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, June 23, 2018

Conference reflections

For the past five years, I have been reading books in the Contesting Early Childhood Series from Routledge Press that are edited by Gunilla Dahlberg and Peter Moss.  The series questions common assumptions in the field of early childhood education and "...examines the possibilities of risk arising from the accelerated development of early childhood services and policies, and illustrates how it has become increasingly steeped in regulation and control."

The first book I read in the series was called Beyond Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care: Languages of Evaluation.  The book basically questioned the concept of quality and how is it measured in early childhood education.   Before I started reading the book, I thought I knew what quality was.  After all, I had honed my craft for over thirty years. The book asked me to be critical about who gets to decide what quality is and for whom.  Since quality is a political, social, cultural and ethical construct, the concept of quality can be examined from multiple angles.

Two weeks ago I was in Austin, Texas, for the Professional Learning Institute of NAEYC.  Many of the conference attendees were trainers, administrators and researchers.  In other words, many of the leaders in the field who shape the discourse around such things as quality.

Sonia Nieto, professor emeritus from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, gave the opening plenary session.  Much of her work has been in the area of emergent bilingual education.  In her own way, she troubled the dominant discourse around bilingual education.  She asked the attendees to see and appreciate children's strengths and potentials rather than their perceived risks and deficits.  She even questioned one of the prominent constructs in education, namely, best practices.  She never uses the term because from her point of view there are no best practices for all children.  Each practice is contextual and needs to adapt to the cultural, political and ethical exigencies.

For the sessions I attended, I did my own troubling of the dominant discourse.  Many of the sessions privileged language and literacy.  Usually there was an added emphasis on social and emotional learning.   What was missing for me was some mention of the children's need to move to shape their own learning.  If movement was talked about, it was usually directed by adults and always in the service of learning academics.  Where was the language of children's actual play and exploration?  Where was the language of children's own movement and their dialogue with materials?

Children's actions are their thinking.  To question their thinking or the ways they think, adults need to step back and observe their play and exploration.  Sometimes they use words, but often times their actions are pure play and exploration with the materials.

Below is a Duplo ramp.  Basically it was two Duplo panels attached to a wooden frame and set on an incline.  Children used Duplo blocks to build various configurations to alter the flow of water down the ramp.

This apparatus offered a couple of good examples of children's thinking in motion as they play and explore pouring water down the Duplo ramp.

In the first example, the child poured water from a pot down the ramp.  When the pot was empty, he dropped it back into the table and ran around to see the water come down the ramp.  He got to the end of the ramp before the water.  As he watched the water drop into the tub in rivulets, he said the water was "leaking."  



In this example, his words were important as he made sense of what he experienced and saw.  However, the language was just the culmination of his actions.  His body said that he had an idea about what would happen when he poured water down the ramp.  His body said he was excited to test his hypothesis.  His body said that he was surprised that the water  streams off the ramp in rivulets.  Only after all that body language does he try to make sense of what he saw with words.  

In the second example, a child completely filled a container with water from the tub at the bottom of the ramp.  As he lifted the container out of the tub, he surmised it was too full so he poured a little bit of water out of the container, not once but twice.  He lifted the container which was still pretty full and started walking around the table.  As he walked, he sloshed some water on the floor.  When he got to the other end of the ramp, he lifted the container and poured the water---at least most of it---down the ramp.  After emptying the container, he hurries back around to catch the water coming off the ramp.


Physical challenge from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

The were no words in this episode.  His body said he wanted to fill his container as full as he could.  His body said that the container was too full.  His body said that he was strong enough to attempt to carry the container around the water table.  His body said that he was strong enough to attempt to lift the container to the top of the ramp to pour all the water down ramp.  His body said that he wanted to do it again.

In the first example, there was a lot of action before there were words, a precious few words.  In the second example, there were no words at all.  Often times, teachers ask children to talk about what they are doing; they ask the children to put words to their actions.   The request for children to verbalize what they are doing often times sounds like an interrogation.  It is almost as if their actions must be validated with words.

I am not saying verbal language is not important.  I am saying that it is not always the language that should be privileged.  I am trying to make a case for adults to listen to a very specific language of children that is primary for young children.  I am advocating for listening to the language of their actions.   That can only happen when we set up the conditions for uninterrupted play and exploration.  That can only happen if we cultivate a disposition to privilege their actions as thinking.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Making cookies


I am in Austin, Texas, this week for the NAEYC Professional Learning Institute.  On Monday, I did a session on children's scientific inquiry at the water table.

