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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, August 29, 2015


Last week I wrote a post on a Worm Slide I built that I considered a failure.  To be clear, I was the one that thought it was a failure because the weight of the two plexiglass sheets, one on top of the other, was too much to last beyond one class.  I did not want to be re-taping after each class.
The children, on the other hand, had no problem with my perceived failure and inhabited it with their whole being.

I did not give up on the idea of making a Worm Slide using the plexiglass sheets. Instead of using two, though, I created a installation that used only one of the plexiglass sheets.  I still set up the plexiglass on a slant, but I used a different base which gave the apparatus slightly less of an incline.  That did not change the functionality of the Worm Slide, but there was less pull on the tape making it more secure, especially since I was only using one plexiglass sheet.

With this new iteration, I also added a clear plastic tube and white PVC pipe so children could transport the worms down more modest inclines, one of which was opaque, into the adjacent, clear water table.

The incline was not great enough for the two new tubes, so I used small, plastic manipulatives taped together to give the tubes a little more height on the base end.

Without any instructions, the children knew exactly what to do with the Worm Slide.  They put the worms in the channels and poured water to make the worms race down into the tub next to the table.  There were different ways to get the worms into the channels: children placed them in by hand and some poured them out of containers into the channels.  Of course, some children just dumped them right on top of the apparatus.  Watch.

Worm Slide from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

The first four seconds of this video was like a ballet.  Almost simultaneously, three different children worked inches apart on their own operations. The other 15 seconds is more ballet and a study in subtle gestures.

Someone figured out that the tops of the channels were a good place to line up the worms. Once each channel had a worm, she poured sequentially.

The children also used the tubes for their operations.  A child would pour worms and water down the tube and the child at the other end would catch.  It happened that sometimes the child on the catching end was not expecting to catch. What fun!  Watch.

Connected in playUntitled from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

There were at least two captivating aspects to this video.  The first was the unconscious motor planning it took for the child with the coffee can to get it out of the table so he could pour the water down the tube.  His movements were fluid: the can was lifted out of the water with two hands; his right hand went over the top of the tube; he pulled the can over the tube and out of the table with his right hand; and the left hand went immediately to support the can as he moved it to the tube. The second was how quickly the girl's exclamation went from one of vexation to one of delight. They were connected in play at that very instant.  Did they know it?

In one class, the PVC pipe came loose from the lip of the small water table.  It did not stop play, but created an invitation for a different kind of transporting and filling.  
 Oh, am I glad I keep that 5 Gallon Pail next to the table at all times.

Their imagination was fluid and they made use of all the materials at their disposal.  Another example of that fluid imagination was when one child combined two unrelated objects to make a new, unconventional scoop.

New tool from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

By taking two very ordinary objects---a minnow net and a empty container---this child has done something extraordinary.  He has created a new tool for retrieving the worms and the water without having to get his hands wet.

When children have the time and space to do their own thing without adult instruction or interruption, the ordinary easily morphs into the extraordinary.

Saturday, August 22, 2015


Early in my career, I did a little dumpster diving.  Heck, that is how I got the plywood pieces for my first loft.  I hardly dumpster dive anymore, mainly because parents and colleagues know I build installations for the sensory table, so they are always bringing me all manner of usable scrap material. The last time I did dumpster dive was a couple of years ago when I was walking by a greenhouse that was going out of business.  I was intrigued by double-wall, clear plexiglass sheets in the dumpster.  I was intrigued enough to retrieve them.
What piqued my interest the most were the long, narrow channels.  In my mind, I thought they would make a great water apparatus.

Fast forward to this year.  After looking at the plexiglass for over two years, I finally decided what to do with them.  Make a Worm Slide.  I have made a couple of different Worm Slides.  One used long, narrow pvc pipes.

That was back in 2007.  A couple of years ago, I revived the Worm Slide and added clear plastic tubing woven through a hole in the crate that served as the base of the apparatus.

Why do I call these apparatuses Worm Slides?  Because I add plastic fishing worms or lures to the table for the children to put into the pipes or tubes.  Then, they flush them down by pouring water into those same pipes or tubes.  I'm always on the lookout for lures on sale at the end of the fishing season.

To make a new Worm Slide out of one of the plexiglas sheets, I first had to clean out the channels.  They were dirty to begin with, but with two more years of sitting outside, they were a mess.  How do you get spider webs out of a long, narrow tube.?  I used a rag and a long, narrow metal rod as a plunger and they cleaned up nicely.

