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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, November 15, 2014


I write almost exclusively about play around the sand and water table.  Last week, though, I wrote about a structure I set up in the large muscle area of my classroom.  I called it the Big Box Fort.
This was an installation that started off as three boxes but over the course of three weeks expanded to include five boxes and a periscope.  

There was one particular play scenario associated with this structure that totally surprised me. One child took to crashing into the outside of Box 1 and said she was a tornado.  

We live in the Midwest part of the United States and every year in the summer we hear about tornados.  Tornado season, though, is over for us, so where does this scenario come from?  It seems to come out of the blue, but if you work around children, you know they are always trying to make sense of their world.  I asked her dad if he had any idea where her idea came from.  He said he did not have a clue.

From the video, we do know that the child has an idea about what a tornado does: it crashes into structures and tries to knock them down.  For her it is truly a full body experiment to crash against the wall of the box.  For her it is about the power of her body against the box.  But why does she become a tornado?

What is also surprising is that the children in the box pick up on the tornado scenario. Heads pop up yelling "tornado!" and "get out, it's a tornado!"  And everyone knows to get into the boxes when the tornado is coming.  That even includes the girl who is the tornado.  She, too, reassumes her role as a person and scurries into the box to seek shelter from the tornado. (Did you notice, this is an all-girl, big-body play scenario?)

Surely there is a lot of drama as the children play "tornado."  There is a lot of yelling and acting scared and hiding from the danger.  Those are all elements that seem to make the play infectious. But why a tornado?   

If it had something to do with the structure itself, I do not know.  However, the tornado play continued the following week when the box structure was no longer in the large muscle area. Instead, the children---some of the same children and some new players---made up a new script for the tornado game.  Interestingly enough, the girl who personified the original tornado was not part of this reconfigured group. This reconfigured group of children which now included both girls and boys decided to build a wall to keep out the tornado.  They built the wall in the window with the window blocks.
This was all very serious work.  One of the children even states that we have to get the wall built before the tornado destroys the whole world.  

Just this morning at a conference I was attending in New York, I heard Lella Gandini say: "Nothing is banal to the eyes of a child."  Surely this was important for this group of children.  But why did this play scenario about a tornado stick?  How did the play transform from someone embodying the tornado to a generalized, amorphous threat?  And will it continue to have a life in the classroom? 

Why the tornado?  

Saturday, November 8, 2014


I write almost exclusively about life around the sand and water table in my classroom.  Permit me to deviate to show you what transpired in my large muscle area a few weeks ago.  Believe it or not, it has to do with cardboard boxes and duct tape.

I have dedicated a 6' X 12' area in my room for large muscle play so that type of play is always available to the children.  I change the area every two weeks so children work on all types of motor---and social---development.

Here are two examples.  On the left are Stepping Stones and on the right are trampolines.  The Stepping Stones accommodate many children and foster many types of group play.  The trampolines do not accommodate so many children but do foster turn-taking.

A few weeks ago, a program in another part of our building received some new toy shelves that came in big boxes.  Since everybody in the building knows I love boxes, they offered them to me. I gladly accepted and proceeded to set them up in the large muscle area.  Over the course of three weeks, I strung five big boxes together.  (There are six if you count the periscope box that allows the children to peek into box 4 and vice versa.)

I started with boxes 1, 2 and 3.  I decided to orient them horizontally.  I was afraid if I oriented them vertically, they would be unstable and could be prone to tipping.

For the first three boxes, only doors are on the sides and ends and only windows are on the top.  I will be totally truthful: I did not do that consciously.  The result, though, was fantastic.  To enter the boxes, the children had to get down on their hands and knees to crawl in.  That meant they were horizontal.

When the children went vertical, their heads popped out.

When I added box 4, I cut a window on the side of the box.  Notice it is at the same level as the top of the horizontal boxes.  This was a conscious decision because I did want the children to be able to look out of the vertical box.  (I no longer needed to worry about the vertical box tipping because it was duct taped to the other boxes.)

On the inside, I connected the boxes with doorways and windows so the children could crawl and climb through and between the boxes.  I taped the openings together so the boxes were all connected giving the whole structure a lot of stability.

One of the great features of the "fort" was that it provided enclosed spaces where the children could be away from the adults.
Maybe that is something they need and crave.

Whether or not they need or crave spaces away from adults, they are masters at exploring the spaces offered to them.  Below you can see a video of the children crawling in and out of the boxes.  Notice the child on the left tries to negotiate his way into that box with a child who seems to be the gatekeeper.  In the middle box, one child enters and then two different children exit.

