes increase the capacity of the area.
I am not sure of that, though. One type of apparatus, whether it is complex or simple, does not in itself determine how many children can play at the table at one time.  The vertical tubes add a new level of intrigue to the apparatus and augment the opportunities for open-ended industry by the children.  However, that alone does not explain the large number of children around the table. To be sure, that is part of it, but there also has to be a parallel willingness on the part of the adult to give the children license to regulate their numbers around the table themselves.  

Saturday, February 28, 2015


There are three main orientations I think about when I am about to build.  You can see them on the right-hand column of the blog.  For the current apparatus, I decided to set cardboard tubes horizontally through two boxes.
This was harder to do than it looks.  The biggest challenge for me was lining up the holes to make the tubes as level as possible.  I did an initial hole on one side of one box and then measured where the hole was and then used those measurements to make a hole on the other side of the box.  The second box was a different size, so I had to do it all over again.  Since there were four tubes that meant I had to repeat the process a total of four times.  By the fourth tube I was tired and was not as concerned about how level the tube was.  The fact is I may have made it harder than it looks,  My colleague, who sews, told me I should have made a pattern.  I will tuck that tidbit away for the next time.

The tubes extend beyond both ends of the blue sensory table.  To catch the pellets coming out of the tubes, I set up a smaller, clear sensory table on one end and a big blue tub on the other.  That way, I was able to add more levels to the apparatus.  All but one end of one tube is notched to give the children easy pouring access into the tubes.
The two larger tubes on the bottom also have cut-aways and holes to increase access and viewing for the children.

Below is a picture of the shelves with the provisions for this apparatus.  Note that there are extra tubes and homemade plungers of various sizes and lengths.
The plungers are jar lids screwed onto dowels.  Many of the dowels I use are old broom or shovel handles.

This apparatus creates a lot of spaces for children to explore. There are spaces the children can look into and there are spaces they can reach into.

There are spaces between and under and there are spaces that are between and over.

Not only do the children explore any and all the the spaces, they also author operations that are particular to this apparatus and the provisions.  Let's look at just a couple having to do with the plungers.

The first operation is one that you might expect: a child pushes the pellets through the tube with a plunger.

Pushing the pellets through the tube from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Did you notice the reaction of the child on the other end?  At first, it looks like he moves to catch the pellets but, in the end, he helps the first child unstick the plunger head that was caught on the end of the tube.

After working with the plunger in and out of the cardboard tube, this child noticed that he could see his actions in the mirror.  He showed the greatest interest in motion of the plunger on the other end of the tube.
In other words, he was referencing his actions remotely.

Children not only author a given operation, but often times they fabricate the reverse operation. Instead of pushing the pellets through the tubes, a child will scrape them out.

Pulling the pellets out with the plunger from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

I was impressed with how purposeful and fluid she was in her actions.

I will leave you with one final video.  To understand the video you need to know that I am part of the action.  Besides filming, I am on the opposite end of the tube from the child.  I also have a plunger and I am pushing it through the same tube as this child.  Watch his reactions to this little game we have created.

plunger game from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

I have said many times that after I build an apparatus, I give it over to the children to make it their own. I guess that is not entirely true because, as you can see, I sometimes play, too.  Why should the children have all the fun?

Saturday, February 21, 2015


What is one of the messiest invitations you set up at the sensory table?  For me, Suds Painting has to be one of the messiest.  Just take a look at this picture from December of 2007.
You can see suds paint up to this child's elbows and covering every cup, pot and jello mold in the table.

I used to set this provocation up every year.  For some unknown reason, I had not set it up since 2011, so I decided to set it up this year.  When I set it up, though, there were a few changes.  In the table, I set up the new Channel Board I built earlier this year.
As you can see, I used a wooden tray that spans the width of the table to prop the channel board on an incline.  The incline is purposeful so suds flow down the channel.  Watch as this child pumps suds onto the incline.  When he has to reposition the dispenser so he can continue to pump suds, he stops briefly to focus on the suds flowing down the channel.  It is a nice little a-ha moment.

From this same video, you can see another change to the provocation this year: I supplied foaming soap dispensers so the children could create their own suds more easily.  When the children first arrived at the setup, paint and suds were already mixed together in separate paint pots so they could start mixing in other containers right away.

Before long, though, they were adding their own suds to the pots.

In years past, the children have spent a lot of time painting loose objects like pots and pans.  This year, the channel board setup became an important object to paint.  That included the top, the sides, the bottom and even the tray.
Since I grew up in the 60s, I can't help but think the best word to describe this painting creation is psychedelic.

When the children painted the channel board, there was not so much mixing because, as you can see, the colors remained fairly true to the original colors in the pots.  That was the exception, though, because there was an awful lot of mixing.  This year, there were even a couple of self-declared "professional mixers." The video below begins with the child declaring that she and her friend are professional mixers. She goes on to say: "We love to mix something.  We always get our hands dirty, so we can mix."  

On this particular day, mixing was serious for this child.  You can see it in the vigor with which she stirs and you can hear it in the excitement in her voice.  She stayed with suds painting for almost an hour. When her mom came back after class, the child told her that, for the first time ever, she did not even stop to eat snack.  Did I say she was serious?

I started this post by saying this is one of the messiest invitations I set up at the sensory table. Just to prove it, here is a short video of two children asking each other if they want a "wash-off." The first child uses a soapy brush on the other's forearm.  The second child reciprocates by putting clean suds on the first child's forearm. 

In the process of "cleaning" themselves, they are also making up their own word: "wash-off".  A "wash-off" with a paint brush full of painty suds is only possible in a child's world.  Many adults just see a mess.  This particular adult, however, sees a glorious mess created with the time, space and agency to bask in the productive joy of their own making. 

