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 8, 2019

Big box and cardboard tube with opposing inclines

For 28 years, I built apparatus that fit in and around the sand and water table .  Children arrived in my classroom already with a set of competencies that could be expressed while playing with those structures.  I always wondered how those structures would shape children's play and exploration given their competencies.

As I have done over the past couple of posts, let me infuse my musings with a context.  The context I wish to use is an apparatus I built in 2012.  The apparatus was a long narrow box set on an incline.  Children poured wooden fuel pellets down the box through various holes I cut in the box.  The pellets exited the bottom of the box through a slit that directed them down and into the blue tub next to the sensory table.  Here is the original post: big box incline with added element.

The reason I cut multiple holes in the box was to give children multiple points of entry for their operations.  In addition, I partially embedded a cardboard tube in the top area of the box on an opposing incline.  Pellets poured down the tube exited into a small sensory table at the end of the cardboard tube.

Let me start with a couple of competencies that the children brought to the apparatus; scooping and pouring.  Those may sound simple but I wonder if they really are.  I do not know enough about motor development, balance and proprioception to understand how complex those operations really are.  However, given those competencies, how did the incline apparatus shape the children's play and exploration.

In the video below two children poured wood pellets down the box incline through the hole at the top end of the apparatus.  The child on the right poured first.  As he poured, he looked down at the bottom of the box incline because he expected the pellets to exit from there.  He did see some pellets fall out the bottom of the box, but most of his pellets went down the cardboard tube in the opposite direction.  When the child on the left poured his pellets into the box, he seemed to aim his pour so he could direct as many pellets as possible into the cardboard tube.  Both children poured pellets a second time.  The child on the left did a careful pour again making sure to get as many pellets as possible to fall into the cardboard tube.  The child on the right decided to pour pellets through the hole on the top of the apparatus.  He again looked to the bottom of the box for the pellets even though most of them went down the cardboard tube, not down the box.

Aiming for the tube from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

In a way, I think the apparatus gave a novel purpose to their scooping and pouring.  For the child on the left, it was to see how many pellets could he get to disappear down the cardboard tube.  Was he working on his aim or was he fascinated with how the pellets tumbled and disappeared down the tube?  For the child on the right, it was to see where the pellets he poured actually went.  Did he notice the disconnect between how many pellets he poured and how many dropped out of the box at the bottom?  

Another competency that the children brought to the apparatus was an insatiable curiosity of how it worked.  That was true for the two children in the first video and it was also true for the children in the following video.

Two children brought little cars from the block area to use with this apparatus.   One child made ambulance sounds as he positioned his little ambulance in the opening on the top end of the box.  Before letting it go, he moved his head to the hole on the side of the box so he could get a closer look at what happened to the ambulance when he let it go.  He let it go and watched it drop into the cardboard tube.  He knew immediately that it changed directions and went down the tube.  He even told a child at the end of the tube that he caught an ambulance, his ambulance.  A second child in red repeated this experiment but watched his actions through the opening in the top end of the box.  This child knew that his race car changed directions when it entered the tube because he, too, immediately looked to the bottom of the cardboard tube to see where it went.

You caught an ambulance from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

In this case, the apparatus offered the children a challenge: What happened to their cars when they fell into the tube?  That challenge fed their curiosity to figure out the trajectory of the cars they put in motion down the box.

Yet another competency the children brought to the apparatus was the ability to give the apparatus a novel purpose.  In the video below, the same two children who brought the cars to the sensory table were asked to collect the cars at cleanup time.  To collect the cars into the car container, they decided to place the car container at the bottom of the cardboard tube.  In that way, they were able to send all the cars down the tube right into the container. 

Fun way to cleanup the cars from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

I suppose they could have just collected the cars and put them in the container, but by using their ingenuity, they decided there was a more engaging way to collect the cars.  It may not have been the most efficient way to collect the cars because some cars bounced out of the container, but the apparatus afforded an opportunity for them to figure out an original way to collect the cars.  And as the child in the orange stated: "Who knew picking up the cars could be so much fun!"

Since each child is unique who enters our classroom, how do we come to know their competencies?  I contend we can only come to know their competencies in a context that allows them to express their competencies.  If that sounds circular, it probably is.  If we take the time to observe children's play and exploration---not for checklists---we can see that a context can nurture children's competencies and children's competencies can give shape to that very same context.  