What you did not see were the three different children exiting the boxes from the right.  That makes at least eight children in the boxes.  How many more were there?  I do not know.  It is, after all, their space to be away from the adults.

There was clearly a lot of large motor activity in the last clip.  What was harder to see was the nonverbal negotiation of space that was happening inside the boxes.  You got a glimpse of it as the child negotiated his way into the box on the left.

That is just one type of social interaction fostered by the fort.  There were plenty more, but let's look at one more. The video shows children creating a little game of referencing each other as their heads pop in and out of the boxes.  

You may have heard me chuckle during the clip.  I have shared the video with the parents and some colleagues and inevitably the video elicits smiles all around.

This little game the children created turned out to be significant.  The two girls had played together before, but the boy was not part of their play.  The following class, all three sought each other out for play.  

It now becomes very interesting to consider how the features of a structure and the children's actions combine to foster relationships.  And will those relationships be sustained over time?  Will new structures with different features change the relationships as the children act upon them?  If they do change, then in what way will they change?

Saturday, November 1, 2014


There are some things that happen in an early childhood classroom that are a surprise.  Often times, those things are ordinary and magical at the same time.  Does that sound counterintuitive? You will have to decide for yourself after you see a series of short videos that capture some ordinary moments next to the sensory table.

In the videos, a child uses loose parts from around the sensory table to build his own construction.  It is not an expansive structure, nor is it an aesthetic marvel.  It is ordinary in every sense of the word.  In fact, it only uses a few ordinary elements.  Not only are the the structure and elements ordinary, but so are the operations used in building the structure.  

Next to the sensory table, there is always an assortment of what I call Hodgepodge and Doohickies.  Children go to the shelves to pick out what they want to use in the sand and water table.

On this particular day, many of the implements had already been transported to the sensory table. One child, though, found four things he could use to create a little building project for himself.  For more insight into this child's actions, I solicited the parent's reaction to the videos. Her reactions are in italics after each clip.

In the first video, you see a child take a clear plastic tube and drop it inside a larger cardboard tube.  With great facility, he puts the tube combination into a measuring cup.  He seems to have an ultimate plan: standing the tubes upright in the measuring cup.  His actions are extremely measured (no pun intended) because he seems to realize the structure is not stable. With a leap of faith, he places another measuring cup onto the structure and lets go.  The result?

engineering 1 from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

In the first video I noticed his uncertainty (which was really obvious when compared to video 2). I could tell the wheels were turning the whole time and I must say was impressed that he knew he had to hold the tubes at the bottom in order to keep the clear one in the cardboard one without trial and error.

Even though he did not succeed, he carried out his actions and intentions with great care and a budding aptitude for building.  (If you read the action writeup on the Vimeo clip, you will get an idea just how much care and aptitude he exhibits.  Nothing is easy when balancing different things in each other or on top of each other.)

After being unsuccessful and little frustrated at trying to get the tube to stand up in the measuring cup, he inserts the tube into a red coffee can.  As the video begins, you see from his actions and his definitive "Huh" that he has realized his plan.  He now places the measuring cup on top of the tube with a lot more confidence.  He turns to the camera and gives another "Huh" and proudly declares: "It stays."

engineering 2 from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

In the second video, I noticed how much more sure of himself and his method he was. He said "Huh" right away in the beginning because he anticipated success with the smaller coffee can. He had no apprehension on his face the whole video and used "huh" again at the end (when he was actually successfully) as a kind of completion and "I've bested you" to the now standing tube. His smile at the end was priceless and showed how pleased he was with himself and his accomplishment. 

Like all good builders and experimenters it was time to test the structure.  He exudes confidence with his body language as he tests putting a couple of other loose elements on top of his structure.  It is not hard to see that he is smiling with his whole body.

engineering 3 from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

In the third video, I thought it was so cute how he could barely contain his excitement and couldn't sit still (It almost looked like he had to go to the bathroom!). He was willing to tempt fate by placing another container on top but wasn't too sure it wouldn't wreck his masterpiece so he ended up taking it off. He seemed a lot more relaxed after he took it off to know the tube would remain standing.

The videos really show his mechanical aptitude, which runs in the family (my husband is a 3rd generation elevator mechanic).

