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Early childhood education has been my life for over 30 years. I have taught all age groups from infants to 5-year-olds. I was a director for five years in the 1980s, but I returned to the classroom 22 years ago. My passion is watching the ways children explore and discover their world. In the classroom, everything starts with the reciprocal relationships between adults and children and between the children themselves. With that in mind, I plan and set up activities. But that is just the beginning. What actually happens is a flow that includes my efforts to invite, respond and support children's interface with those activities and with others in the room. Oh yeh, and along the way, the children change the activities to suit their own inventiveness and creativity. Now the processes become reciprocal with the children doing the inviting, responding and supporting. Young children are the best learners and teachers. I am truly fortunate to be a part of their journey.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


This past week I have been working on a new presentation on how children explore water using different apparatus and different provisions for the Reggio Inspired Network of Minnesota.  For those of you who attended the presentation today, thank you for all the discussion and input and here is an apparatus that did not make it into the PowerPoint, but I think you will appreciate.   For those of you who follow this blog, this a reworking of a post from nearly three years ago that is a form of water play and color mixing.   

Is Suds Painting a sensory activity?  As you will see, it becomes highly sensory in nature.  Is it an art activity?  It is definitely a color mixing activity, but there is no product.  Even the mixing of colors is momentary.

The set up for Suds Painting is simple.  A plastic gutter splash guard is taped on an incline to a planter tray inside the table.  Children paint both the tray and the splash guard.  If enough suds paint is applied to the splash guard, the sudsy paint begins to flow down the splash guard and colors begin to mingle.

To make suds paint, I use a foaming soap dispenser.  Pamper Chef has one that has the amount of dish soap to water ratio right on the side of the bottle.  The ratio is 1 part dish soap to 7 parts water.  Some hand soaps now come in foaming soap dispensers and I use those, too, using the same approximate ratio.  I put tempera paint on the bottom of a paint cup and then add the sudsy foam.  A long handled brush is used to mix the paint and the suds.

I put caps on the paint cups so it is not a pouring activity.  Each cup has a brush. Besides the tray and splash guard, other objects are provided for the children to paint.  I make sure there are always bowls or plastic margarine tubs so the children have containers for mixing the different colored suds.

It is definitely a color-mixing activity.  My son-in-law is a Peruvian-trained artist. When I told him about the activity, he said it was not a good activity because when you mix all the colors all you get is an ugly brown.  It is true that by the end of class each day, the color is not very appealing. However, the colors the children come up with along the way are amazing.  Take a look.

This last one was the children's lava flow.  Some children know a lot about volcanoes and are spontaneously able to build a narrative that invites others to join.

The color in the bowl below is not so impressive, but look at the child's hand.  

As the activity progresses, I keep adding suds.  You can see that in the picture above.  Often times the children will ask for more suds in their container and then mix in the colors.  The suds pumps have been used a lot so they are hard to work for the children.  As a consequence, I or another adult spend more time at the sensory table than usual.

The children mix and paint with the brushes.

And they mix it with their hands.
I never noticed it before, but this child looks like she is in an mixing trance.

And sometimes a child will use both brushes and hands.

Brush, hands, color and painting all become one for this child.

There is something about the characteristics of suds and paint that invite a kind of sensory bliss. Watch the six-second video below of a child rubbing the paint, the suds and the bristles of the brush around in her hands.  Pay special attention at the end as the child exhales.  Is it bliss?

Bliss or not, at this point the Suds Painting is totally sensory.  The color now is a grayish purple and it is not getting used to paint.  Who needs color when suds dousing is an option?  Does it get any better than this?

Saturday, April 5, 2014


In the right-hand column of this blog, you will see under ORIENTATION the word vertical.  In addition, Axiom #3 states that children will find all the different levels of play for any given apparatus.  That includes the lowest---the floor--- and the highest level---the top of the apparatus.   If the apparatus takes a vertical orientation, then the children can be found at all levels from bottom to top.

Take for instance the latest box tower creation: The Step Box Tower.

Let's start with the floor
The floor---in this case, the bottom of the green pail---is the lowest level and a place to play.

Next is the bottom of the table.
This child is watching himself scoop pellets from the bottom of the table through one of the holes in the apparatus.  You might say he has gained a unique perspective of that level.

Next is the level of the first step formed by the three bottom boxes.
Notice how this child is using the hole to stabilize his cup while he fills it on this level.

Next is the level of the second step formed by the two boxes set on top to of the bottom boxes.
This child is taking pellets from the funnel and throwing them in the window.

And finally, there is the top most level created by the top box.

What is important to note in this process of operating on all the different levels is that to continually work on higher levels, the children have to reach higher and higher.  They often start by appropriating the stools that are always around the sensory table.

