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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, April 23, 2016

Re-purposing objects

Last week I wrote about the physical challenges children create for themselves.  They do it all the time.  This particular post was in the context of four large boxes installed on four sides of the sensory table.

Another feat the children undertake all the time is to re-purpose materials to suite their own mission at any given time.  The examples again come from the same installation of big boxes around the table.

One example of re-purposing something is the child who decides to use a dustpan as a scoop.  The dustpans and brooms are always next to the table for sweeping up messes.  This child wants a bigger scoop for his operations, so he appropriates a dustpan.

Dustpan scoop from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Another adult around the table actually comments on what a big scoop the child has and compares it to a bulldozer.

Another child takes a short, clear plastic tube to make a scoop.  That is a bit tricky because the tube is open on both ends.  Watch how carefully he proceeds so he does not loose any pellets out of the other end of the tube.

Tube scoop from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

He is careful, that is, while scooping and lifting the pellets out of the table.  However, when he is ready to pour, he quickly launches the pellets into the bucket.  Most of the pellets end up in the bucket, but some fly out the other end.

Another child takes a long, clear plastic tube for a lever on a fulcrum to transport the pellets from inside the table into a bucket next to the table.  Because the high end of the tube reaches beyond the table, he spills a fair amount of pellets on the floor.

Lever and fulcrum from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

He could have just lifted the tube to pour the pellets in the bucket, but instead, he uses the lip of the table as a fulcrum to both support the weight of the tube and establish a point on which to rotate the tube to empty it into the bucket.  It looks like real-world physics to me.

One child went so far as to bring scissors from the writing area on the other side of the room.  I often have children bring things from other areas, but this is the first time someone has brought something from the writing area to use at the sensory table.  Watch as she uses the scissors to pick up one pellet at a time from the table and then drop it into a window in the box.

Scissors as pincher from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

She is very meticulous about making sure she gets only one pellet at a time.  In fact, the second time she goes for a pellet, she gets two and drops one before putting the other one in the window.

I could have done the teacher thing and stopped her by saying the scissors stay at the writing table.  Instead, I did a different teacher thing:  I observed and recorded what I saw.  I could not help but think how ingenious this child was to take a writing table utensil and re-purpose it as pincer in the sensory table.

In fact in every instance I referenced, I could have found a reason to stop the actions of the child.   For instance I could have said for the first one: "Dustpans are for sweeping."  For the second one: "You will loose the pellets out the other end."  For the third one: "You are spilling way too much when you fill your tube."  If I had done that, though, I would have missed the resourcefulness and the inventiveness of the children as the re-purpose the materials at hand.  That idea is transformative because it applies to all other constructions and all other areas of the room and all the materials in the room.

The question is: Does anything go or are there limits to what is allowed?

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Children and physical challenges

The big box fort that was set up in the large muscle area of my room is now history.

The fort is gone, but the boxes have been re-purposed to create an new apparatus at the sensory table. I separated the four boxes and positioned them around the four sides of the sensory table.
Unlike the fort, the boxes are now their own separate cubbies.  For the most part, the openings remained the same except for the ones facing the table.  I had to expand those holes otherwise the children would not be able to reach into the table from the boxes.  Even though I made those holes bigger, there was an inherent physical challenge for the children to work from inside the box.
You can see in the picture above that a child inside the box had to bend his back to stand up to work in the table.  Of course, an easy solution to the problem was to work from your knees like the two girls below kneeling in the boxes while scooping pellets.  Was that comfortable?  Imagine the new perspective the children experienced with their chin on the lip of the table while scooping pellets.
One of the features of this setup is that it created spaces in-between the boxes for the children to work in.  In the picture above, the boy in the red was working in such a space.  The boxes constituted physical barriers to his operations.  Since he could not go side-to-side, perhaps he had to lean in further for his enterprise.  In the picture below, you can see four children working from inside each of the four boxes, but two children are working in those in-between spaces.
Here it is easier to see that the boxes made it imperative to lean into the space over the table to coordinate their scooping and pouring.