The parent watched the videos with her son.  This is what she said about his reaction to the videos:

He had a big smile on his face the whole time we were watching the videos and was so proud that a video of just him was commanding all of our attention. At one point he asked me, "Why did I go "ha, ha"?", I said I didn't know and asked him why he did it and he said "Because I liked it" which I interpreted as him being proud of himself.

The videos show a child who has the time and the space to employ a sense of agency to begin to figure out how things work in his world.   And he does it while working with the most mundane elements: a plastic tube, a cardboard tube, two measuring cups, an empty coffee can, and a metal pail.   

There is a postscript to these videos.  I left the area and came back several minutes later to see what was going on.  The child was still there and had replicated his structure.  This time, though, he said: "I can make it fall."  He then proceeded to kick it over.  In the span of 15 minutes, he had moved from being unable to make it stand; to being able to make it stand; to being able to make it fall.   Now that is agency.

Did a little magic unfold in these ordinary moments?

Saturday, October 25, 2014


I made some modifications to the the Triangle Dividers.

I made three to be exact: a partial roof over the middle area; a cardboard tube embedded in the roof; and a false bottom for the middle area.

Let's start with the false bottom.  

I cut the bottom of a box, the dimension of which I knew would fit into the middle area. Using two cardboard sheets, I added a cross section to the inside of the box bottom to give it more load bearing strength.

I placed the box bottom in the middle area so the solid end was up. Next, I placed a piece of cardboard cut to fit snugly into the middle area onto the box bottom.  Finally, I duct taped the piece of cardboard around the edges to hold it in place and to prevent leakage into the bottom of the table.

You can easily see the difference in in the children's operations with the false bottom in place.  On the left, where there is no false bottom, the child has to stretch are far as she can to even get a cup.  She gets the cup, but cannot reach the pellets. The child on the right, where there is a false bottom, stretches, but he is stretching to get the pellets.

For the cardboard tube, I had to cut an oval in the roof so the tube would be straight up and down. If I just cut a circle the circumference of the tube, the tube would enter the roof with an incline perpendicular to the roof.  If I tried to force the tube to be straight, I would rip the cardboard.

On the inside, I duct taped the tube into a corner for stability.  Notice, also, I cut a notch in the bottom of the tube so the pellets could flow out freely when poured down the tube.  I learned the hard way that the tube has to be several inches off the false bottom otherwise some of the objects the children put down the tube cannot be extracted.  (I say I learned the hard way because I had to destroy one false bottom to get a bottle out of the tube.)

Modifications in the original apparatus will necessarily change the play and exploration around the apparatus.  So, how did the modifications change the play?

The main difference was the added focus for play around the cardboard tube.  That included pouring pellets into the hole.
That is not as easy as it looks because the child has to continually gauge the position of her cup and the rate of pouring to maximize how much she is able to pour in the tube.

Seeing where the pellets go.

And even doing both at the same time.
This child poured and watched the pellets come out the bottom of the tube.  How great is that to be able to reference your own action when you can only monitor the beginning and the end and not what happens in the middle?

A favorite activity was to plug the tube.  The children learned quickly that if they put other objects in the tube, it was easy to plug.  If you plug the tube, though, you do have to figure out how to unplug it.  And the children did.  Watch as these two boys unplug the tube by removing the sticks they had originally put in the tube.  Listen for the grunting and the counting.

Did you notice the third child.  She was the observer taking it all in.  She started in the same space as the child at the bottom window, but moved to the next window over to get a better view. Never discount the observer; in her own way she is as active as the other two.

Play and exploration around the apparatus did not totally change with the modification.  There was still plenty of activity in the triangular spaces and through of the various windows.
As proof, look at the picture above.  There are seven children total.  Two of them are focused on the tube.  The other five are around the table doing their own operations in the those original divided spaces.

Modifications create a whole host of new possibilities for play. In this case, they added great play value as the children appropriated the novel spaces and elements.  

Saturday, October 18, 2014


I have built two types of dividers.  One type, a Cubicle Divider, divides the sensory table into cubicle-like spaces.

The most recent type, a Triangular Divider, partitions the table into triangular spaces.

I am left with the question: How does changing the configuration of the divider change the children's play and exploration?