I wanted to provide easier access to the narrow channels, so I cut 2 - 4" off the top of each channel.

I decided to lay one plexiglass sheet on top of the other in hopes of creating a cascade as the children poured the water into the channels.

There was one big problem with this configuration.  The two plexiglass sheets were too heavy together to keep stable on the slant.  The tape held for one class period, but I could tell that it was not going to last the week.  And besides, because the two sheets were clear, there was no discernible effect with the two sheets on top of each other.

I took the apparatus apart right after class.  Fortunately, I had a helper who was willing to plunge into the pvc frame to collect all the worms.
This is a perfect example of Axiom #2 in the righthand column of the blog which states that children will explore all space in any given apparatus no matter how big or how small.  I actually think that the task of retrieving the worms from inside the space created by the frame added a challenge that sustained the collecting until every worm was accounted for.

I consider this configuration of a Worm Slide a failure.  I recently read a quote from a scientist in which he basically said that science lives on failures.  Without failures, we are not compelled to find more and different solutions.

To be continued...

Saturday, August 15, 2015


I have shelves next to the sand and water table.  Those shelves hold the provisions for the play at the table.  The provisions change depending on the medium and the apparatus.

One of the things I like to include on the shelves of Hodgepodge and Doohickies is a container---or two---of rocks.

You can well imagine what happens to those rocks on any given day.  They all get dumped into the table.

But is there really anything wrong with dumping?  That is surely an elemental operation for children and probably goes along with the need to transport objects in and out of the table (Axiom #1 in the righthand column of this blog).

How do children move beyond dumping?  It seems that dumping for some children is their only modus operandi. However, the dumping may in fact lead to a whole host of other ventures, often unpredictable.  To be sure, sometimes the rocks are just transported to another part of the table or onto the apparatus and left there with little or no purpose.  However, the "just lying around" state of the loose rocks offers invitations for children to experiment.  Does the rock fit in this container?

When the rocks are within easy access, they can be appropriated for ingredients or decorations in cooking such things as cakes.
Can you see the children's sense of aesthetics?  They have arranged smaller rocks of similar size around the large rock in the center.

Some of the operations fostered by the invitation of rocks lying around involve a more complex set of actions.  In the following video, watch how the child figures out how to catch the rock in her ceramic bowl after failing twice.

From her laugh, you can tell she is pleased with her endeavor even when it doesn't work the first two times.  It looks so simple to us as adults, but what a great experiment in trajectory.

Here is a slightly more complicated experiment in trajectory using a rock.  The child tries to lob one of those loose rocks into the long cardboard tube.  He misses the first time, but is successful on the second try.

To me it looks like a form of target practice.  The child has a rock and he wants to get it in a hole at a distance.  Look at the amount of regulated motion it takes to get the rock in the white cardboard tube.  Would you have let a child throw the rock in his attempt to get it in the tube?

In one child's hands, two loose rocks become a musical instrument; they are the percussion for his rendition of Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.

He starts out with a fast tempo and it just accelerates from there.  Do I dare call him a rock star?

Here is one final invitation to play fostered by the rocks just lying around.  A child picks up two loose rocks from the table.  She starts to smack the rocks together and to her surprise, she gets a light brown powder.  She is cooking and the powder turns out to be a cinnamon topping.

What motivates this child to choose two rocks from the table and then to start smacking them together?  I do not think she expects to get a powder.  Once she gets the powder, though, there is no stopping her.   

There is an interesting sequel to this child's discovery.  A friend takes note of her actions and tries to get powder by picking up two rocks from the table and smashing them together.  No matter how hard he tries, he cannot get powder from his rocks.

It would seem that there is a lot of potential in those loose rocks as the children try to realize their ideas.  And in realizing their ideas, they are combining many other elements offered at the table such as the white sand, the apparatus, the pots and the actions of their friends.      

If all these ventures started with dumping, then dumping must be like setting the table---a messy, chaotic, serendipitous table.

Saturday, August 8, 2015


One of the elements I think about when I build an apparatus for the sensory table is levels.  Levels seem to be important to children in their operations.  Axiom #3 in the righthand column states that the children will find every level in an apparatus.  Not only will they find every level, but they will also use every level.  That idea was the impetus for adding a second level to the Pegboard Platform so the apparatus went from one level...

to two levels by adding an additional pegboard piece above the original setup to make the Pegboard Platform - Level 2.