Saturday, June 1, 2019

Intentionality and spontaneity

I have been thinking a lot about intentionality and spontaneity and where they fit in an early childhood classroom.  Intentionality seems to carry a lot of gravity these days.  Teachers are suppose to be deliberate and purposeful in their teaching.  They are asked to know what they are teaching (think curriculum); how are they teaching it (think fidelity to the curriculum); and to test their students to see if they have learned it (think checklists). What does not seem to carry a lot of gravity in early education is spontaneity.  So much of what happens in an early ed classroom is directed by the teacher leaving little room for spontaneous ideas and actions to emerge from the children themselves.

I would like to give my thoughts context using an apparatus I built back in 2015 I called horizontal tubes in boxes.  This apparatus consisted of four long cardboard tubes embedded horizontally through two boxes.

I intentionally constructed this apparatus to offer children an opportunity to work on a horizontal plane.   My intention was to create a challenge for the children to move the wood fuel pellets through the long tubes.   (I also intentionally embedded the tubes on different levels.)

Since the tubes were so long, I intentionally offered different points of entry so the children could move the pellets inside the tubes with their hands.

In addition to multiple entry points, I also fabricated homemade plungers by attaching a metal jar lids on the end of a dowels.   And I intentionally made them different lengths... 
so children could explore how deeply they would have to reach into the tubes to move the pellets all the way through the tubes.

Finally, I intentionally handed the apparatus, along with the implements, over to the children so they could make it their own.  My intentions at this point went as far as setting up this classroom space for play and exploration.

What were the children to learn from their play and exploration?  I honestly did not and still do not know.   I do know that the children created numerous ways to move the the pellets and other things through the tubes horizontally.  And many of those trials included a good dose of spontaneity.  Below are just three examples.

The child in the video below pushed the plunger all the way through the cardboard tube.  The plunger got stuck on the lip of the tube on the other side.  The child, by looking in the mirror, could see how the plunger was stuck and he told the child on that end that he "needed it."  The child off to the left of the screen then lifted the plunger so it was no longer stuck.  The child seen in the video was then able to pull the plunger out.  After getting the plunger out, he reinserted the plunger and pushed it through the tube again.

Referencing his own actions from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

What made this child's actions so intriguing was that he completed his actions by looking in the mirror on the wall next to the sensory table.  He may have purposefully moved the pellets through the tube, but because he offhandedly saw himself in the mirror, he spontaneously referenced his actions in the mirror.

The child in the video below created a different mode of moving the pellets through the tube: he blasted them by thrusting the plunger with force and speed through the tube.  Some of the pellets moved into the tube, but many went flying.  At the end of his actions, he turned to me and basically said that it was funny how he "blasted it."

Blasting the pellets from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

This child was the only one who introduced speed and force to move the pellets with the plunger through the tube.  He used the word funny to characterize his actions that blasted the pellets.  However,  I think he was also surprised and delighted at the result of his spontaneous actions of jamming the plunger with force through the tube.  What surprised me was how he reversed his operation by pulling out the pellets from the tube, not with speed and force, but with measured speed and deliberation so the pellets dropped nicely into the bin below the tube without spillage on the floor.  Did he intentionally reverse his operation or was that spontaneous, too?

In the video below, the child on the left of the screen inserted a plunger into one of the cardboard tubes.  She turned to the camera and said: "I am pushing."  Her actions actually pushed a second plunger out the other end of the tube.  The child on the right of the screen squeals when that second plunger suddenly popped out of the tube on her end.  She used her hand and measuring cup to block the plunger from going any further out of the tube.  Then she pushed it as far as she could back into the tube.  The child on the left pulled her plunger back.  After a brief pause, she thrust her plunger back into the tube as far as she could.  As she did that, she looked through the hole in the top of the tube to see why she encountered resistance.  The reason, of course, was that the child on the other side was expecting the second plunger to come out of the tube again, but this time she was ready and she blocked it with her measuring cup again.

Pushing from both ends from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

These two children could not see each other but they were still able to create a spontaneous game of "push-of-war," the reverse of tug-of-war.

I have only scratched the surface of how the children made this space their own.  They may have been purposeful in the exploration and play, but the purposes they created were fueled by their ability to spontaneously interact with the setup, the materials and each other.   By intentionally offering them the space, the materials and the time to play, I was free to document their spontaneity---intentionally.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Honoring their operations

Children's operations might look simple but are really quite complex.  Take for instance the operations of filling, pouring and transporting.  To understand how complex these operations can be, I need to put them in a context.  The context I will put them in is an apparatus I built back in 2011: vertical boxes.  I built the apparatus using four boxes.  Box 1 was the base. I attached it to one end of the blue sensory table.  Boxes 2 and 3 were partially embedded in the base box.  Box 4 was attached to box 3.
Holes of different sizes and orientations were cut in all the boxes except box 4.  I even cut a hole on top of the orange box in the section that was partially embedded in the base box.  (That hole is important to understand the last video in this post.)
Those holes provided different pathways to move wooden fuel pellets around and through the apparatus. 

