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, April 15, 2017

Rock art

If you have been reading my blog, you know that I like rocks.  Three weeks ago I wrote there is a primal connections between humans and rocks and, by offering children rocks to explore at the sensory table, some of those primal connections surface in children's play as they use them to make tools and make marks.  Two weeks ago, I wrote that if children are given the chance to manipulate rocks in the sensory table, their explorations turn out to lay the foundation for important math concepts.  Last week I wrote about how children use rocks at the sensory table for scientific inquiry.

This week I would like to write about how children create works of art from rocks.

I could highlight an activity like children coloring rocks with chalk.  However, I would rather empha-
size the rock art that emerges at the sand table which is more child-initiated and child-directed.

How does one define rock art at the sensory table?   Actually, how does one define art in general? Is it something beautiful to behold?  Is it something that is aesthetically pleasing?  Who gets to judge?

In her book Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia, Vea Vecchi lays the groundwork for understanding the concept we call art by writing about a sense of aesthetics or an aesthetic dimension.  Interestingly, when writing about aesthetics she emphasizes something other than beauty.  On page 5 she writes:
     "Undoubtedly it is difficult to say simply and clearly what is meant by an aesthetic 
      dimension.  Perhaps first and foremost it is a process of empathy relating the Self
      to things and things to each other.  It is like a slim thread or aspiration to quality
      that makes us choose one word over another, the same for color or shade, a certain
      piece of music, or mathematical formula or the taste of a food.  It is an attitude of
      care and attention for the things we do, a desire for meaning; it is curiosity and

When a child simply stacks different size rocks in the corner of the sand table, is that art?
How is he relating his Self to the rocks?  As his mini-project unfolds, what makes him choose one rock over another?  How is he making meaning with his actions?  Maybe he is just piling rocks one-by-one as he picks them out of the sand.

When children start to create patterns using the rocks, their actions become more intentional and seem more relational.  Often times, they will arrange the rocks so there is a good bit of symmetry.   In the example below a child chooses rocks to fit around the circle hole.  (All the rocks offered the children were gray and smooth so his only choice was size.)
Why does he make a circle?  Is it simply to outline the hole?  He eventually makes some meaning out of his arrangement: it becomes a pizza.

Here is another example of symmetry with rocks a child creates.  In this instance, she chooses different colored rocks, but she chooses rocks of the same size to encircle one, larger rock.
Much like the previous example, this child ends up making meaning by using the rocks to enhance her role-playing: cooking.  With both these examples, there is something pleasing in their symmetry, but is that enough to call it art?

When children start to combine other elements with rocks, their endeavors reach another level of complexity.  Below the children are essentially in the process of creating a prehistoric diorama with Jurassic Sand, rocks, sticks and small dinosaurs.
There seems to be a rough symmetry here or, because of the intentional spacing of objects, maybe more of an organic symmetry.  Most people would agree that this diorama-like arrangement looks a lot more like art with rocks.

When more natural elements are available, children's explorations become even more complex.  On the left is a typical arrangement I offer children.  The picture on the right shows a child exploring the setup, which has already gone through major changes by the children themselves.  

Below is the third picture in this sequence.  It shows the result of the child's explorations once she feels like she is done exploring.
The child combines multiple elements to make an integrated design.  She uses rocks, sticks, pine cones, shells, tree cookies, a stump and some bark to make her creation.   In essence, she creates a sculpture using all these natural elements.  Most people would agree that this is art.

Vea Vecchi makes clear in her book that there is another important process children summon in their artistic endeavors: they create a relationship with the objects they are working with---in this case rocks.  That relationship introduces them to the 'beat of life.'  "This 'beat of life' is what often solicits intuitions and connections between elements to generate new creative processes" (p. 8).

If art is something more than pretty, these children have it in spades.   They know rocks by handling them; by choosing which ones to work with.  They know what they can do with them by exploring  symmetry and by combining them with other elements.  In so doing, they are tapping into their own 'beat of life'---from which all art flows.