Some of the operations, of course, stay the same.  In both configurations, there is a lot of transporting through the holes in the cardboard walls.
Another similarity is the degree of enhanced focus for the play within a divided space whether it is rectangular or triangular.  Is that the result of each space being enclosed by walls of cardboard, thus keeping out distractions?
The biggest difference in play, though, does not seem to come from the shape of the spaces. Rather, it comes from one feature particular to the Triangle Divider.  In dividing up the table into triangular spaces, a kind of reservoir, or totally enclosed space, is created.  You can see it in the square space labeled 4 in the picture below.
That square is accessed through spaces 2, 3, 5 and 6.  In all practicality, it is a common space. Children can pour the pellets into the space or scoop the pellets out of the space, but because it is enclosed on four sides, children cannot occupy it like they can the triangular spaces.

So how does that change the play?  It changes the play by creating more physical challenges. That is not so true for pouring into the reservoir, but it is true for scooping out of the reservoir.  I ended up with a lot of pictures of arms reaching through the windows to get at the pellets.  
You can see that it is a physical challenge by this boy's body position.   He has to bend down; reach through the hole; look through the hole to gauge his operation; and keep his balance by holding the divider with his left hand.  

In the picture above, the children have already spent a fair amount of time filling the reservoir. When the reservoir is low, this whole operation becomes that much more challenging.
Oh my, that is a good stretch.

There is an additional physical challenged fostered by the feature.  A child does not necessary have to go through one of the holes to get at the pellets.
As you can see, this child goes over the top.  That is possible for two reasons: 1) the apparatus is made from two-ply cardboard which is more rigid and 2) the triangular configuration makes the structure stronger.  Whether you think that this child's attempts to reach the pellets is good or not, he would have never had the chance for this physical challenge without this reservoir feature.

There is one more difference of note in the children's play between the two types of dividers.  With the original Cubicle Divider, there is more cross-barrier social interaction.  There is much more peeking through the windows and openings to see who is on the other side; there are more attempts to engage the other with games like peek-a-boo.

There is definitely social interaction with the Triangle Divider, too, but it seems to be different.  It tends to be more utilitarian in nature.  For instance, a group of children will enthusiastically fill the reservoir in a joint effort.

Why is there so little social interaction between the cardboard walls in the Triangle Divider?  Is the space too cramped to foster a boisterous game of peek-a-boo?  Does the greater number of windows and openings in the cardboard walls of the Cubicle Divider give license for children to engage each other more through the holes?  I do not know, but it is clear that the configurations promote some operations that are similar for each and some other operations that are unique to each.  Are the possibilities limitless?  Probably not, but the children in their interactions with the spaces will test the boundaries---or in this case, the cardboard walls---and create a multitude of responses that give multiple meaning to the spaces.  Wait, are we talking spatial literacy here?

Saturday, October 11, 2014


A little over a year ago, I wrote a post on Cardboard Dividers.  This apparatus is basically sheets of cardboard spliced together to partition the sand table.
In the version pictured above, the sand table is partitioned into six areas.  Note that there are openings in the cardboard partitions.  Those are there to foster transporting through barriers and to offer unique opportunities for intriguing social interaction.

This past summer, I was in the UK and the Netherlands for a total of 13 talks and workshops.  In one of  the workshops in the south of England, in Bournemouth, one of the participants came up with a new version of the Cardboard Divider apparatus.
This participant took four sheets of cardboard of roughly equal measurements.  She first spliced two together to make an X.  She did the same with the other two sheets and then taped the two X's together.  The result was an apparatus that was unique and creative and worth replicating.

When I say it is worth replicating, I mean I made a note by the picture that I wanted to replicate it in my sand table.  Before I show you the resulting apparatus, I would really like to take you through the process I used to build this new type of Cardboard Divider.  WARNING: We are about to enter the world of mathematics.

The first thing I needed to do was to measure the dimensions of my table.  My table is 46" long and 21.5" wide.  I drew a diagram with the dimensions of the table.  Next, I added the X's in the table.  I saw that when I did that I had the lengths for two sides of a triangle.  All I had to do was figure out the length of the third side of the triangle so I would know the length of each sheet of cardboard I would need.
The side I needed to know is in red.  It is the longest side and is called the hypotenuse.  This looked a lot like a high school geometry problem.  I searched using the phrase: "finding the third side of a triangle." Google promptly provided the Pythagorean Theorem.  You can see the theorem in the notes above.  The "c" in the equation is the hypotenuse.  The squaring and adding of numbers was easy, but I could not remember how to find the square root.  When I Googled that, the first suggestion was to use the calculator on a smart phone.  I laughed.  The second suggestion was to estimate.  And that is what I did.  The answer I ended up with was 31.5"  You can see from the notes that it is not exact, but it looked so close I was pretty sure it would work. And besides, cardboard can be bent or modified easily; it is very forgiving.