For example, in the video below a child transported pellets from the bottom on one side of the large narrow box to the blue sensory tub on the other side of the box.  He did that by scooping pellets with a spoon through a window on his side and then reaching over the box to deposit the pellets into the blue sensory table.

From side to side from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

His operation turned out to be quite complex.  To get the pellets on his spoon out of the big box without spilling them, he had to carefully navigate the narrow verticality of the base box.  That took good eye-to-hand coordination and good muscle control.  Next, to reach over the box, he had to lift the spoon to shoulder height.  Because he still did not want spill any pellets, he had to keep the spoon horizontal.   Once he cleared the top of the box, he dropped the head of the spoon to deposit the pellets in the blue sensory table.  A nice added touch to his operation was when he monitored his operation by stretching his head over the top of the big box to see where the pellets dropped.  

Here is a slightly more complicated operation of filling, pouring and transporting the wood pellets.  The child started his operation much like the previous child.  He scooped pellets into a small metal measuring cup by reaching deep into the window on his side of the large narrow box. He did not pour the pellets over the box like the first child.  Instead, he poured his cup of pellets into a five gallon pail.  Then he lifted the pail over the top of the box to pour his pellets into the blue sensory table.

Big pour from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

There are several actions that added to the complexity of this child's operation.  First, he grabbed the hole on the top of the orange box with his left hand for body balance and stability.  Second he had to use both his hands to lift the five gallon pail to the top of the big box.  Third, because of the size of the five gallon pail, he used the top of the box as a fulcrum to help empty the pail of pellets into the blue sensory table.  In essence it was a three stage operation with specific challenges accompanying each stage.

A filling, pouring and transporting operation can often times work in reverse.  In the picture below, a child used a big white scoop to pour pellets from the table into the hole on the top of the orange box partially embedded in the big box (the hole can be seen in the second picture of this post).  The orange box was full, so as he poured, pellets spilled into the small box next to orange box.  Below, he observed the results of his actions.

Here is a video that shows his operation.  It is interesting to note, that a child who heard the flow of pellets on the opposite side of the box, came over to watch the pellets tumble out of the orange box into the smaller box.  At the very end of the video, that child looked up at the boy on the other side of the box in an attempt to understand the connection between the boy pouring and the pellets dropping out of the orange box.

Novel path to fill the box from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

The child pouring the pellets added complexity to his operation by creating a novel path for transporting the pellets from the blue sensory table into the small box on the floor attached to a window of the orange box.  Not only was it a novel path---through the big box, through the full orange box and into the small box next to the orange box---it was partially hidden.  The child had to connect his actions on one side of the box with the overflow of pellets on the other side of the box even though he could not see full path of the flowing pellets.

I have just scratched the surface of examples of how children's operations that may look simple are really quite complex.  A structure like the vertical boxes invites the children to explore its complexity.  In that way, the vertical boxes---or any other apparatus at the sensory table---honors the children's capacity to come up with new and complex operations to carry out self-selected challenges as they claim ownership of the apparatus.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Children's approaches to experiences

Let me begin with a quote from David Hawkins.  On page 139 of his book The Informed Vision, he states: "Because children differ in constitution and temperament, and also in the history of their previous learning, each child will assimilate experience and knowledge selectively from his environment, in accordance with his momentary readiness and his unique individual style."

I am in total agreement with his statement.  However, there would seem to be a necessary preamble to it.  And that would have to do with how children approach their experiences.  Although children may approach experiences similarly, those approaches will differ depending on the conditions Hawkins laid out in the opening quote.

For example, I went back into my archives to see the different ways children approached play and exploration around the pegboard platform.  I made the apparatus below using four cardboard tubes and a piece of pegboard.  I cut slits near the top of each tube and inserted the corners of the pegboard into the slits.  I also cut openings at the bottom of each tube so any sand poured into the tubes would empty back into the table. 
I taped each of the tubes to the lip of the table.  I was surprised that I did not need to do any more taping to make it stable.

How did the children approach the apparatus in their operations and in what way did those approaches differ?

Some children used the apparatus as a counter to pour, mix and cook.  The two pictures depict similar operations.  However, if you look at the children's focus, the children on the left approached the activity as individuals, while the children on the right approached their activity as a joint venture.