That was two years ago.  When I constructed the Pegboard Platform this year, I also followed it up by adding a second level to this year's apparatus.  Since I added an extra tube to the one-level platform, I also added a longer tube to the second level.

Adding the cardboard tubes was an intentional change to the apparatus. You can see how the children appropriate the shorter tube in their play in the latest rendition of the Pegboard Platform here.  The longer cardboard tube presented children with physical challenges.  On the left: How high can I reach?  On the right: Can I stretch enough to both pour and catch at the same time?
There was an additional change that was unintentional.  I did not find the original tubes that supported the second level, so I used new, taller tubes.  

That change increased the gap between the two levels.
Increasing the gap between the two levels changed the play in at least three ways.  One of the ways it changed the play was increasing the visibility of the the pattern of the sand streaming through the top piece of pegboard.  In other words, the children did not have to bend down to see it because it was now closer to eye level.

Secondly, because there was more space between the two levels, children used the lower of the two levels more than when the gap was smaller.  That increase in space allowed the children to pour and fill more freely without bumping into the top level.  

Third, because there was more play on the lower level, there was more play between levels.  The two girls in this video work on both levels.  The one on the right is using the top piece of pegboard to sift her ingredients as she fills her bowl on the bottom level.  The girl next to her fills her bowl on the bottom level and then places it onto the top level.

This reminded me of the times I have been in a diner with a open window into the kitchen with two counters.  When the food is done, the chef puts the finished dish on the top counter for the server to take.  Have either of these girls ever been to a diner?  Are they recreating that experience? They may only be pretending to cook and simply incorporating the levels into their play.  In any case, the diner is open for business.

I am surprised at how much play changed by an unintentional modification to this apparatus. Literally, a matter of inches increased the play between the levels.  It tells me space and how space is configured is important.  The problem for me is: I do not understand space well enough to predict how the children will use it.  The problem, however, is always solved by the children if I take the time to observe their operations and explorations.

Friday, July 31, 2015


Axiom #7 on the right-hand column of this blog states: Children will always devise new and novel activities and explorations with the materials presented that are tangential to the apparatus itself.  Why is that so important?  Because there is a whole universe of play that happens in the area around the apparatus that is not part of the apparatus itself.  If I were to focus only on what the children do with the apparatus, I would overlook important actions that expand my notion of what play means for children and the subsequent questions about such play.

With the Pegboard Platform there was plenty of engagement with the apparatus itself.  For instance, here is a short video of a child using the platform for making something special: "rock-sand-snow ice cream.

Rock, sand, snow ice cream from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Notice that the child in the video is responding to another child's inquiry about what she is making. Often as adults we ask that same question, but it seems more genuine coming from another child. Her response actually makes me wonder if she knew what she was making or she is making it up on the spot in response to his inquiry. In any case, she is quite animated when she responds as if to confer her blessing on her own creation.

What is not apparent from the video is that part of her creation began away from the table on the shelves that hold the play provisions for the sensory table.  It is there she carefully adds the rocks.

Is that tangential to the apparatus?  Probably not, but it does expand the play beyond the apparatus itself creating movement in her operations from the platform, to the shelves and back to the platform.  What does that tell me about the nature of her play?  How important is it to be able to move between areas for her play?

Here is an example of an operation that is tangential to the platform apparatus.  This child has appropriated the floor space between the sensory table and the shelves for her operations.  She has three containers of different sizes and shapes.  She is very intent about transferring the sand between the containers.
It's true, she has acquired the sand from the table, but she definitely does not need the apparatus for what she is doing.  Given all that is going on around her and the apparatus in the table, why does she choose the floor for her play?  What would happen if there were no table and just a reservoir of sand and all types of containers?  What would that play look like? How do the boundaries created by the table and the shelves help define her play?

Here is another example of tangential play.  After transporting a lot of sand into the Five-gallon Pail, this boy decides to see if he can lift it.  Why?   
A child testing his own strength is not part of the apparatus.  It is, however, important for the development of his muscles and joints. The appeal of his particular physical challenge is that he is its author; it is authentic.  It is also contagious.
Where does the quest for a physical challenge come from and why is it necessary?  What makes it contagious?

Here is one final example of tangential play.  There are always stools for the children to use around the sensory table.  Ostensibly, they are there for the children to step up to extend their reach.  For some reason, one of those stools was turned upside down when a child with a plastic teapot full of sand happened upon it. The upside-down stool offered an invitation for this child to pour sand into all the little squares on the underside of the stool.
As far as tangential play goes, this one is off the charts.  Who could have planned this set of joint circumstances: a stool turned upside down exposing open squares and a child experimenting with the flow of sand from a plastic tea pot?  Did the pattern of the squares pique his interest? Did the flow of the sand in a stream create the opportunity to target his pouring so he could fill individual squares?   What was this child thinking?