If they really want to see the top level, they will, in short order, climb up on the lip of the table to get a better view or better leverage.
  Would you let a child climb on the lip of the table?

And sometimes the child actually climbs up onto the apparatus.  As you can see in the picture below, the child is standing on one of the boxes that forms the base of the structure.

I think most teachers would have little trouble with the children who keep their feet on the floor or on those stools.  How about those children, though, who want to go higher?  Is it OK to climb on the lip of the table or the apparatus itself?  Is it even safe?

I do not always know the answer.  Some of it depends on the child and how comfortable and stable he is with climbing.  What I do know is that if the apparatus has a vertical orientation, the children will want to challenge themselves every time with vertical endeavors. 

Here's are a couple of questions for you.  In what ways do you see children in the classroom show a need to reach and climb?  What sorts of outlets are there in the classroom for them to do so?   

There is one final note: If you have loose parts, the highest level the children reach can be higher than the top of the apparatus.

Sunday, March 30, 2014


For the entire month of March, I wrote about box towers and play associated with this type of apparatus.  You can find those posts hereherehere, and here.  Can there really be anything else on box towers?

Yes, I have another box tower to show you.  This tower is formed by stacking boxes on top of each other to create a step or pyramid type structure.
As you can see, three boxes form the base, two boxes the next level and one box the top level. The boxes are approximately the same size so it was easy to tape them all together to make one unit.  (Can you tell from where I acquired the boxes?)

The impetus for building this apparatus was not that I wanted to build another box tower. Rather, I wanted to take advantage of some flat cardboard pieces I have been saving for over a year.
I cannot remember when and where I found eight of these small pieces of flat cardboard with precut holes.  I could not pass them up, though, because of the symmetry of the holes and the strength of the pieces.  The cardboard pieces are four ply, which means they have four layers of cardboard glued together which makes it much stronger than single ply cardboard.

When I was in the liquor store recently, I noticed that the tops of empty liquor boxes looked like they would match the dimensions of the cardboard pieces I had been saving.  (Did you guess the boxes were from the liquor store?  I did not cover up the writing on the boxes, but when I borrowed them to a colleague, she had to cover up any reference to booze on the box. Why?  Should I be more aware of the incidental environment I am creating?)  They were, in fact, a good fit so I was able to tape the cardboard pieces to the top of the boxes.

There are two other features of note about the structure itself.  First, all the holes in the top box have a clear view to the bottom of the structure, which is the bottom of the table.

Second, the second level has an inside ledge that is formed by covering the cardboard circles on the inside of the two outer boxes that are part of the base.

Those features make the structure more interesting, not only because they allow the children to work inside the structure, but they allow the children to work on multiple levels.

And where did that car go?

P.S.  This post is a day late because I was invited to Spring Valley, MN to do a Saturday morning workshop with early childhood educators and parents from the area.  I am always impressed at people's willingness to enter this process of building and creating unique structures to go at the sensory table.  I need to give a special thank you to Ann, the Early Childhood Family Education and School Readiness Director, for inviting me and making all the arrangements and being such a great host.

Saturday, March 22, 2014


Most of the posts on this blog are about apparatus that are built for the sensory table. Lately I have been writing a lot about Box Towers, the latest of which is a Dinosaur Tower.

Though I write a lot about the physical operations the children come up with as they explore the apparatus, there is much more happening in other areas of development such as social development.   To illustrate this point, here is a simple story told in pictures and words that happened recently at this apparatus.  To understand the story, you need to know there are holes on opposite sides of the tall tower.

A playful gesture


Creates a play connection

That is recreated anew in another part of the room.

(but not really)  

Saturday, March 15, 2014


The last two posts were Building a Strong Box Tower and The Box Tower as an Invitation to Play. This past November, I built another box tower and outfitted it with dinosaurs and Jurassic Sand. It was actually two box towers connected by a "bridging box."
Box tower 1 is in the blue table.  It is made of three boxes, one on top of the other.  Building of this tower is the same as that of a previous tower that was built in 2011 called Dinosaur Mountain. The second tower is a tall box embedded in a shorter box much like the Strong Box Tower. The bridging box is a long rectangular box set horizontally and forms a tunnel between the two towers. The bridge has holes on top and on each side.  One end rests on the tower in the blue table; the other end is embedded in tower 2.

Here is a view from the other side of the apparatus.  As you can see, there are plenty of holes on all different levels.

This apparatus is called Dinosaur Towers because, besides loose parts like rocks and sticks, dinosaurs were provided as part of the provisions.

Like any good apparatus with holes, everything gets put in the top hole and falls into a pile on the bottom.