Saturday, February 14, 2015


I never really know what to expect when I run a session that is billed as a building workshop. There are always plenty of raw materials like cardboard boxes, cardboard tubes and duct tape; there are simple tools like utility knives and saws.  And I introduce the building framework that I use when I build (see the righthand column of this blog). Since it is an open-ended process, though, there is no way to know what the participants will build.  All the materials, the tools and the ideas I present have no meaning until participants turn the inert into inertia by going through the building process themselves.

In a recent conference building session, I came away with the following reflections.

Start with a simple construction.  If you are relatively knew to the building process, do not begin with your masterpiece.  Some of the most dynamic apparatus I have built are also the simplest.  How about a tube through a box?
This is very simple, but still poses some decisions and challenges.  The decisions begin with the orientation of the tube: will it be on an incline, vertical or horizontal?  Challenges include how to make the holes so the tube actually goes through and how do you tape around the circular tube to make it stay put inside the box.

In this particular workshop, one group wanted to cut the cardboard tube lengthwise to create two half tubes.  
This is doable, but hard given allotted time and the tools that were on hand.  This group was not afraid to change the plan midway through the process.  They cut the tube, but only four inches in and created a notch in the tube.  (The notch is valuable because it allows better pouring access for the children.)

The hum and the buzz is electrifying.  To be sure, it is not a competition, but a place and a time to experiment and to share insights.

I overheard one person tell another building partner: "Oh, is that what you meant?  I thought you meant…"
Sounds to me like they were practicing a skill that we ask children to engage in all the time.  

When asked about how the children will use the apparatus, some flat out said they did not know. Eureka!  We may have some idea how the children might use the apparatus, but ceding control to the children once the apparatus is done is what it is all about. 
The next step is to observe how the children use the apparatus.  When I observe, I learn about how the children make meaning out of the contraption and, in the process, get other ideas for extending learning invitations for the children.

We all want it.  We all got it.  Creativity is an interesting phenomenon.  It is not inert and can only be realized in action.  So why don't we see it in ourselves?  Everything that participants built in this session was created, thus creative.

So what stops us from creating?  Are we afraid that we are not creative enough?  Jeanne, from Museum Notes, alludes to one quality that is needed when she talks about an 'experimental mindset.'  One of the features includes not knowing the outcome, but willing to engage in the process.  Another feature of the mindset is to be open in that process so you can be "... alert to fortuitous accidents and unintended consequences–and make good use of both."  

As adults, our experimental mindset is not as fluid nor as flexible as that of a child so we need to work at it a little harder.   The effort to enter into that mindset is well worth it, though, because it is the portal into the child's mind.

Saturday, January 31, 2015


This month I have been revisiting posts from two years ago after another early childhood professional asked me the question: Why do I build?  I have revisited them because they will also help me prepare for the 15th Annual Launching into Literacy and Math Conference in Madison, Wisconsin at Madison College(MATC Truax) this next weekend.  This fourth and final repost proposes that children need space and time to play on their own.  By building the apparatus for the table, I am providing those two conditions for the children in my classroom. 

Saturday, September 29, 2012


I was asked last spring by another early childhood professional why do I build apparatus for the sensory table. That question was a lot more thought-provoking than I had anticipated.  I have been mulling over my answer here and here and here.  

In the first post, I stated that children demonstrated early on for me their need to transport sand out of the sensory table.  I began to build apparatus so children could continue to find ways to constructively transport.  An added benefit was that the children, given the chance to work constructively, demonstrated their ability to regulate their own behavior.  In the second post, I said that children recreated operations such as digging and pouring that harken back to a time when our very survival depended on such operations. I build apparatus so children can recreate those fundamental operations.  In the third post, I stated that children create a dialogue with spaces.   It follows that if I offer the children intriguing spaces by way of building an apparatus, they will create intriguing dialogues with those spaces.

This summer I read---and reread---a monograph entitled: Children's right to play.  It was written by Stuart Lester and Wendy Russell for the Bernard van Leer Foundation in December 2010.  Their starting point is Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Right of the Child.  In that article, they specifically cite the right of the child to engage in play. For them it is a necessity of life for children.  It is not a vehicle adults use to teach children about the world, nor is it a way to make academics palatable to children.  It is an activity undertaken for its own sake that is wholly owned by the children.

From their literature review of the research, they go so far as to say children need to engage in play for their very survival and well-being.  They say: "Children's play can be seen as a self-protecting process that offers the possibilities to enhance adaptive capabilities and resilience. ... Play acts across several adaptive systems to contribute to health, well-being and resilience. These include: pleasure and enjoyment; emotion regulation; stress response systems; attachments; and learning and creativity."

At one point in the paper, they reference a comment by Brian Sutton-Smith.  The comment states: "Play prepares you for more play, and more play offers a greater satisfaction in being alive."

Take a look at the following pictures from the sensory table to see if the children exude that "greater satisfaction in being alive."

According to the authors, the role of an adult is to provide the space and time for children to play---not to directly manage it.  

Watch the video below.  The quality of the video is poor, but the message it communicates is rich.   

Do you know what they were doing?  They are burying jewels, their treasure.  That is not important, though.  The important thing is that seven children ages 2 to 5 are creating an activity of their own choosing that has an immediate meaning for them. There are no adults directing or managing this activity. Notice, even though there are no adults around, they are still working feverishly to complete a task that takes a whole lot of agreement and a whole lot of accommodation and a whole lot of negotiation and a whole lot of cooperation.  The adult role in the activity---and why I build---is to set up the space and then to provide the time for the children to create their own, wholly-owned activity.

There is one final reason why I build: building apparatus is my play.

Thank you for indulging me with these reposts.  I will be taking a week off from blogging because of travel but will be back in two weeks to play some more.