I am left with questions: Does tangential play by its very nature house one of the universes of play that is spontaneous, serendipitous and creative?  If so, how do we provide the space and time for it? If so, how do we give it its due?  With any given setup, how do we shift our focus from "what the children should do" to "what they can and will do"?  How does it differ from the play of a child with a plan?  Do the two types of play coexist?  Can and do they feed off of each other?

Saturday, July 25, 2015


In March of 2013, I introduced the Pegboard Platform.  This is an apparatus made with a piece of pegboard the corners of which are embedded in sturdy cardboard tubes.

I re-introduced the same apparatus this year in May.  I did add one element to the original structure: a cardboard tube set on an incline from the platform. Sand poured into the tube emptied into a tub at the end of the table.

One of the more fascinating aspects of this apparatus is the flow pattern of the sand as it is poured over the platform.  Watch. 

The video clearly shows the uniform pattern of the sand.  It also shows that the child with the scoop watching from below interprets it as snow falling.  We are in Minnesota, after all, so the child knows snow.

The addition of the small cardboard tube created another range of play specifically around that incline. For instance:

They poured the sand down the tube.

They pushed the sand through the tube.

And at times, they plugged the tube.

There was one operation that gave me pause.  The operation involves increasing the flow of sand through the tube by banging on the tube.  Watch.

How do children know that hitting the tube increases the flow of sand through the tube?  Is it inherent body knowledge?  Is it trial-and-error?  Do they simply imitate what they have seen others do?

I am always curious about what other practitioners may try to build after reading about the many different apparatus I build at my sensory table. About three weeks ago, I was pleased to get a note on my SandAndWaterTables Facebook page from Shelli at Explore Inspire EC.  She invited me to look at her version of the Pegboard Platform.  Check out her construction here.  For me, the best thing about her apparatus is that it is different than mine.  She found a totally different solution for holding the pegboard above the table.

And if you read this blog and do try to build apparatus for your sensory table, please feel free to share. Who knows who you might inspire.

Saturday, July 18, 2015


In Minnesota, we have a fair amount of snow in the winter.  One of the great winter activities is sliding down hills on all kinds of apparatus from sleds to toboggans to even cardboard boxes. One of those contraptions is a snow saucer.

It is a plastic disc with handles.  It is bowl-shaped to ride above the snow.

Did you know the the snow saucer can be utilized in the summer, too?  Put some sand in it and set it on a table and you have an impromptu sandbox.

I did not set this up.  My wife set this up for our grandson.  For me, though, it was pure genius. First, it provides a comfortable level on which to work.  The saucers are set on summer tables that are 17 inches off the ground.  Perfect for a two and a half year old.  Second, the two saucers are connected with an improvised bridge made from a piece of gutter screen.

I did add one feature to the sandbox: a box into which my grandson could transport the sand from the saucer sandbox.
Axiom #1 on the right-hand column of this blog states that children need to transport whatever is in the table out of the table.  In the picture above you can see a pile of sand on the grass that was dumped there before I found something for my grandson to dump it into.  When I told him he should have something to pour into, he actually suggested using the blue pail seen in the saucer. It was a good suggestion, but I wanted something bigger to catch as much of the sand as possible.  The first thing I found was a box destined for recycling.

It was immediate and temporary and worked out quite nicely.  I am always a bit surprised at how well this works; maybe it has to do with offering the child a target for his actions.   

And there seems to be an added attraction of dropping things from heights.

The advantage of this temporary solution is twofold:  It satisfies his need to transport sand out of the table and, when he is all done, the sand can be easily poured back into the saucer sandbox.

When all is said and done for the day, the saucer sandbox contraption is easily put away and covered.

This quirky type of genius must run in the family.  Earlier this summer, my daughter made a water table of sorts out of a snow sled.  My grandson looks pretty comfortable in an industrious sort of way with his chair partially in the sled water table.

I am kidding when I say this quirky type of genius must run in the family.  There are countless examples of others in the blogosphere combining ordinary objects into something new.

This post is a celebration of how the ordinary can be transformed into something else that is ordinary. Two ordinaries, of course, make something that is extra-ordinary.