P.S.  I am a little out of my comfort zone with this post.  I am not sure I know as much as I purport to know about this.  I sure hope someone challenges me on this just to advance my own understanding on this topic.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Rock science

I have been writing about the importance of rocks at the sensory table.  Two weeks ago I wrote that there is a primal connection between humans and rocks and by providing rocks for children, some of those primal connections emerge like making tools and making marks.  Last week I wrote about how children use rocks to do foundational math.  Today I want to write about the importance of rocks in fostering scientific inquiry at the sand table.

Children use rocks to carry out self-directed experiments.  Even a toddler is able to create his own experiment.  In the video below, a one-and-a-half-year-old works very hard to see what happens when he drops a rock down a small cardboard tube.  First he has to pick up a rock he can't even see because the pegboard makes him turn his head in order to reach the rock.  After grabbing the rock, he steps up on a stool to better reach the cardboard tube.  Once there, he has to negotiate his turn with a much older child using the same tube.

Down the tube from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

I am struck by how intentional this child is.  He seems to know what he wants to do and figures out how to do it each step of the way.   Are his actions too simple to be called a scientific experiment? 

The experiment created by an older child using  a rock and the same cardboard tube becomes a little more complex.  This child seems to be asking the question: Can I figure out the trajectory of the rock coming out of the tube so it drops in the bowl?

Aiming the rock from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Again, I am struck by the intentionality of this child's actions.  She wants to get the rock in the bowl by using the tube.  Her first two attempts are not successful.  On her third attempt, she figures out exactly where to position the bowl so the rock hits the target.  When the rock falls in the bowl, she squeals with joy.

Some experiments children create do not have the intended result.  In the video below, two children try to plug a funnel with rocks.  After adding rocks to the funnel, the sand still flows through the bottom of the funnel.  One child brings more rocks so the funnel is completely full of rocks.  However, when he pours sand in the top of the funnel it still flows out the bottom to his consternation.

Plugging the funnel from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

When I asked him why the rocks do not plug the funnel, he said he does not know.  At this point, they no longer pursue this investigation, but move on to other explorations with the clear plastic tube and sand.  Scientists reach dead ends all the time, but like these two, continue to explore new veins of inquiry.

Some experiments have an unexpected outcome and a child is able to come up with an elegant theory as to why.  In the video below, the child plops two rocks on to a balanced structure of branches lying across the sensory table.  When he does that, he knocks off a stick that is keeping the whole thing in balance.  As a consequence, a rock at the end of one of the branches drops to the floor as the branch tips under the weight shift.  The child explains that the rock fell because the branch "jumped."  And that the branch "jumped" because the "weight was too heavy." 

The weight was too heavy from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

At the end, he gives marvelous demonstration of what happens when the weight shifts.  He pushes down on another stick to show how a weight exerted on one end makes the stick "jump."

One of the hallmarks of scientific inquiry is testing how different objects react using the same apparatus.  In the video below, the child has created a ramp out of a piece of tree bark.  He takes one rock from a nearby bucket and slides it down the ramp.  The rock hits a crack in the bark and starts to tumble until it lands in the sand at the bottom of the ramp.  He then takes a second rock which is a little bigger and slides it down the ramp.  This one also hits the crack, but does not tumble.  Instead, it continues sliding down the ramp to the end.

Sliding rocks from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

The child continues to slide rocks down the ramp.  What is he learning?  One of the things he learning is to hone his observation skills which is essential to good scientific inquiry.

Within the field of science, researchers try to replicate experiments of others to test an original hypothesis.  In the two videos below, the children play out that exact process.  In the first video, the child strikes two rocks together.  The result is a rock powder that drops into her bowl of sand.

Rock powder from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

This second video shows a child trying to replicate the very same experiment by striking two rocks together.

No rock powder from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

He does not get any powder.  The children now wonder why.   When there is not definitive answer, the inquiry continues.

Too often we think of science only in terms of content to be taught.  In an early childhood classroom it has to be lived.  Children have to be able to ask their own questions and search for their own answers.  In a way, it is pure scientific inquiry the purpose of which is simply to know what works and what doesn't work.  Content has its place, but may best be preceded by what David Hawkins calls "messing about." 

And when children mess about with rocks, that is rock hard science!

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Rock math

Last week I started to make a case for having rocks in the classroom for children to explore and use. There is a primal connection between humans and rocks and by providing rocks for children in the classroom, some of those primal connections emerge.  Last week I wrote about how children used rocks as tools and for making marks.