Only two of the boxes had holes in the top.  And the children found both of them and used them for their operations.  The endeavor through one of the holes would have made a contortionist envious.  Watch how the child in the video below retrieved a pan from the top of the box through a hole that accommodated just his head and his hands.

Contortionist from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Why would a child do this?  Maybe he invented a moment in time in which he was both creator and agent of his own actions.  How compelling would that be for a child?

Speaking of physical challenges, watch these two children drop pellets through the hole in the top of the box into the orange bucket they had set up inside the box. 

A drop in the bucket from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Just by itself, it was a physical challenge to drop the pellets from a height into the bucket, but these two did it while climbing up and balancing on the lip of the table.

These are good examples of a physical challenges the children create for themselves.  Over the past couple of years, I have come to appreciate those physical challenges and how the children actualize them.  In fact, it is the 9th axiom in the right hand column of this blog.  Given the time, the space, the resources and the freedom to explore, the children invariably search out their own unique physical challenges to create moments of agency and mastery in their world/s.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

How do children explore spaces?

Before I return to the sensory table, I would like to take a second look at this year's big box fort with a little different lens.  Last week I wrote about literacy in connection with the fort.  This week, I would like to examine how the children explore spaces in and around the big box fort.  I connected four big wardrobe boxes so children could crawl in, out, and through boxes.
There are no doors on the side facing the room.  In fact, there is only one window in box #3 that faces the rest of the room.  Box #2 has no doors, only windows.  Box #2 is connected with the other three boxes with inside portals.

Box #1, #3 and #4 each has an outside doors.  The doors on boxes # 3 and #4 open on one end of the fort. 
The door for box #1 opens out the back of the fort. 
The highlighted square shows one corner of an inside passage with the dotted line representing the part of the inside door that is not visible.  Children crawl through that passage to move through the fort.

When children explore these spaces, they do more than just crawl from one box to the other.  They do that, but they also inhabit those spaces in different ways.  One way is to do it with others.
That gets provocative when a couple of children settle into a space and a third child either wants to join them or pass through.  How do we fit in this space and how can we accommodate more?

Another way to explore the spaces is to see what happens when we stand up.  In the taller box, we have a small window to the world.  Our bodies our inside,but our mind is looking out.

The shorter boxes offer the children the chance to be both in and out of box.  How much of me can be out and how much of me can be out?
Can two of us be both out and in?

Another way to explore the spaces is by filling them with something.  One group this year filled one of the end boxes with blocks and anything else they could find to put down the hole in the top of the box.
Of course, not everything they found fit in the top.

Filling up the box gave the children another way to explore spaces.  How do we empty the spaces we filled?
The question is not only how do we empty the box, but what space do we use for the stuff as an interim to putting it all away? 
Children like to explore the in-between spaces, too.  One of those in-between spaces is wall with the cardboard window.  You can see from the video below that it fosters a gleeful game of peek-a-boo.

Here is a more active game of peek-a-boo in which the children use all the spaces inside the fort and outside the fort.

The boy on the outside runs around the whole fort looking in windows and doors to see the child inside the structure.  The boy inside the structure crawls from one end of the fort to the other.  In the end, the boy on the outside peers in the window and can see the other child exiting the fort on the other side.  The boy on the inside was inhabiting the inside spaces while the boy on the outside was inhabiting the spaces created by the structure on the outside.  They were doing it together each in their own spaces.

How do children explore spaces?  First, they find all the spaces.  That includes all the spaces in, around and in-between  Then the children act upon those spaces; they breathe life into those spaces. Children give those spaces meaning  literally and figuratively by filling them with their play.


Saturday, April 2, 2016

Big box fort and literacy

This week I am not writing about an apparatus at the sensory table.  Rather, I write about a structure I built in the large muscle area of my classroom.  ( I always have large muscle play in my classroom as an option for the children who need to move when they need to move.  That is pretty much all children.)  Rest assured that it portends things to come in the sensory table.  