Below is one of the videos from that presentation.  The children were busy making suds from a giant sponge that covered the bottom of the water table.  One child filled an empty coffee can with suds.  She then slowly inserted a plastic bottle into the the coffee can.  In doing so, she displaced the suds from the coffee can.  One of the other children saw what she was doing and called it a suds fountain.  In addition to exploring the properties of suds, she was working with such things as volume and substance. 



One thing that has always intrigued me about this video is the chatter of the children as they explore and play.  A child asked: "Do you want me to give you some of my sponges?"  The child answers: "Yeh. I need a lot of sponges."  A third child asked: "To make cookies?"  To which the child answers: "Yeh. Chocolate cookies."

In trying to understand that simple dialogue, I asked my mentor and colleague, Lani Shapiro, to help me deconstruct what was important about the dialogue.  I thought the chatter gave the episode authenticity.  This was not a scripted dialogue.  It flowed naturally from child to child as they each did their own thing while still paying attention to what each other was doing.

As Lani pointed out, it was even more complex than that.  The child who collected sponges knew the sponges were not cookies.  However, he was using the sponges to represent cookies.  That is important because for children to be able to read, they need to have plenty of practice understanding how representation works.  To read, children need to understand that a mark represents a letter.  That a letter represents a sound.  That letters together represent a word.  That a word represents an object.  What about sentences?  What about paragraphs?

Talking about sponges being cookies can now be seen as a deep dive into pre-literacy.  It is not just about their talk; it is also about their own penchant to play with representation.  Of course that includes the words the children use in their dialogue, but it also includes the manipulation of the materials which encompasses the nonverbal work they do with their hands and bodies.

Given the time, space and materials, children know how to inhabit a space of learning.














Saturday, June 2, 2018

Filling the bucket

Can we fill the bucket?

That sounds like such a simple question.  However, a simple question like that can tell us a lot about how children think.  The underlying assumption of this statement is that thinking and doing are synonymous for young children.

Below are two videos in which children started with the question: Can we fill the bucket?  I would venture a guess that they did not start out with that question.  Instead, their actions began by simply transporting the sand out of the table into the bucket next to the table (see axiom #1 in the right hand column of this blog).  At some point, they filled the bucket enough, that the question of filling the bucket became real.  This is the point at which my narrative begins.

A child filled his pot with sand.  His objective was to carry it around the table to fill a five gallon pail on the other side.  Another child accurately assessed that the pot was heavy so he attempted to help the child carrying the pot to help. That child carrying the pot saw his overture, but dismissed it.  That child who wanted to help then started to back up as the child carrying the pot started walking forward. The child who wanted to help still found a way to help. He darted ahead and gently moved a child out of the way so there was room for the child carrying the pot to empty his pot into the bucket. As the pot emptied, the child who had tried to help got more and more excited as the level of the sand in the bucket got higher. By the end of the video, the children screeched with excitement at how full the bucket was getting. 


Filling the bucket 1 from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

From the video, the question looked more like a dialogue between the children.  Some of that dialogue was verbal and some of it nonverbal.  Some of it looked like a question: How do I help?  Some of it looked like an answer to the question: I'll clear the way so he can pour the sand in the bucket.  And some of it looked like commentary on the process: the screeching and jumping up and down with delight.

The children filled the bucket within an inch of the top.  They could have put more sand in the bucket so why did they stop there?  In any case, this was how full they decided they wanted it to be.  At this point the questioned morphed into: Can we lift it?  This is where the second part of my narrative begins.

One child decided to see if he could lift the bucket full of sand.  As he strained to lift the bucket he said: "Help. We need help." The child right behind him stepped forward but did not offer help.   Instead, he said he wanted to try. This child strained and was able to move the bucket a little bit by himself. He even asserted: " I kind of lifted it." A third child stepped forward and said "let me try now." He was not able to lift or move it. A fourth child stepped forward and said: "I bet I can do it." He tried but he was also unsuccessful in his attempt to lift. The child who first tried to lift the bucket and asked for help then stepped forward to grab the handle of the bucket. As he did that, he uttered a simple command: "team work." He repeated his command implored the others to grab the handle together. With mighty grunts, four of the children grabbed the handle and started to lift. They were able to lift it and move it slightly. The bucket actually ended up on top of that child's foot. "Ow!" he exclaimed. As the video ended, the three other children helped get the bucket off his foot.


