About Me

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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, February 18, 2017

Large wooden tray, a win-win

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the evolution of a wooden tray that created a second level of play for the children at the sensory table.   That was a narrow tray that spanned the width of the table and was taped to the lip of the table on each side.

On the left, the children piled their Moon Sand creations on the tray. On the right, the children collected swamp water in the tray.  Whether they were working with sand or water, the wooden tray invited the children to work on a second level above the bottom of the table.  (See axiom #3 on the right hand column of the blog.)

Five years ago, I built another wooden tray.  This one was the size of a table top.  In fact, when I set it up, I set it up on a table between two sensory tables.  The idea was to create a work space on a second level for the children that would allow for a lot of pouring and mixing without having to worry about spills.

The tray was made from a thin sheet of wood paneling that was attached to a rudimentary frame of 1” x 2” pine boards.  The whole apparatus was sanded smooth and covered in polyurethane so it could be used with water.  The tray was enclosed on three sides and open on a fourth side.  It was propped slightly on one end so any water that spilled drained down the tray into the blue table.

There was one more important addition to the tray: a plastic flap to direct the water coming off of the tray into the the table.  Without the flap, the water clung to the bottom of the apparatus and splashed on the floor.

One of the nice features of this apparatus was its size.  It could accommodate multiple children and their operations at the same time.  In the video below, the children were all cooking.  The first one says she was making soup.  The second says she was making something from three different pots that contained M&M's and chocolate.  The first child liked the sound of that so she switched to making chocolate, lots of chocolate.  After hearing this exchange between the other two, the third child declared she was making noodles.

Cooking club from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Not only did this apparatus foster all kinds of social interaction, it also fostered specific kinds of motor skill development.  In the video below, the child was filling the ice cube tray with a plastic syringe.  To do that, he had to create a sequence of motor tasks to complete his self-appointed undertaking.    A couple of the larger motor tasks included getting the water in the syringe and directing the water into the individual compartments of the ice cube tray.

Filling the ice cube tray from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Believe it or not, this apparatus even fostered some unexpected scientific inquiry.  The child in the video below was using the funnel upside down like a plunger in the pot of water.  While plunging away, her finger found the hole in the spout of the funnel.  With her finger in the hole, she lifted the funnel.  Since she had created a vacuum by plugging the hole, she lifted water  out of the bowl with her funnel.  When the funnel was pulled completely out of the bowl, the water dropped back into the bowl.

Funnel suction from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

In all three of these videos of children using the large wooden tray, it did not matter if they spilled.  Here is one more series of pictures that makes the point definitively.  In the first picture, the child was pouring water from a metal cup to a little metal container.  He overfilled the metal container and water spilled out onto the tray.
Next, he lifted up the small metal container because he wanted to transfer the water into the big metal pot.  Because the little metal pot was so full, he spilled again.
As he went to pour the water from the little container into the large metal pot, he tipped the container toward himself and spilled a third time.

The child spilled three times in the matter of 5 seconds.  The beauty of the operation was that it did not matter how many times he spilled because the tray captured the water and returned it to the water table.  

With this large wooden tray, the children were given a license to spill.  Maybe one of the ways we learn not to spill is to be able to experience what causes spills.  It sure freed the children up to socialize, to master motor skills and to engage in scientific inquiry without having to worry about spilling.  By the way, the tray also freed me up from worrying about the spills that naturally happen as children transport.  That's a win-win.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Other box towers, other possibilities

Last week I wrote about a certain type of box tower and the possibility of unique types of play as the children explored the apparatus.  Let me expand on the idea of a box tower with different combination of vertical boxes that expand the possibilities even further.

The size and the shape of the box determines the potential tower configuration.   The cardboard box tower pictured below was a combination of two long, narrow boxes taped together on their vertical axes.  It just so happened that the combination of the two was the exact width of the table so it could be taped down to the lip of the table to make it secure.  Holes were cut in the sides and on hole was cut on top of only one of the boxes.  There was also a window cut between the boxes.  Access to that inside hole was more of a challenge because the children had to reach into one of the boxes to use it for their play.
My documentation on this apparatus is minimal, so you will have to use your imagination as to how the children used this for their own purposes.   