Let's face it,  I like cardboard boxes.  I especially like big boxes because big boxes allow for the creation of appealing spaces that the children can explore inside and out with their whole bodies. One of the things I like to do with big boxes is to connect them to form a fort with interconnecting rooms with multiple ways in and out and multiple windows to peek in and out of.  Two years ago, I wrote about a box fort I set up the large muscle area of my classroom.
The fort consisted of five boxes of different sizes interconnect with passage ways on the inside and windows and doors all around.
The play was so good and so rich, that I wanted to do it again when the opportunity presented itself in the form of multiple big boxes. It just so happened that last November my daughter and son-in-law moved back to town with a moving company.  Moving companies use wardrobe boxes for packing up clothes.  I asked for the boxes and saved four for a new box fort for the large muscle area.  Large boxes are easily transported if they are broken down so they are flat.  They can easily be taped back together to make the big box again.

I have a small SUV so I was able to transport them to school and reconstruct them with duct tape.  Below you can see this year's box fort.  All four boxes are taped together on the outside and on the inside for greater stability.  Boxes 1, 3 and 4 have doors into the fort.
Box 2 is the connecting box that the children pass through as they navigate the inside of the structure.  Below is look inside box 2. The doorways to each of the other boxes are denoted (1, 3, and 4).
It looks like there is a traffic jam in the connecting box.  No problem, though, because children's sense of space is so much different than that of adults.

Besides the doors, there are six windows.  Windows 1, 2, 3, and 4 are on the sides of boxes.  Windows 3 and 4 are small narrow windows on two sides of the middle box  Windows 5 and 6 are cut in the top of two of the boxes.
Windows 1, 2 and 5 have flaps to open and close.  Windows 3, 4, and 6 are open cuts.  

The windows offer unique frames through which the children can view each other---both from the inside and from the outside.

There is one particular type of play in and around the fort that caught my eye this year.  That particular type of play can be considered literacy play.  Let's start on the inside.  The fort became a perfect spot for a child to retreat to do her writing.

On the outside, one child decided to tag one of the boxes with her name.  Can you say graffiti? 
I pride myself in knowing everything that goes on in my classroom, but I did not see the child do this.  The writing table is right next to the large muscle area so I am surprised more children did not get the idea.

The last bit of play around literacy is based on a short video I took of three children playing a made-up game of rollicking balls.  One child is outside the structure trying to throw or stuff balls into one of the boxes.  Another child is in the box deflecting or throwing out those same balls.  The third child in the taller adjacent box keeps reaching through the hole to throw or deflect the balls, also.

The following week, I showed the video to the child in the taller box.  After showing him the video, I asked him if he could draw himself throwing the ball.  Since this child had not draw much at the writing table, I was surprised that he accepted the challenge.  I set up the IPad with the picture of him reaching through the hole throwing the ball and he started to draw.

Did I plan this literacy play?  No I did not.  I thought I had built a large muscle apparatus that the children could use to explore spaces with their whole body.  They did that for sure, but the children created so much more through their play by combining their ideas with the resources, materials and open-ended invitations.  
P.S. On my Facebook page at the end of February, I shared a post (https://blog.kinstantly.com/kids-forts/ ) about the need for children to build forts.   The post mostly talks about older children building forts outside, but I think there is a place for forts inside a preschool room, too.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Don't do this

I have been thinking a lot about the children's need to transport (see Axiom #1 on the right hand column of this blog). 

It began in January with a relatively simple setup that included several pails and tubs around the table so children could transport the sand out of the table.

In the process of writing about how the children explored the setup in a post called transporting,  I began to wonder what would happen if I removed the table completely, leaving only the buckets and tubs to create a transporting paradise.

Without the sensory table, the sole purpose was to move the pellets from container to container.

I decided to have the children work without the table a second week but to add some loose tubes, pipes and channels to see if and how the children changed the process of transporting.

While adding some loose parts, I took away some of the big containers to reduce the clutter.
Along with Axiom #1 on the right, there is its corollary: During transporting, the children will spill.  What that means in practical terms is, if you are ill-disposed to messes, don't do this!  