I now knew I needed four sheets of cardboard that were 31.5" long.   The height was not critical, but I did want them to be at least 24" so they would rise above the table at least 15." (My table is 9" deep.) It just so happened my neighbor bought some big posters and was willing to share his boxes with me.

I cut out the sheets to size and then cut slits in the middle of each.  Each slit was cut halfway up the sheet.

When I got to school, I spliced the sheets together to come up with two X's.  Before doing much taping, I had to see if they really fit.  To my great delight, they did.

You should have felt like there was a lot of math in this post.  It should not have felt like high school geometry, though, because this was a real life problem.  Though the children were not part of the building, they are still part of the math.  How often do you think children get to work in triangular spaces?

I do not know who the early years practitioner was at Tops Nursery in Bournemouth, but if you are reading this blog, I would like to thank you for the inspiration.

I am so glad inspiration is a two-way street with some worthwhile twists and turns---and even some nice angles.

Saturday, October 4, 2014


Last week's post was about a Channel Board, which is an incline installation that is divided into three channels with each channel having its own surface.  When water is poured down the channels, the children see how water flows over the different surfaces.

For this week's apparatus, I repurposed the Channel Board.  I removed the rubber mat from one of the channels, but left the DRICORE squares in the other.  The Channel Board then became the base for a wavy mirror that I had made for the classroom over 25 years ago.  The result was a Channel Board with a Funhouse Mirror.

Here is the frame for the funhouse mirror.  The frame is 12" wide and 32" long.  There are cross braces to give the frame stability and strength. The braces are flush with the top of the frame to also give the mirror more strength and stability

I painted the frame red with a high gloss paint.  I then attached the frame to the Channel Board by screwing the cross pieces into the boards that form the inside channels.  When the frame was attached, I screwed the mirror onto the frame.  The mirror is a plastic mirror sheet no thicker than tagboard that is duct taped to 1/4" flexible plastic piece.  The tagboard-thin mirror sheet does not have enough body strength to be used by itself, thus the plastic backing.
The side panels were added last.  They are made from the same black plastic as the base of the Channel Board.  The sharp corners were easily rounded using a utility knife.  The seams for the panels were caulked with bathroom caulk.

This is still a Channel Board because there are channels for the water to flow down.  And the channels still have different surfaces.  Now, however, the channels have added dimensional components.  The channels can now be categorized as above, on the side, below and through. That makes pouring and catching the water more intriguing.

One of the most captivating features of this apparatus is how the reflected images change when water is poured over the funhouse mirror surface.  Watch the reaction of the child who is looking at herself in the mirror as other children pour water.

Because the video is taken from a different angle than her perspective, I am not sure what she sees.  She is clearly happy and fascinated.  Part of the fascination has to come from the changing image as the rate of water flow slows and her image becomes more clear.  And part of it has to come from seeing her image through the rippling water.

I do not have a good understanding of the physics part of what she is experiencing.  I have a better understanding of some other operations that emerged from children exploring this apparatus.  One of those operations was simply rubbing the smooth, wet surface of the mirror with hands.  Watch. 

This is a true sensory experience.  Children gather so much information about the world through their hands.  In fact, when something is attractive to a child, he has a hard time keeping his hands off the desired object.  Rubbing the mirror, feeling how smooth it is, and then having the water poured over his hands is the child's way of collecting a little bit of knowledge of the world through his hands.

Though this Channel Board is more elaborate because of the funhouse mirror, some of the simplest operations must not be overlooked.  Below is a video of a child simply catching the water with a pink cup as it flows off the mirror surface.  Pay attention to her reaction at the end.

Was that a laugh of satisfaction having caught the water in a relatively fast stream of water flowing down the channel?  Or was it simply a laugh of wonderment and joy?

It took me over 25 years to figure out how to incorporate the funhouse mirror into water play at the sensory table.  It was not until I remade a lighter Channel Board that I saw a way to make it part of an apparatus.  In fact, if you were around me as I built this, you might have heard a little chuckle of satisfaction and joy.  Can you tell that the building process is play for me?  I saw a comment not long ago in reference to this blog and the building process.  The person said: build it and it will happen.  I encourage you to play and to build things.  Some joy and laughter may ensue from the children---and maybe even from you.  Again, build it and it will happen.