A box tower does not need to be made from multiple boxes. The box tower below was made from one computer box.  For this box tower, the holes on the sides were smaller, but the holes on the bottom were larger and opened out into the table.
When I cut the holes at the bottom, I made sure I ended up with a flap that I could tape down to the bottom of the table.  The flap is buried under the the corn but is outlined in the picture above.  I cut holes with flaps on the bottom on all four sides so it was taped down so securely that the children could not push it over.  With this tower, there was a lot more exploration on the top and the bottom of this box tower and much less with the smaller side holes.  Why?  Was it the dimensions of the box?  Was it the size or placement of the holes?

Here is another box tower made from one box.  That is not exactly correct because I did add a channel box horizontally through it. 
How a child combines any given provision with any given feature of the structure is always important for how play develops at any given moment.  A case in point is the two pictures below.  The pictures are grossly out of focus but hopefully you can see the child's genius anyway.  The child created a machine (her own words).  And what did her machine do?  It separated the smaller grains of sand from the larger ones.

The child found a sieve and placed it on top of the box over the hole.  She added sand and shook the sieve back and forth.  When she was done, she was pleased to display what her machine produced.

Here is a box tower made from six boxes, six liquor store boxes.  In a way it reminds me of a pyramid with steps on two sides.  However the steps all have holes.  The holes are formed by cardboard packing panels taped onto the top of the boxes.  Things dropped through the holes fall down to the bottom of the table.  
How did the children's exploration of this structure differ from that of the other boxes already mentioned?  Here are two ways.

On the left, the children inserted a loose cardboard tube and filled it.  They were experimenting with volume. On the right, the child referenced his own actions in the box through the hole above.  He was honing his proprioception.

Here is one last box tower.  This was made from six boxes that were larger and of different sizes.  There were actually two towers, one in each sensory table, that were connected by a horizontal element in the form of a box bridge. 
Since this box tower was more complex, the children's exploration of space was more varied and more complex.

The child on the left examined the space inside the small tower by bending under the bridge.  The child on the right put sand into the bridge, a much different experience than dropping it down a tower.

There is really no limit to what a person can build in terms of box towers.  But why build in the first place?  I would be disingenuous if I said I did not get a certain amount of satisfaction to see what I can come up with.  Everybody needs a creative outlet and this has been mine over the past 28 years.  I do have another motive which is just as important: I am extremely curious about how children explore and investigated spaces, both large and small.  By offering built spaces, I get a chance to satisfy that curiosity.  Given the time to explore and make it their own, the children manifest their own curiosity in ordinary and extraordinary ways.  In other words, my curiosity feeds their curiosity.  Since their curiosity is boundless, their is no limit for the play possibilities in and around these built structures.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Box tower potentialities

Any person who has ever seen children playing with boxes knows that boxes provide endless play potential for children.  In fact, it is one of the toys that has been inducted into The Strong National Museum of Play Toy Hall of Fame.  In their blurb about the cardboard box, they write: Over the years, children sensed the possibilities inherent in cardboard boxes, recycling them into innumerable playthings.  This was the first non-manufactured toy to be inducted and currently stands alone in that category with the stick.  I do hope to see the rock there soon.

What happens to the play potential of the box when I, as an adult, build an apparatus from a box or boxes?  Since children are not manipulating the box, do I restrict the play opportunities?  Or by building a structure, do I open up new possibility for play and exploration?

Here is an example of an apparatus built with boxes.  It is simply called a box tower because it is built up vertically.  In this case, the structure is comprised of three boxes stacked on top of one another and duct taped together.  The whole installation is then taped securely to the bottom of the table with duct tape so the children cannot move it.  In the picture below, I put sand in the table and little dinosaurs all around.

With the boxes stacked in a box tower, what new affordances are there for the children to discover as they work with the dinosaurs and the boxes.  First there are the holes.  In the video below, the children are dropping the dinosaurs into the holes.  The child in the circle dress drops hers through a middle hole while the child in the orange on the other side of the table drops her dinosaur through the top hole.

Dinosaur drop from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

I greatly appreciate the sound effects the children make.  Its as if they are imagining the sound the dinosaurs would make if they fell into a hole in a mountain.  So that is how dinosaurs went extinct!

In the picture below, the child is feeding the horses.  In this instance, the hole becomes the door between the stable and outside.

The boxes stacked in a tower create ledges and levels for the children to use in their operations. The child in the picture below is using the a ledge to hold the bowl on a level above the table to see how high she can stack the horse's food.
What happens when there are no animals? Without the dinosaurs or farm animals to animate, what is left for the children to do?  With scoops and containers they drop the sand into the holes cut in the box towers.  It is no longer a mountain or a stable, but the children use it as a machine to make stuff.  They feed the machine through the holes with their raw materials.