Filling the bucket 3 from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

As the children answered one question, another one presented itself.  In the process, their thinking became more complex and eventually even more coordinated.  They worked out taking turns without anyone---meaning an adult---telling them when and how take turns.  They worked out lifting the bucket together without anyone---meaning an adult---telling them when and how to. 

Teachers are not always so good at asking questions.  Too often we ask questions of fact.  Even such a simple question of filling the bucket uttered by an adult too easily morphs into a lesson in which we ask another question such as: How many cups do you think it will take to fill the bucket? Those type of questions don't promote or get at children's thinking.  Not every moment has to be a teaching moment.

Children, on the other hand, are a source of good questions.  Given the time and materials, children's questions, both simple and complex, present a window into their thinking.  Not every moment has to be a teaching moment, but every moment is a learning moment.  Children's questions may be the best measure of how and what they are learning.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Making a joke

As I was looking through my photos and videos recently, I found two videos that showed how one child created a joke.  She did not start out to intentionally create a joke, but was so amused by her actions that she then intentionally repeated the joke with a slight variation.

In the first video, the child lined five figures on a cardboard ledge by propping them next to each other against a cardboard wall. The child tried to adjust one of the figures, maybe because it was too close to a hole in the ledge. As she tried to prop it up away from the hole, she placed the feet on top of a pellet. The pellet rolled a bit so she lifted it away. In doing so, she made the legs of the figure bump a hole in the ledge. When she did that, she lost her grip on the figure and the figure dropped into the table to her great amusement. After a good laugh, she tried to prop up the figure again, but was not successful so she left it lying on the ledge.


Joke 1 from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Why did accidentally dropping the figure into the table amuse her so?  There was certainly an element of surprise for the child, but was that enough to make her laugh?  Was it the bump that knocked the figure out of her hand?  Was it that she lost control of the figure?  Was it that the figure fell into the table?   She looked right at me with my camera when she laughed.  Was she laughing because I had witnessed the little accident?  Was she simply laughing it off?

In the second video taken shortly after the first, the child reached for the figure that was lying on the cardboard edge. Instead of picking it up, she started to slide it toward the hole in the ledge. She got it over the hole and then lifted its feet. With the feet up and the head directly over the hole, she dropped the figure into the hole. She laughed at her joke.


Joke 2 from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

She went from accidentally dropping the figure into the sensory table to intentionally dropping the figure into a hole in the cardboard ledge.  If there was any surprise for the child in the second video, it could only have been that the figure disappeared in the hole.  Otherwise, the only common element of the two episodes was the dropping of the figure, first unintentionally and then intentionally.  Does this qualify as early slapstick humor?

This was a very ordinary moment at the sensory table.  However, with a glimpse into the ordinary, the extraordinary emerged.  The child's actions necessarily led to more actions.  She went from the unintentional to the intentional in her actions.  In essence, she was creating her own reality in the unfolding of ordinary moments.  And that is no joke.  That is extraordinary---with a dash of mirth.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Smashing pellets and self regulation


Here are three videos that are a narrative on smashing pellets and self regulation

In the first video, a child used a long dowel to smash the pellets.  For him this was a full body enterprise; he coordinated his jumps with pounding the dowel down into the pellets.  About three seconds into the video, the child directly to his right looked into the tub to see exactly what he was doing.  By the look on her face, her curiosity was a little on the disapproving side.  About six seconds in, she lifted her head to look at his face, again in a more or less disapproving way.  As the video ends, the child with the dowel jabbed his stick into the corner of the tub closest to the child pouring the pellets.


Smashing pellets 1 from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Was it an accident when he jabbed his stick into the corner of the tub closest to the girl?  Or was it an overture to the girl asking her to look at what he was doing?  Or could it have been an accident that led to an overture?

In the second video, the child continued to use the dowel to smash the pellets. About one second into the video, his jump wandered a bit so he ended up very close to the girl who was pouring pellets in her pail.  In fact, it looked like his hand almost bumped her pail. He stopped pounding and jumping for a second and looked at the girl to see if she noticed that he almost bumped her. She did not seem to notice so he started smashing and jumping again. However his smashing and jumping seemed a little more animated and less controlled.  His dowel was no longer going straight up and down, but seemed to hit most areas of the tub. As he got more animated, he smiled with the freedom to smash anywhere in the tub.  Then the girl poured pellets into the middle of the tub. Though he was not watching where the girl poured her pellets, before long he directed his smashing to the middle of the tub where she just deposited her pellets. By the end of the video there was a striking contrast between the jumping and smashing by the boy and the measured pouring of the girl.
 