Another child used the apparatus as a platform but in a much different way.  The platform served as a base on which to construct small sculpture.  Basically, he propped sticks over an upside down stainless steel bowl.
He actually gave that sculpture kinetic form when he poured sand through the top of the sticks and watched how the sand fell onto the top of the bowl.  In addition, he observed how the sand dispersed after hitting the top of the bowl.

Another child took a totally different approach to using the platform.  Instead of using it as a counter or a base on which to build, she used the pegboard itself as a canvas to create a rather impressive pattern by methodically pouring sand over the entire top of it.

Creating a pattern from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

The resulting pattern was not only impressive, but it was highly symmetrical, especially when compared with the previous stick and stainless steel sculpture.

Another way the children approached the apparatus was to focus their operations on the cardboard tubes.  In the picture below, three children did three different operations with the tubes.  The child on the left with the necklace dropped rocks into the tube.  The child reaching into the tube on the right removed rocks from the tube.  And finally, the child with the yellow scoop just finished pouring sand into his tube.

For one child, the tube was a container to fill with rocks.  However, when he tried to then fill the tube with sand, he noticed that most of the sand disappeared as it flowed through the rocks. 

Children not only approached the apparatus from the top, they also approached it from the bottom.  In the video below, the child worked very hard at taking all the rocks from the bottom of one tube.

Pulling out the rocks from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

This is only a small---and I emphasize, small---sampling of how children approached one apparatus.  The only way to understand how children can approach an apparatus in so many different ways is to appreciate how children bring their differing temperaments,  readiness and unique styles to their encounter with the apparatus.  We can observe the different approaches, but we cannot know what experience and knowledge they will assimilate.  We can only offer a rich environment in which they can play and explore to build their repertoire of experiences that lay an ongoing and critical foundation for all their subsequent learning.   

Saturday, April 13, 2019

A pink plastic cup

On a shelf next to the sand and water table I had what I called a set of hodgepodge and doohickies. Basically they were an assortment of materials and containers from which the children could choose to use in their operations at the sensory table.  Though the materials and containers changed depending on whether there was sand or water in the table, a few things never changed.  One of those things was a little pink plastic cup.

Many of the items I set out on the shelves came from second-hand stores like Goodwill.  However, I do not remember where I got the pink cup.  For all I know, I could have inherited it from a teacher before me.  I can say that the pink cup was not something I purposefully went looking for to add to the sensory table provisions on the shelf. 

I am sure I entertained the idea of getting rid of that lowly little cup.  It is a good thing I did not because as tag my pictures, I keep seeing that pink cup everywhere.  Not only does it pop up everywhere, but it is used in any number of ways by the children's in their operations.

For instance, the children used the pink cup to fill other containers like a plastic ice cube tray (on the left).  Or they simply used it to catch water (on the right).

Axiom #6 on the right hand column of this blog states that children will try to stop the flow of any medium.  In the picture below the child found that the pink plastic cup fit nicely over the end of the PVC pipe, thus blocking the flow of water from the pipe.

When packed with snow, the pink cup served as a mold.

Children also combined the pink plastic cup with other items.  On the left, the child combined it with a funnel to refine the stream of sand he was pouring into the bucket.  On the right, the child combined it with a clear plastic tube to fashion a container to hold more sand.

One child even asked the scientific question: How would the pink cup roll down a wavy incline?  She found out that the waviness of the incline coupled with the structure of the cup (narrower on the bottom than on the top) made for an interesting trajectory.


Even when the children were not using the pink plastic cup, it was always at the ready.  And it did not matter whether the sensory table was filled with sand or water.

I am very curious what drew the children to use the pink plastic cup.  The cup was worn and heavily used and not particularly pretty.  So what was the attraction with this cup?  Was it because it was pink and stood out among the other items?  Was it because the children could handle it with ease because it fit a child's hand so well?

I do know that this ordinary little cup added a richness to play in the sensory table that few---including myself---could have predicted.  This lowly cup makes a beautiful case for the the ordinary contributing to the extraordinary in children's play.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Making tools

In his book The Informed Vision, David Hawkins uses the phrase "Messing About" as one of the phases of school work in science.  He defines Messing About as follows: "Children are given materials and equipment --- things --- and are allowed to construct, test, probe, and experiment without superimposed questions or instructions" (p. 68).

Children in the process of Messing About are natural tool makers.  In the following video, a child used a rock to clear the sand off of a small ledge in the sand table.  In essence, the child created a rock scraper to complete her chosen task.

Rock scraper from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

It is fascinating to watch the fluid hand motions of the child as she used the rock scraper to try to get as much sand off of the ledge as possible.