Another reason I provide rocks in the classroom is that they are so versatile.  The children find a myriad of ways to use them for their own purposes.  
Children simply line them up.  On the left, a child balanced the rocks on the lip of the table as if to outline the table.  On the right, the child lined the rocks along the line created by the transition between the carpet and the tile.  

Children use rocks to fill containers.  On the left, they filled a jello mold with rocks.  The children had to find the right sizes to fill the mold.  On the right, they filled up a cardboard tube to overflowing.

Children use rocks to fill big containers, too.  The children filled a five-gallon bucket with rocks and then tried to lift it.
On his tiptoes, the child strained to lift the bucket full of rocks.  He could not lift it; he could not even move it.  Interestingly, he did not stop there.  After trying to lift the bucket, he collected more rocks and put them in the bucket.  He said he wanted to make sure no one could ever lift it up.


Children try to fit rocks into holes.  On the left, the child wanted to see if the rock fit into the clear plastic tube.  On the right, the child wanted to see if a rock would fit through the hole in the top of the bottle. 

Children not only try to fit rocks into holes, they also experiment with what fits into holes in rocks.  One child tried to fit her fingers into a hole she found in a rock.  She first put her little finger into the hole in the rock and said: "Even the little finger fits."

Finger holes from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

She was able to fit all her fingers one-by-one into the hole in the rock.  Each time she put a finger into the hole, she declared: "Even this one [fits]." 

These may seem like simple operations to adults, but to children they are fundamental math exercises.  To create lines and angles with rocks is geometry.  To fill containers is to experience volume and, in the case of a big container, weight.   To test to see if a rock fits into a hole---or fingers fit into a hole in a rock---is an exercise in estimation and measurement.  

Though I am trying to make a case for bringing rocks into the classroom, children need an opportunity to explore rocks outside, too.  When we give children the time and the space to explore rocks---both inside and outside---their explorations look a lot like math.

I have purposely left out counting or numbers with rocks.  Yes, I am a heretic.  Too often we only think of math in terms of numeracy for young children.  Given the opportunity, children will find ways to use rocks that lay a concrete foundation for multiple and complex concepts in the area of math learning.

Dare I say it: rock math rocks!

Saturday, March 25, 2017


I like rocks.  I always have.  I remember as a child hunting for agates, a semi-precious stone that can be found in Minnesota.  As a dad, I would take my own children down to the Mississippi River to hunt for agates and fossils.  We usually found some, but we also spent plenty of time just throwing rocks in the river or skipping them across the surface.  Physically and emotionally, children feel a great sense of agency when they throw a rock in the river and watch the splash and the ripples.  It's addictive.  The bigger the rock, the better.  Or the farther, the better.  Or the more, the better.

It is important for children to be able to explore rocks outside.  I also think it is important for children to be able to explore rocks inside the classroom.   In fact as a teacher of small children, I know there is much to be gained by offering children a chance to play with rocks on a regular basis all around the classroom and especially at the sensory table.  To that end, below is an example of how I set up rocks on a table for the children to use in the sand table.
Here is a closer look at the rocks.  One of my purposes was to offer rocks of different sizes, colors and textures.

By offering the children different kinds of rocks, they were able to compare and contrast the rocks. One year, I offered the children the tripod magnifier next to the sensory table so they could get a better look at the rocks as they did their comparisons.
The video below is a another good example showing a child comparing two rocks.  Though the color and the size of the rocks are similar, she examined the number and size of the holes before she concluded they were not the same.

One year, I recorded an interchange I had with a child as she was exploring the rocks.  I transcribed our conversation on a big sheet of newsprint and taped it up on the wall next to the sand table.  Below is the transcription.  Alert!  Emergent literacy and numeracy event.
At first, she looked for a big rock.  I asked her if she was looking for a heavy rock.  She insisted it had to be a big rock.  But when I asked her how her search was going, she said it had to be heavy.  Why did she switch---or add to---her description of her search?  Near the end of the episode when she was looking for a small rock, she found one that she said was "shiny, heavy and little."  In the course of examining the rocks, she kept expanding her classifications.