Smashing pellets 2 from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

At one point in this video, the boy jumping up and down came really close to the girl pouring pellets into her pail.  She knew he was there, but did not seem to be phased with being so close to all his physical exuberance.  Did she trust him that he would not bump into her?  Was she simply holding her ground?  Did he read her non reaction as a license to jab the stick anywhere and everywhere?


In the third and last video, the girl has leaned over the tub to scoop some pellets in her container.  She pretty much covered the whole tub with her scooping action.  The boy was still jumping up and down smashing the pellets but he adjusted his actions to the one free corner of the tub so he would not bump the girl.  As soon as the girl stood up to pour pellets into her pail, he moved his smashing to the area she just vacated.  As she leans over the tub to scoop some more pellets, he stopped pounding and jumping as he watched her scoop the pellets. He did not move his dowel, but kept it planted in the area where she had scooped the first time. The girl avoided the dowel as she scooped her pellets. As she did that, the boy took his dowel and jabbed it into the pellets just over her scooping action. As she stood up to pour pellets into her pail, the boy started jumping and smashing again. As he did that, he jabbed the dowel closer and closer to the girl. That did not seem to phase the girl because again she leaned over the tub to scoop some more pellets. Interestingly, the boy moved the dowel with each subsequent jab back away from the girl. As the girl finished her scoop, the boy made an accidental jab outside the tub. He lost his balance slightly and caught himself on the tub. At this point he was almost directly over the girl who was still leaning over the tub. As the girl stood up, she asks him if he is ever going to stop. The video ends with him poking the pellets in the sensory table.

Smashing pellets 3 from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

In the book Lois Malaguzzi and the Schools of Reggio Emilia; a selection of his writings and speeches, 1945-1993,  Malaguzzi in a speech from 1989 stated: "No act of the child after birth can be perceived as devoid of meaning in any way.  That is absolutely not possible. ...there is no action, no act, no act in which a child is a protagonist or of which a child is a recipient, which does not contain meaning in it above all for the child" (p. 352). Granted, these three videos that make up the narrative are short, but what meaning do their actions have individually and as a dyad?

The focal point for most people watching the video has to be the physicality of the boy and how close he comes to bumping or hitting the girl.  However with a closer look, a new focal point emerges: how they negotiate space while both go about their business at the sensory tub.  That negotiation of space becomes an intricate dance between the two children.   It is a intricate dance in which the boundaries keep shifting, in which the boundaries are constantly crossed and exchanged. 

For sure, children are learning to self regulate.  How else could they pull off their close encounters without getting into some conflict?  But it turns out to be much more than self regulation.  To regulate themselves, they necessary have to recognize ---at least tacitly---how the other regulates his or her own actions.   As it turns out, self regulation is not exclusively about the self.  Necessarily, self regulation is also about the dynamic interplay between others.  In other words, self regulation turns out to be about mutual regulation, too.    




Saturday, May 12, 2018

Box tower as balancing apparatus

Axiom #9 on the right hand column of this blog states that children will always create their own physical challenges as they explore an apparatus at the sensory table.  That is also true both throughout the classroom and outside.

One of the physical challenges children engage in all the time is balance.  A few years ago, I built a box tower that the children used to practice their balancing skills.   The tower consisted of three boxes on the bottom, two in the middle and one on top arranged pyramid style.  The structure rose vertically two and half feet out of the table.
I covered the top of each box with a found piece of cardboard that had been manufactured with nice symmetrical holes.



These holes played an important role in helping the children balance as they explored the apparatus.  Here are two simple examples.  Both children pictured grab a hole for balance, one as he bends down (left) and one as he reaches up (right).




Because this was a vertical structure, the apparatus encouraged children to go vertical.  As they went vertical, testing their balance became more of a challenge.  The video below starts out with the child in the red stating that the child in the green shirt was going to fall.  To which the child in the green shirt said: "I have my balance."  To prove it, he stepped up onto the lip of the table to pour some pellets into the farthest top hole.  After pouring the pellets, he spread his arms for just a second to further prove his ability to balance.  


