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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, August 16, 2014

LESSONS FROM CAINE'S ARCADE

This past week I was asked to do a workshop in Indiana for a program that serves school age children before and after school.   I found presenting to a school age staff an interesting request because I have been working exclusively with children birth to five for over 36 years.  It is true that when older children visit my room, one of the main areas they frequent is the sensory table.

The workshop request came from the executive administrator of the program.  She had heard me talk at the national NAEYC conference a couple of years ago.  She knew my view of children and she knew I like to construct with cardboard and duct tape.  She was looking for a way to get the staff interested in promoting the construction of contraptions by the school age children in their program.  

When my contact made the request, she specifically alluded to Caine's Arcade and thought the staff could possibly try their hands at making arcade games much like Caine did in his father's auto parts store in East Los Angeles.  I saw Caine's Arcade over a year ago, so I knew what she was talking about.  To prepare for the workshop, I revisited the short movie.

Once a person gets over the WOW of what this nine-year-old created, there are a few important lessons from the phenomenon.

One lesson is that no one does this alone.  Sure, Caine built all the arcade games himself, but it would never have become a phenomenon without the filmmaker who played Caine's arcade game. Because he saw the genius of Caine, he wanted to tell what he thought was a compelling story. Though we are not privy to the actual making of the film, credits at the end tell the story of collaboration.  In addition, it only becomes a compelling story if it resonates with others, which it did.  (Can you imagine what would have happened to the arcade and Caine if the filmmaker had not come along?)

Another lesson is the power of a child's imagination.  Caine's first game was created using a small basketball hoop he got at a fast food restaurant.  He taped it to a box and made a paper ball for shooting.  If someone won at one of the arcade games, Caine would go inside the box and push out tickets because that is where tickets come from when a person wins at an arcade game. Caine did not create whiz-bang games that were colorful and had lights.  He was recreating the arcade games with cardboard boxes and tape and the whiz-bang was in his head.  Not only do children build and create like Caine, but the power of their imagination fills in all the unpolished edges of the action to make it something special that adults sometimes have a hard time recognizing.

Yet another lesson is that a compelling story is inspirational.  That is clearly seen in Caine's Arcade Chapter 2  which contains a segment that shows children sending Caine videos of their arcade creations and thanking him for the inspiration.

There may even be one final lesson: there is creativity in all of us.  I saw it last Monday in the workshop.  There were six groups and no two constructions were the same.  One was a spaceship with a stirring wheel that turned.  One was a robot. One was a tree. One was a full blown engineering project to move marbles down tubes. One was an arcade game. And one was a town complete with an underground tube.



I want to thank Dr. Sandra Duncan for inviting me to work with her staff.  If you believe that the classroom environment contributes to children's learning and overall wellbeing, I urge you to check out a book she co-authored called Inspiring Spaces for Young Children.




Saturday, August 9, 2014

SURPRISE DOWN THE TUBE

For the past couple of weeks, I have written about play around a particular apparatus at the sensory table called Computer Box with Cardboard Tubes.  The first post dealt with how many children can play at the table at one time, in other words, capacity.

The second post talked about how children often create their own physical challenges---even at the sensory table.

For this post, I would like to tell you about a game created by the children when a child who is not part of the regular class enters the room and begins to play with others.

It begins with the child a little apprehensive about coming into the classroom because he does not know the children.  On the other hand, he is excited to spend the morning because he is familiar with the classroom and the adults in the classroom because he was in one of our classes last year.

What he does first is to go to the sensory table and set himself at the end of the longer of two tubes. He is content to kneel there and catch the pellets tumbling down the tube.  A plastic car is sent down the tube.  He is surprised and delighted at the same time.  Another child picks up on the surprise and delight and continues the game by gathering cars and sending them down the tube.


These two are now engaged in a game that can be called "Surprise Down the Tube."  It happens spontaneously.  It would not have happened without the apparatus.  More importantly, it would not have happened without the visiting child and his reaction of surprise and delight to a car landing in his cup instead of pellets.  And it would not have happened without the child in the red shoes reading the visiting child's cues of joy.  And it would not have happened without the child in the red shoes wanting to partake of that joy and to create more.

The beauty of the game is that it is attractive to others and easy for them to join in the fun.

This is a simple game: pellets down the tube with a car or two interspersed.  Though it is simple, it is also very complex because the variables are numerous.  For instance: What can cause one child to react to a surprise in such a way as to draw others into the action?  Is it his tone of voice; is it the genuine expression of delight?  How is a child able to pick up on another child's cues so the game continues and evolves to the point where others are partaking in the original surprise and joy?  At many points, the game could have ended, but it continued and expanded to include others.

Though it is such a great game, it can never be duplicated, nor can you buy it in the store or from a catalogue. This game is unique to the physical and human context of this particular day.  From this perspective, there is no limit to how many games can and will be created.  Let the games begin--- and begin again and again each and every day.





Saturday, August 2, 2014

ADDITIONS TO COMPUTER BOX WITH CARDBOARD TUBES

I must apologize for the title of this post.  It is too wordy and not catchy and gives you absolutely no information as to where this post will go.  I am sorry. There I said it.   

Practitioners often ask me how often do I change the apparatus at the sensory table.  My answer is: every week.  Sometimes I will change the whole apparatus; sometimes I will use the same apparatus but change the medium; and sometimes I will add onto the apparatus that was in the table the previous week.  That is the case with the most recent apparatus.  Last week I wrote about Computer Box with Cardboard Tubes.  

I kept the same apparatus but added a long cardboard tube embedded horizontally through the bottom of the box. This new cardboard tube extended beyond the table on both ends to empty into tubs at each end. In addition, two flexible gutter extenders were embedded through the top of the box. The extenders exited on opposite sides of the box to empty into notches cut in the horizontal cardboard tube.

Here is another view that shows just one of the gutter tubes emptying into the horizontal cardboard tube.

The new gutter extenders added a bit of intrigue because the children want to see where the pellets go.  

One child went so far as to drape her body over the long cardboard tube to retrieve what she had dropped down the gutter extender tube.

And when I say drape, I mean drape.

Did I just hear a gasp?  Traveling and presenting through the UK in June, I did hear an audible gasp when I showed a picture of a child standing on the lip of the table.  I was made aware that they are required to do risk assessments for national health and safety regulations.  As I talked more with the practitioners, they made me realize that a risk assessment could be done on something like this apparatus for this particular action.  It would go something like this:  Is the structure strong enough to hold this child?  Yes.  Does the child have the physical acumen to pull this off? Yes.  Is the child being supervised to ensure her safety?  Yes.   

This is an extremely physical child who needs to and will create her own physical challenges.  If the curriculum truly allows for individualization, then there needs to be an opportunity for this child to explore this apparatus in her own way: physically.   

Sometimes there is a fine line between what a child can do and what she is allowed to do.   In this particular case, I was was making a moment-by-moment decision about this child's need to explore the apparatus physically and the necessity to keep her safe.  I am a professional and they pay me to make that decision. The final decision is clearly visible in the picture.  

Saturday, July 26, 2014

CAPACITY:COMPUTER BOX WITH CARDBOARD TUBES

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/GEMS



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

TANGENTIAL

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

VERTICAL TUBES IN A BOX - 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?