In the second video, a child created a ramp from a piece of tree bark.  He created it by turning the smooth side up and propping it on the lip of the table.  He used the tree-bark ramp to test how different rocks slid down the incline.

Tree bark ramp from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

As the first rock slid down the ramp, it hit a little crack at the bottom of the ramp, which caused it to tumble into the table.  The second rock he slid down was bigger and the little crack in the bark did not make it tumble and roll into the table.   He was intrigued enough with the first two results that he continued experimenting with how other rocks slid down the tree-bark ramp.

The child pictured below used a funnel to create a tool to insure that all the sand he poured into the top funnel went into the plastic bottle on the bottom of the tub.
An interesting aspect of this exploration was that there was a slight delay from when the he poured sand into the top funnel and when it came out the bottom funnel into the clear plastic bottle.  That made it quite challenging to not overfill the bottle.

The child pictured below used a pot as a tool to pour water from a plastic measuring cup into a funnel.  In essence, the child used the pot to "hold" the handle of the plastic measuring cup instead of actually holding the measuring cup with his hand. 
Although this may not look like what is normally considered a tool, the pot in this instance became an extension of his hand.   

One of the most unique uses of a funnel was when a child used one to create a vacuum.  In the video below, the child experimented with plunging a funnel into a metal bowl with water.  As she did that, she nonchalantly placed her index finger over the hole.  And when she did that, air could not escape and the pressure differential caused her to lift water up as she pulled up on the funnel.

Creating a vacuum with a funnel from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

When she tried to push the funnel back into the water, again the air could not escape through the hole so it started to displace the water in the bowl making it hard for her to push the funnel to the bottom of the bowl.  Leave it to a three-year-old Messing About to create a vacuum with a funnel.

The child in the video below used a clear plastic tube to create a tool to extend his reach.  He did that by inserting his hand and arm as far into the tube as possible.   With the tube on his hand and arm, he collected some corn from the sensory table.  After collecting the corn, he reached through the window in the box to deposit the corn into the hole at the bottom of the box inside.

Making a tool to extend the hand from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

I recently read a story in the January/February 2019 issue of DISCOVER that made me think of this child and his tool.  In the article on page 46, scientists were trying to save the northern white rhino from complete extinction.  To do that, they had to build a custom probe to harvest a rhino's eggs because they were inaccessible using standard equipment.  Can't you just see this child creating such a probe?

What came first: Did the children look for some thing to help with their testing or probing or did they find some thing that suggested a path to their testing and probing?  Did the children even know they were making tools? What do you think?

Here is what Hawkins believes: "Children are in fact playful and eolithic, ...   I use the word eolithic in memory of our remoter ancestors who had to start life with objects not intended for any purpose, but who after picking up the stone, for example, invented uses for it. The first invention was not the object --- but the purpose." (p 107 -108).

Saturday, March 23, 2019

March Madness II

March Madness is in full swing in the USA.  The big tournament has begun that will crown a college basketball national champion.   As I mentioned in my last post, I set up a basketball hoop in my large muscle area to coincide with March Madness.  In addition to the basketball hoop, I always added the steps so the children could create their own challenges as they attempted to make a basket.  And as the children jumped, I snapped photos of them in mid-flight.

I would show them their pictures and offer them the chance to draw themselves jumping to make a basket.  Part of the invitation was to hand over my camera so they could use the screen shot for reference when drawing themselves in action.

However, the children did not have to climb the steps and jump for me to take an action shot because there were really many ways the children made baskets.  For example, some children attempted to make baskets from the mat.
For documentation in the large muscle area, I often posted action shots of the children on the adjacent bulletin board.  One of the pictures I displayed was the picture above of the two children on the tippy-toes attempting to dunk the ball.

Because I usually kept the basketball hoop up for two or three weeks in a row, the child saw the picture of himself making a basket when he came back the following week.

Not only did he see himself making the basket, he noticed how he made the basket.  He made the basket by lifting his left leg in the air as he reached up on the toes of his right foot.
In the photo above, he looked as if he was studying the picture and recreating part of the action: the lifting of the left leg.

He then proceeded to go over to the basketball hoop to duplicate the very same basket from the week before.  
To me this looked like what happens when people, who are trying to build a certain physical skill set, use stop-action shots to comprehend and evaluate their moves.

So often in early childhood education we privilege a certain kind of representation, the kind illustrated by the child drawing himself making a basket.  However, by privileging one kind of representation over another, we may not even think to offer invitations for children to use their body as tools to represent their engagement in the world around them.