You are going to fall from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

What allowed him to "have" his balance, except for the brief moment when he spread his arms, was the fact that this child established three points of contact at all times with the stable setup.  Even when he was stepping down from the lip of the table, he dropped his metal measuring cup so he could grab two of the bottom holes of the apparatus.  That allowed him to lift his right foot off the lip of the table and to step back onto the stool.

Here was an interesting study in balance at this same apparatus.   These two children were standing on the same small stool.  The child in the red shirt was more stable because his knees were up against the table and his hands were in contact with the box.  What about the child in grey?  He was not as stable because his feet were on the corner of the stool partially behind the boy in red.  Because he was not as stable, his actions seemed more measured and cautious. 
Though he seemed less stable, he still had several points of contact.   The finger of his left hand rested on the lip of the cardboard tube.  And the spoon, which was an extension of his hand, was also touching the lip of the cardboard tube.  Granted, those were light touches, but touches just the same.  His balance was also aided by his incidental contact with the child in red as he reached over his shoulder and leaned against him ever so slightly.  In their book The Body Has a Mind of Its Own, Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee posit the following:  "Nothing stabilizes balance better than light touches and contact with the environment" (p. 31).  Like a said, a study in balance.

At a conference last year, one of the participants called me out for letting a child climb on the sensory table.  She asserted that it was just too dangerous.  It was true, there may have been an increased risk of falling.  However, that risk was mediated by the children's own sense of caution as they challenged themselves physically.  Why else would their movements have been slow and purposeful as they climbed up and climbed down? How did they know to have at least three points of contact---even if they were ever so slight---to keep their balance?

It is true that children do not need to climb on the sensory table to work on their balance.   But since almost everything they do in life depends on their sense of balance, they do have to have opportunities to grow their balance both at the sensory table and throughout the room.  And more often than not, the children will create their own balance challenges.  Our job is not to always shut them down in their balancing endeavors, but to make sure they are indeed measuring their own risk.


Saturday, May 5, 2018

Box divider with tubes

Over the years, I have built apparatus to divide the sensory table into discreet spaces.  Here is one of the first ones I ever built over 25 years ago.  In this early version, I used a long, narrow box to divide the sand table into two sections.
On different levels, I embedded three small cardboard tubes through the box.  I also added a PVC pipe that I taped to the box on an incline.   The box was longer than the sand table so I cut notches in the bottom of the box to slip over the lip of the table on two sides.  That allowed me to securely tape the box to the table.  This structure rose vertically from the table so if it was not securely taped down, the children could have dislodged it by using minimal horizontal force on the top of the apparatus.
I taped the box above the bottom of the table so the children still had room underneath the box for their operations.

To tape the incline to the box, I jury-rigged a paper brick to lessen the incline and to hold the end of the pipe above the bottom of the table.  To help keep it stable and make the whole apparatus even more secure, I also taped the pipe to the lip of the clear plastic sand table
I taped a homemade hopper to the top of the pipe to direct the sand down the pipe.  I made the hopper from an empty paint bottle by cutting off the top and part of one side.  I kept the bottom to give the hopper structural strength.

The hopper worked well.  Without the hopper it would have been harder to pour sand down the inclined pipe.  That was especially true when the children tried to pour a bucket of sand down the pipe; without the hopper, most of it would have missed the pipe.

Though the box divided the sand table in two, children used the embedded tubes to connect the two spaces.  In so doing, they were also working on their proprioception.  What physiological feedback did this child get as he put his hand in the tube to deliver the sand to the other side?  And what physiological feedback did he get as he turned his hand inside the tube to dump the sand from the spoon?  He could not see his hand, wrist and part of his arm because they were in the tube, but his internal sensory receptors informed his actions.

The children also used the embedded tubes to connect in play.  Below, one child is reaching with a spoon full of sand through a tube to deposit it in another child's container.  To guide her actions, she watched her own actions through the tube.  On the other side, a child focused on the spoon and constantly adjusted his actions so he could receive the gift of sand from the other. 
That may look very simple to adults, but it was a highly complex set of coordinated actions.  Were the actions verbally mediated or were they totally action driven?  I honestly do not know, but can imagine that either may have been true.   What I do know is that this apparatus fostered this interaction and without the apparatus, it never would have happened.

I have always been intrigued by how children explore spaces and the elements within those spaces.    Sometimes those explorations are solitary but often times the explorations are in solidarity with others.  They continually improvise within the immediacy of their world.  If their immediate world at the sand table is rich in possibilities, the potential for those improvisations grows exponentially.