Another reason rocks are important for children in the classroom may fall under my own speculations.  Here goes.  Rocks were important for our development as a species.  (How is that for a theory?)  And I think children recreate some of those important points of development with rocks in the sand table.  (How is that for another theory?)   For instance, the child in the video below used a small rock to clean off the ledge in the sand table.   In essence, the child created her own tool from a small rock.

Here is another example.  In the video below, the child discovered that he could make marks with a rock on another rock.  

Making marks with rocks from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

If rocks are important for some fundamental operations that emerge from our DNA, shouldn't there be a place in the classroom for them?  What do you think?

Sunday, March 19, 2017


I was invited to Juneau, Alaska to be one of the featured speakers at their annual early childhood symposium.  Juneau is the capital of Alaska.  The population is a little over 30,000.  There are no roads in or out because it is surrounded by mountains that go on and on.  Here is a picture of the old downtown with Mount Juneau towering over the town.

I got to do a little sightseeing with the help of someone from Juneau involved in its early childhood organization (AEYC SE Alaska).  The highlight was walking two miles out to a glacier on a frozen lake and walking into a glacial ice cave.  I never knew glaciers were blue.

I was asked to do a building workshop and a couple of shorter presentations.  For me, the high point was the building workshop.  After I presented the participants with a generative framework for building, they could hardly wait to get started.
I am always impressed by the amount of cooperation, negotiation and accommodation that takes place in a workshop like this.   The ideas just seem to fly throughout the room both within building groups and between building groups.

Inevitably,  the participants create something unique and novel.  I think that is a function of the materials that are available and the unfolding of the social process of building.  Here are a just a couple of the novel things the participants built.

One group created a sand wheel from sturdy cardboard triangle pieces that were originally packing corners.  Besides the wheel, they had to come up with the axle.

Another group came up with a sliding incline.  They taped a inclined chute to a cardboard bracket they manufactured that slid up and down a sturdy cardboard tube.

One person even made a snake-like ramp by cutting pieces of paper towels tubes and taping them together.

The ideas are always inspiring to me.  Even more inspiring is watching someone who has never used a drill, pick it up and start drilling.  

I want to thank Joy Lyon, the executive director of SE Alaska AEYC, and her staff and board for letting me be part of their annual conference.  They are doing some great work for the children of SE Alaska and their enthusiasm is contagious.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Sticks continued

Last week I wrote about how, over the years, there was a progression of sorts to how sticks were brought into the classroom and used at the sensory table.  At first, there were small sticks, rarely longer than 6 to 12 inches.  As time went on, I started bringing in big branches and even logs.  In the interest of safety, I would tape them down because I did not want them rolling off the table onto someone's foot.  Last week's post ended with the introduction of loose sticks that were tall and narrow and, more importantly, not tied down
For me that was a leap of faith because my mother drilled into me not to play with sticks because someone could get their eye poked out.  I have never stopped playing with sticks even though that dire warning has stayed with me to this day.

What I discovered was that the children handled the sticks with plenty of care and no one got hurt.  I was emboldened so I filled the table with sticks, branches and stumps---and none of them were taped down.  This is how the setup looked from one side...
And then from the other.

One of the things that changed was that the children started to examine the natural pieces of wood more carefully.

The sticks became tools with which to stir and pound.

Because they could move the sticks and branches, the children did.  They moved the wood around within the sensory table.

And outside the table.  This child took it upon himself to move every piece of wood he could lift out of the tables and onto the floor.  Why?  I suppose because he could.

Many of their operations with sticks, branches and stumps looked haphazard.  But were they?  The following video did show a child with some purpose.  He entered the video from the top with a wide branch.  He tentatively placed it on two branches that were already part of a balanced structure.  When he was sure his branch was balanced and would not fall, he stepped back and wiped his hands together like he has just done some hard work. 

Balancing branches from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Judging from his body language and without seeing his face, I think he was pretty pleased with what he had just accomplished.

For some children, the bigger branches and logs were used to test their strength.  In the video below the child lifted a big heavy maple log up onto the stump to roll it over the stump.  He first used the stump as a fulcrum to lift the log off the bottom of the table.  Then he lifted the log up every so slightly before balancing it on the stump.  The effort was palpable.  Once it was balanced on the stump, he re-positioned his hands so he could control the log as it rolled to the other side. 