Let me give you a couple of fine examples of children spilling in the act of transporting with this setup.  The first one is a child attempting to pour pellets into a bottle.  He has a full scoop and the lip of the bottle is small.

Pouring pellets 1 from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Most of the pellets ended up on the floor and not in the bottle.  On closer examination, you can see that there are plenty of pellets on the floor already.

Here is another example of spilling, this time with a child trying to transfer pellets with a spoon into a small pipe.

Pouring pellets 2 from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

The child is undeterred even though most of the pellets miss the pipe and end up on the floor.  Only through experimenting does one learn to estimate size of openings and overflow capacity.

If you think spilling is a natural phenomenon and you can tolerate the mess, then there are plenty of examples of children taking advantage of the opportunity to transport.  Here is an example of two children using a tube placed in a channel to transport pellets from one container to another.

Taking turns from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Not only are the children in the video learning to pour carefully into a relatively small opening, but these three-year-olds are taking turns in a joint transporting endeavor.

Remember that small pipe into which the one child tried to dump pellets?  Watch how a little older child figures out how to deposit pellets into that very same pipe.

Fine motor work from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Besides the superb fine motor work, the child continually speculates how many more pellets he thinks he needs to complete his self-appointed task.  And think about the persistence this child exhibits to fill that long, narrow tube!

Here is one more example of the wonder of transporting.  One child has decided to fill a cardboard tube with pellets.  The child pours pellets into the tube and checks the level of the pellets in the tube.  He takes a second scoop and repeats.  This time, though, he sees how close he is to filling the tube and he lets out an understated "ho-ho-ho" of excitement at how close he is to finishing his undertaking.

Filling the cardboard tube with pellets from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Not so long ago, I tried to pour a can of partially frozen juice into a juice container with a small lip.  The result was a huge mess.  What happens when we create messes?  We clean them up.  The same is true for children.  In fact, what a great learning experience to have the opportunity to clean up your own messes.

That said, if it causes you physical pain to see the amount children can spill and the unmitigated mess the children can generate, Don't do this!

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Transporting paradise

Back in January of this year, I wrote a post called transporting.  I ended the post this way: I am now wondering what would happen if I eliminate the table completely.  The shelves would stay, but what if I just put a plethora of buckets and tubs directly on the mats?  Stay tuned.

Well, I did it.  I took my sensory table completely out of the room.  I moved the shelves into the middle of the mat and filled them with scoops, long-handle spoons, and big and small containers.
I set out four, five-gallon buckets and three large tubs.  I turned over one tub for a small table.  I also covered my clear toddler table to create another small table as an elevated work surface.  Here is the setup from two other perspectives. 
The medium I used for this "no sensory table" setup was fuel pellets.  They are compressed sawdust that are manufactured to be burned for heat in pellet stoves.  

More than any other setup, this array of tubs and containers offered children the ways and means for transporting with small, medium, and large containers.

Watch as this 18-month-old transfers pellets from one small container to another.

As you might have noticed, he was not too successful.  That matters little because he is quite content with the trying while sitting on the floor with his legs wrapped around one of the containers.

These three-year-old children were using scoops to transport the pellets from a large container to a plastic garbage pail.
They knew it was a garbage can and as they poured the pellets, they stated: "We're putting garbage in there."  

This four-year-old child takes pellets from a large container and puts them in a triangular-shaped container.  He then pours the pellets into a second large container.  This undertaking is challenging because of the atypical shape of the container he chooses to use to make the transfer.
Here is an example of yet another combination of containers used in transporting.  This time a child pours a five gallon bucket of pellets into a washtub.  He adeptly lifts and tips the green bucket so all the pellets end up in the white washtub.

This is even a greater challenge, not only because the he is wielding a larger container, but also because the washtub in not secure so it moves as he pours the pellets.

Here is an example of transporting from the small table that is part of the setup.  The child is scooping pellets from the washtub to deposit them in the green bucket.

One of the more interesting aspects of this clip is that the child is using a homemade scoop he fashioned by inserting a clear plastic tube into a plastic measuring cup.  The new tool makes it harder to scoop but easier to dispatch the pellets accurately in the green bucket.