I was so fascinated by what the children came up with, I decided one day to record what they were making.  I hung a big sheet of paper on the wall next to the sensory table and wrote what the children said they were making.  Below is an example of what I recorded.  Remember, they are saying a different ingredient each time they scoop or pour sand through one of the holes.
This was a literacy experience, not just because I wrote it down and read it back to the children, but also because one child wrote his name next to his recipe and taped it to the big sheet.

The box tower apparatus is usually strong enough that when I take it out of the sensory table, I put it in the block area as another invitation to play and explore. 

Again, the children will appropriate the holes for their own purposes.  It might well become a garage inside which a child parks the cars or herself.  The ledge offers a opportunity to create a multilevel garage with boards as ramps to go up and down.

And when I say they appropriate it for their own purposes, I mean they find innumerable uses for the box tower.  On the left, the child uses the ledge as a perch to survey what is going on in the block area.  With his hand through the windows, it looks like a comfortable perch.  The child on the right has decided to explore the box tower with her whole body.  It is almost like she is wearing it.

My original question was: Do I restrict the play potential or do I create new possibilities for play by building a structure like the box tower?  I think I have made a case for a type of play that would not have happened without the box tower.   Is the structure, even though it is tied down, an open-ended loose part that children use with other loose parts that are not tied down to author their own play?   The box tower can surely be categorized as a loose part when it is detached from the sensory table.  However, the structure is still my creation which is different than giving children the loose boxes to play with.  The question then becomes: How would the play be different---or the same---if the children were given the boxes not taped together to form a structure as loose parts to be used in the table? 

What do you thing?

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Evolution of the wooden tray

One of the very first apparatus I built was a wooden bridge that spanned the width between two toddler water tables.  I built it in 1988 when I started work with a public school district in an family education program.  I simply nailed and glued sides to a board using scrap wood I found in my basement.  To keep the water from leaking, I used plasticine (the pink line on the board) to seal the joints. 
The bridge offered a surface almost like a counter above the water tables on which the children could work.  In the picture above, the children are filling their bottles through funnels.  If they tried to do that with the bottles in the water, the bottles would want to float making that operation extremely frustrating if not impossible. 

I later added a piece of wood to close off one end of the wooden bridge.  In the picture below the children have piled the end that is closed with sand and rocks.  
The end on the lower left of the picture is open.  Since it extends beyond the table, there is a pail
underneath that ends up catching any sand that might fall from the apparatus.

Since I wanted to use this apparatus at just one table and since I wanted to use it with water, I added a second piece of wood to the open end to create a wooden tray that spanned the width of the table above the bottom of the table itself.  I also used proper caulk to seal the joints and painted it red.
Since I was going to use it with water, I needed to drill drainage holes in the sides on the bottom.  I decided on two holes on each side that were not too big because I thought a slow drain might offer children a chance to play with water in the tray.

Below is a good example of just that.  I had installed the wooden tray with a setup I call the swamp. As the video starts, one child tells me they are making a "sink-float."  When I ask them how they do that, the child says they put swamp water in the tray.  I see the piece of wood is already floating so I ask if it is floating yet.  Interestingly, he says not yet and then proceeds to float the wood---with motorboat sound effects---back and forth.

A sink-float from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

I am pretty sure he understood what float means.  I just think he was telling me they were not done with their sink-float project.

You may have noticed that the wooden tray in the video is white as opposed to red.  The first wooden tray lasted 21 years.  In 2009, I decided it was time to build a new wooden tray.  One of the reasons was because of the drainage holes.  The drainage holes in the red tray would close because the wood would expand when in constant contact with the water.  With the white try, I used water-proof caulk to glue in pieces of a plastic straw to create a waterproof barrier so the holes would stay open.  

Since the holes stayed open, the focus of some play episodes would actually become the drainage hole itself.  In the video below, the child works very hard to align the turkey baster with the drainage hole.  It is not so easy because the baster is longer than the width of the tray so he has to align it with the drainage hole at an angle.

Turkey baster squirter from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Forcing the stream from the baster through the small drainage holes makes it seem like a water jet.

The wooden tray had another important function.  It often served as a base for other apparatus.  On the left, it provided the incline for a chute apparatus.  On the right, it was combined with a crate for an apparatus with tubes and pipes.
At some point in time, I wanted to expand the area that encompassed the sand and water table.  To do that I started using a second smaller table in conjunction with the larger blue table.  To connect the two tables, I started using the the wooden tray as a bridge, much like I did 28 years before.  Now that bridge also became a container into which the children could fulfill their natural inclination to be transporters.  And transport they did.  