Heavy lifting from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

I would say this child was on the border between controlling the log and loosing control of the log.  Early in his endeavor, I moved in to help because I thought he would drop it on his finger.  Though I was close, I ended up not helping at all.  Instead, he shifted his hands and his body weight to keep the piece of maple log under control.  After he rolled the log to the other side, he brushed his hands together again, intimating that that was hard work and now it was done.

Since I started the first post on sticks, I have been thinking a lot about how the children handled the sticks, branches, logs and stumps.  More specifically, I was wondering how the children managed the wood pieces so well in the closed-in area of the sand and water table.

Children are attracted to sticks.  I could forbid their use in the classroom by simply not bringing them into the classroom.  Or I could offer the sticks as play things to the children so they can learn to use them for constructive pursuits of their own making.   To do that, they need the time and the agency to explore the possibilities of sticks within the social and physical context of the classroom and, in this case, the sensory table. However, that does not mean anything goes because, as the teacher, I am part of that context and my role is to know the children well enough that I can intervene when something looks too dangerous.  That said, I do not remember intervening even once with the sticks.  Maybe we had already built a play culture in the sensory area that precluded the probability of dangerous play with sticks.  Is that possible?

Let me leave you with a picture of my grandson dragging a stick that is twice his size along the Mississippi River.  He is also holding a shorter stick in his other hand.
Sticks are important to children.  I do not know why.  I do know they do increase their imprint on the world: sticks allow children to reach farther and higher.  Since they are so important maybe we should not forbid them, but figure out a context in which the children learn to use them constructively---even inside.

Saturday, March 4, 2017


I started introducing sticks into the classroom at the sensory table at least 25 years ago.  At first, the sticks were small.
Many of the sticks I used in the classroom I had collected on my walks down by the Mississippi River with my own children.  

In the classroom, the children had no trouble figuring out what to do with the sticks.  For instance, in the sand, they would "plant" them to make miniature landscapes.

Or make sculptures by piling and balancing them on top of one another.  This child told me this was his house and wanted to make sure I saw it.

One child even took a stick, stuck it in the sand and added a tree knot over the end to make his own microphone.

Gradually I started to introduce larger sticks.  Actually, it might be more accurate to call them branches.  
Since I was not sure how the children would handle these bigger branches, I taped them down to the table so they could not be moved.  In the picture above, the two longer branches were taped to the lip of the table with black duct tape.  There was a smaller branch with three arms that I did not tape down.  It was an experiment to see how the children would handle a bigger, loose piece.

I went so far as to bring a log into the classroom.  This, too, I decided to tape down; I did not want it dropping on someone's foot.

About the same time I set up the log in the sensory table, I was walking down by the river and found some long narrow sticks.  What caught my eye was that some animal---a muskrat?---had chewed them down and ate much of the bark.  I gathered a bunch of the sticks and set them in a bin next to the sensory table.

In a way, this was a leap of faith on my part.  I was introducing long narrow sticks knowing that they would increase the children's personal space beyond what they were used to in the classroom.  These sticks were as tall, if not taller, than they were and when they handled them, what would happen?  Would they swing them around and hit someone?  Would they poke themselves?  Would they use them as swords?  What kind of mayhem would ensue?

So what happened?  There was no swinging or poking or even sword fighting.  Instead, the children found ways to manipulate the sticks and build with them.  Below is an example of one such episode.  One child is using the sticks to build bridges across the sensory table.

The child was being quite mindful of how he was handling the sticks.  He was even aware of the child on the other side of the table and asked him to move so he could put down more bridges.

I eventually cut up all those sticks into smaller pieces and ended up with a basket full of sticks measuring 3 to 6 inches.   When people saw these little sticks, they were impressed and thought I had worked very hard to make the marks with a knife.  No, those were marks made by an animal feeding on the bark. 

These sticks became a permanent fixture in my classroom.  They continued to be used in the sensory table with various apparatus.  However, their permanent residence was in the housekeeping area.  This was the time I got rid of the plastic food and started using more open-ended and natural materials in that area of the classroom.

Believe it or not, I am not done with the classroom experiments with sticks, but it will have to wait until next week.    Will the dreaded mayhem finally ensue?