Instead of highlighting the play with the dinosaurs or the holes or even the bridge, I would like to highlight a feature of the apparatus that can be easily overlooked: the ledges created by the boxes stacked on top of one another.

Here is a picture that shows the multiple ledges created by this apparatus.  The tops of each of the towers and the bridge can also be considered top ledges.

Children find these ledges and take advantage of them to form their many and varied operations. Let me highlight just a few.

In the case of the dinosaur towers, the ledges create narrow platforms on which the dinosaurs tangle.

A ledge can also be a place on which a child can set his cup as he attempts to step onto the lip of the table so he can pour sand through the top hole of the dinosaur tower.
In fact, I am curious how this child would have managed this operation without the ledge.

The ledge also turns out to be an inviting place to put the sand.  A child does not always need to transport into a container; sometimes a ledge works just fine.
Do you notice the trail of fingers on the lower ledge where a child or two have brushed the sand from that ledge.

That is a nice segue to the next picture.  Below you see a child brushing the sand off a ledge with her hand.
Notice that the child is reaching through two holes to brush the sand off the edge.  That is noteworthy because for her to complete this operation she has to know where her arm is even though she can't see all of it.  It sounds simple to us, but she is working on her proprioception. Doesn't that sound impressive?

There is one more ledge operation to highlight and it is similar to the one above except this one uses a tool: a little broom.

Sand cascade from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

There are two aspects of this operation that are significant.  The first is that the child is able to create a cascade of sand  as he brushes the sand from one level to the next.  Second, he shows an amazing amount of broom control so not much sand---if any---falls on the floor.

I have long contended that children will find all available spaces in and around an apparatus.  I have overlooked ledges far too long.  Not any more.  I can now see they are important spaces for the children and their operations and will dismiss them no more.

Saturday, March 8, 2014


Last week's post was about how to build a Strong Box Tower.   This is a very simple apparatus that serves as an invitation for the children to play.

The invitation is not complete until other objects, tools and loose parts are provided through which the children can interface with the apparatus.  Farm animals with animal bedding inhabit this particular Box Tower.
In addition, there is the ever present pail; a wooden tray that serves as a bridge between the blue table and the smaller clear table; and the tub underneath the wooden tray for catching the falling animal bedding so not all of it ends up on the floor when the children are using the bridge for their play.

This a a very simple apparatus: a box inside a box with holes.  How do children make any meaning out of this invitation?  This is a question that spawns many others.

One of the ways to make meaning is to animate the holes.  The holes are places into which stuff is put to make things disappear and sometimes to see where they go.  Below is a video of two children putting something in the top hole.  The first child has a horse and she pretends the horse is galloping and then falls in the hole.  Watch her expression as she completes her actions.  Why is she so pleased with making the horse disappear?  Is this a good magic trick?  The second child steps up on the stool as the first child steps down.  He drops some animal bedding down the top hole.  He then checks the hole on the side to see where it went.  What makes him curious about the trajectory of the animal bedding?  One child is happy with a disappearance and another wants to know where something goes.  Why the difference?

Dropping things down the hole from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Another way the children make meaning out of this invitation is simply to explore and operate in all the spaces provided by the apparatus with the provisions.
When you look at the picture, you can see six different children on multiple levels in various spaces.  This is just a snapshot in time, so you have to imagine the children moving through time and space.  For instance, the child sweeping the floor will move around the child in the yellow dress to empty her dustpan.  The boy standing on a stool will soon drop the horse in the top hole while reaching over the other boy who bends down to gather some animal bedding from the bottom of the blue table.  Do they understand that they are working through time and space on the various levels in conjunction with others?  How do they think about that?

Some of the meaning is easier to surmise.  When a child sets up a feeding station for the horses, that is pretty evident.

Although feeding your horse can also be an experiment in how high can one stack the light and fluffy medium that is the feed for the horse. 
At what point did this change from feeding-the-horse to a pile-as-high-as-I-can activity?  What prompted the change in the direction of the activity?

When a child balances the animal bedding on a round rock, what is the purpose?  Is it enough to say he is experimenting with the properties of the materials and how they conform to each other?

How do children think to use the rocks to form a frame to hold the animal bedding to create a bed for the cow?  Whose idea was it and how did the others join the project?
Do I ask the children?  Or do I relish the elemental beauty and care the children take in their work?

An invitation is just an invitation until the children actually accept it.  Once they accept it, though, it takes on a life of its own depending on what each child individually and in concert with others brings to the play.  We can make some guesses as to the direction the play will take.  For instance, if there are  animals and animal bedding, the children will pretend to feed the animals.  

However, if apparatus and materials are open-ended and non-scripted, there will inevitably be questions of "What were they thinking?" 

Do we ask?  Or do we savor---and smile?