Here is one final combination of containers and transporting: containers inside of containers.  The beauty of this operation is the practice the children get with comparing volumes of the different containers.
This setup fostered many more examples of transporting.  The children seized the opportunity to transport to their hearts' content.  You might even conclude that it was a transporting paradise.

I have often been asked for ideas to set up sensory play in a shared space where the sensory table cannot be left out because another group uses the space.  Part of the answer may be to forget about the table and just have a variety of containers that can fit inside each other and then placed on the floor.  Commandeering a small table from the room for an additional work space would add an additional level of play making it more inviting.  

If you can't use a sensory table, never fear, even you can create your own little transporting paradise.


Saturday, March 12, 2016

Baby washing 2016

One of the posts that has gotten the most hits in the five plus years of blogging is the baby washing post.  There is really nothing particularly unusual in an early childhood classroom about washing babies.   Adding a clothesline so children could wash and hang clothes at the same time, though, was out of the ordinary and seemed to spark the interest of other early childhood teachers.
In that first version, I took wood scraps and drilled holes an inch or so from one end which would be the top.  I then taped the wooden rods to the end of the table and then threaded the clothesline through the poles.

This year,  I decided not to use the wooden poles.  Instead I cut PVC pipes for poles.  These poles were sturdier, but just as easy to make.
I decided to make one small change in the configuration of this apparatus.  I strung the two clotheslines at two different levels.  I was thinking of Axiom #3 on the right hand column of this blog: children welcome more levels of play and exploration in an apparatus.  In addition, I added a table (my toddler sensory table with a cover) with towels so the children could bring the babies out of the water to dry them off and dress them as if on a changing table.

It is usually at this point in the blog I write about what kinds of play the apparatus fosters.  This week I will digress.

I work in a family education program called Early Childhood Family Education(ECFE).  The program is part of Community Education in almost every school district in the State of Minnesota.   In my district, the parents and children come once a week for a two hour class.  The class includes a parent and child time together in the early childhood classroom for half hour and a parent education component and early childhood component that run concurrently in separate rooms for the remaining one and a half hours.  Families sign up each semester, but most attend the full school year for a total of 34 to 36 sessions.  My site is one of 11 sites throughout the city.  We have nine separate classes so we serve about 125 families a week.  One of the strengths of this program is that it is an universal access program with tuition based on a sliding fee scale.

Once a semester, the early childhood teacher is asked to go into the parent room to explain what goes on in the early childhood classroom while the parents are in their parent education session.  This past week was the week for me to talk to the parents about what the children are learning in my classroom.

I told the parents that when I come to school each morning I do not know what the children will learn.  That surprised some because they thought I would have concrete learning objectives for all the activities in the room.   That is not to say they will not learn; they are learning machines. Rather, when they come into my room they are able to choose their own activities and direct their own learning.

I like to use concrete examples when I talk to the parents about what the children are learning.  Let me take one from the baby washing setup.  The example really has very little to do with baby washing.  Rather, it is one of those tangential activities in Axiom #7 on the right hand side of this blog.

I approached the clothesline and baby washing table from another area in my room and noticed something unusual.  Why were the pans full of water underneath the changing table?

I stayed around a few minutes and I was able to capture how the pans got there. 

Makeshift oven from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

When I asked the child why was he putting the pans under the table, he told me he was cooking and that was his oven. 

So what is the child learning?  Physically, he is learning to control his large and small muscles so he spills as little as possible while he walks and squats down to place the container on the floor.  Social/emotionally, he is learning to negotiate a joint activity with a friend.  Cognitively, he is learning to create a play scenario and solve all the problems that come with sustaining that play scenario.  The beauty of this scenario is that it was authentic, meaning it was coming from the children in an attempt to make sense of their world. 

When I came in that morning, I had absolutely no inkling that baby washing would turn into a cooking experience with the space underneath the changing table turning into makeshift oven.  Actually, it is not unusual for me to not know what will happen on any given day in any given area of my room.  I am comfortable---and energized---in the ambiguity of not knowing.