  From sand to suds.
From dinosaurs and animal bedding to a row of pigs in containers.
When I look back on the 28-year life of this humble apparatus, I am in awe.  It started as a bridge and became a tray.  Then it alternated between being a tray, a base and a bridge again.  And in each new setup, the children found multiple ways to incorporate it into their play and explorations.  Not bad for a few pieces of wood nailed together.

It makes me wonder if this would be a good metaphor for teaching: a thing that never looses it roots but evolves over time to be versatile enough to meet the children's needs for play and exploration at any given time with whatever materials are on hand.  And, at least once in its life, needs a major makeover or re-do to address any flaws and to look and feel fresh and alive again.

What do you think?

Sunday, January 22, 2017


Below is a generic five-gallon bucket that can be found in any hardware store.  It is set up next to the water table all the time no matter what apparatus is in the sensory table because I have learned that children need to take whatever is in the table out of the table.  The child in the picture below is simply taking the water from the table and pouring it in the bucket.  Like all children, this child is fulfilling an inherent need to transport.

I am not sure why children feel this need to transport, but children made that need abundantly clear to me the first time I set out a pail next to the sensory table.  I have since learned that it does not need to be a bucket or a pail.  Rather, it just has to be a container next to the table.  For instance, it can be a large plastic storage bin.
Another example that I like to set out next to the main blue sensory table is a clear toddler sensory table that makes a fine repository for all their transporting needs. 
It can even be a homemade container.  Below, the container is a cardboard box positioned outside the table on the floor and connected to the table with a ramp.
That urge to transport is so strong that the children will fashion their own "pails" next to the table.  The child pictured below is transporting into several small containers she has set on the floor. 

Some of the transporting by children can be quite creative.  The child is transporting the water into the bucket that is in a bigger tub.  That makes for less of a mess but a lot more planning and execution.
This picture also highlights that children will transport indirectly into the containers next to the table.  This child is using the black tube connected to the funnel to get the water into the yellow pail.  Cognitively, she has to make the connection between pouring the water into the funnel and the water dropping into the pail. 

The children will even put together their own contraption to transport indirectly.  Below, the child takes a loose cardboard tube and props it against a window of the apparatus.  On the other end, he positions a bowl to catch the sand coming down the new path he creates to transport the sand from the table into his container.

On the right hand column of the blog the very first axiom states that children need to transport.  That is true even for very young children.  The toddler in the video below is visiting my room and playing at the water table.  What does he do?  Without any encouragement or instruction, he starts scooping the water from the table and pours it in the green bucket next to the table.

By giving children an outlet to constructively transport, I change what they are doing and who they areThey are not dumping; they are transporting.   They are not a dumpers; they are transporters. 

Which one sounds better to you, dumpers or transporters? 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Snow table

In October 2015,  I built two trash bin apparatus from plastic waste baskets.  We had been using the two white trash bins at school for recycling.  The school got nice new recycling bins and no one wanted the old white bins.  I decided to claim them to see if I could make something new for the sensory table.  When I was done making, one of the new trash bin apparatus looked like this.
Through the middle of the bin, I embedded a large, wired-reinforced tube made from strong flexible plastic.  I wove a smaller flexible tube from the top of the bin through the bottom and out along the side of the bin.  And finally, I embedded a clear plastic tube diagonally through the bin.  I set it up at the sensory table with water.

A couple of weeks ago, I was outside playing in the snow with my grandson.  The snow was hard and crunchy and there was meager supply to say the least.  I thought I might be able to extend our outdoor play a bit if I could find some tubes to use with the snow.  My original idea was to have us fill the tubes with snow.  I did pull out some tubes, but I also found the trash bin apparatus I had built in 2015.

I set the bin on the seat of our picnic table.  My grandson was already on top of the table busy breaking the ice and smashing the hard snow.  Since there was no good snow on top of the table, we had to search for some decent stuff in another section of the yard.  We found some in a section of the parking area where the sun doesn't shine.  We filled a green bucket and brought it back to the table.
As he started to put snow in the end of the clear tube, I found a plastic chute to connect to the tube.  The idea was to create a path to the ground for the snow dropping out of the tube.  However, the chute kept falling down when the apparatus moved as he scooped snow in the tube.  Offhandedly I said the chute wouldn't stay connected.  To that my grandson said I should use some duct tape.  He knows me too well.  I followed his advice and used some green duct tape to connect the tube to the chute.

For over 45 minutes and several trips to mine some more decent snow to refill his green bucket, he scooped the snow into the clear plastic tube.  In the process, he would constantly check to see if it came out the other end and to see if the chute to the ground was filling up with snow.

He used a broken ice cream scoop to shovel the snow into the tube.  When the end of the tube was full, he used a duct-taped piece of wood to push it down the tube.

Snowtube play from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

After pushing the snow with the piece of wood, he took a measure of his work by looking down the clear tube.  

I had hoped to extend our outdoor play a little.  It did that an more.   It inspired a whole set of operations that my grandson created to constructively transport the snow through the tube and down the chute. 

Oh, and by the way, we had a lot of fun, too.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Classroom metaphor of the year

Last week I posted my 2016 classroom picture of the year.  I borrowed some aerobic steps from the adult ed program in our building and set them out on the large muscle mat in the classroom.  In the hands of the children, the aerobic steps turned out to be large loose parts for the children to move and stack.  Consequently, these big blue steps created the foundation for my classroom picture of the year: a child launching himself high into the air.  
For me, this is a perfect example of the power inherent in children: the power to shape and act upon their own world with a cheerful willingness that comes from feeling confident and competent.  That is why I called this my classroom picture of the year for 2016.

I could have featured many other pictures or videos showing the children shaping and acting upon their world using the aerobic steps.  Just the act of stacking them took strength and persistence.  Below is a video showing exactly that.

Stacking the aerobic steps from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Early in the video, the child asked me for help.  I could have helped, but I made the decision that it was too early to intervene and that she was really doing quite well by herself.  Both she and I were rewarded because she did it on her own and my decision as a teacher was validated.

There was also a certain level of risk as they acted upon their world.  The child in the first picture was jumping from a height of six aerobic steps.  The child below climbed on top of a stack of eight aerobic steps.  That took whole body strength and the ability to continually shift her balance.

How will you get down? from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

What made this child's action so risky was that the stack of aerobic steps was wobbly when stacked this high.  Consequently, she had to compensate her actions to the wobbliness of the stack in real time.  She used every muscle in her body to continually shift her balance as she got to the top step.  Her classmate first exclaimed: "Wow!"  Then she asked her twice: "How will you get down?"  The child was so preoccupied with her accomplishment that she had not thought about how she would get down.  In response to the question, she just shrugged her shoulders.  If you are wondering, she did not jump, but basically slid down the side of the stack of steps.

Even as children acted to shape their world, risk was relative and children figured that out.  Below a toddler found a way to take a risk while standing on only two of the steps.  Standing on the aerobic steps, he spun himself around several times.  As he spun, he almost lost his balance but caught himself before he fell.

Spinning from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Why did he decide to spin on top of the steps?  Spinning has a certain amount of risk even on the ground because you can get dizzy which may cause you to fall on the ground.  However, even this toddler felt the need to engage in some risk taking.  When he almost lost his balance, he pointed down and said: "Fall."  Maybe in his toddler way he was actually saying: "I almost fell down."  Interestingly, though, that did not stop him from spinning some more.

There were actually innumerable ways the children used the aerobic steps to shape and act upon their world.   One group of children stacked all ten of the steps on top of each other.  That was no easy task because the stack of aerobic steps ended up to be taller then them.  For that operation, they had to use plenty of strength and agility to create one stack of steps.
Not only was this a test of strength and agility, but it also became a de facto math lesson; they each took turns counting the steps they had stacked.  This was not a rote math lesson.  Rather, they authored their own counting lesson using real objects that they manipulated.

One interesting way the children acted and shaped their world with the aerobic steps was to create their own obstacle courses, often times bringing in other objects to jazz it up.   Objects like Biliboes or even a rocking chair.
One time their obstacle course actually took the shape of a path that led from the large muscle mat and spilled over into the block area.  Interestingly, it ended with the rocking chair that the children had to step into without touching their feet to the ground.

Aerobic step path from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

After watching this video several times, I have decided to create a new category for a year end summary.  I call it "metaphor for the year. " In this case, the metaphor is the path the children created by themselves that spills into other areas and ends unexpectedly.  In other words, children, as a group,  create their own path to learning in the classroom that each child traverses in her/his own way that is not contained to one area of development and that is crowned by a totally unexpected end.  What do you think?