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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, November 22, 2014

THE BIG BOXES MIGRATED TO THE SENSORY TABLE

Over the course of three weeks, I set up a box structure in the large muscle area of my classroom.  There were five boxes that had multiple openings into and out of the structure.  There were windows on the top and side so the children could check on the action outside of the boxes. Within the structures, there were more openings so the children could move between the boxes. All the boxes were taped together to make one large structure.  I called it the Big Box Fort.

After three weeks, I took the three largest boxes and moved them to the sensory table. I purposefully decided to attach the boxes around the outside of the table because I had never done that before.  I also wanted to create interesting spaces that would invite children to play at the table both inside and outside of the boxes.
In trying to decide where to position the boxes, I had fun placing the boxes at different locations and orientations around the table.  Finally,  I set boxes 1 and 3 on the vertical and box 2 on the horizontal.  Box 3 stands alone at one end of the table.  Box 1 is also on one end.  Box 3 is attached to one side in such a way that it overlaps box 1.  Where boxes 1 and 3 overlap, they are connected by an opening.


That allows the children to work in separate boxes or to move between the boxes in their play.
With any number of ways to arrange the boxes, why did I end up with this arrangement?  The one thing I knew I wanted was to connect at least two of the boxes so the children could move between boxes without having to come out of the structure.  After that, it was the interaction between myself and the boxes on that given day.  I am sure on another day, it would have come out differently.  Isn't that what play is all about?   

I cut holes in the sides of the boxes using the height of the table for the bottom cut.  That allowed me to tape the boxes securely to the lip of the table.

Just think for a second what kind of spaces are created by this structure.  First, there is the open space on the side of the table where there are no boxes.

There is another open space, the open space between boxes.

There are, of course, the spaces inside the boxes.

There is also a sort of hybrid space that is both inside and outside.
By far, this was the most popular type of play within this apparatus.  Children would enter the boxes and then lean out to play in the table.

I expected children to pour the pellets into the boxes.  Very rarely did they do that.  When they did, I had a bucket handy and was able to tell them to Put it in the Bucket.

Axiom #1 on the right-hand column of this blog states that children need to transport what is in the table out of the table.   
As you can see, this child has gathered a bunch of containers and placed them on the floor of the horizontal box.  She is busy filling those containers with the pellets and the sticks that she is transporting from the sensory table into the box.  (Many of her containers are overflowing, but the box does a nice job of containment.)  All-in-all, she is both focused and highly industrious.
  
A structure like this opens up many opportunities to play with different ways and means of transporting.  And if the children are able to constructively transport, the operations they formulate are productive and astounding.


Saturday, November 15, 2014

TORNADO

I write almost exclusively about play around the sand and water table.  Last week, though, I wrote about a structure I set up in the large muscle area of my classroom.  I called it the Big Box Fort.
This was an installation that started off as three boxes but over the course of three weeks expanded to include five boxes and a periscope.  

There was one particular play scenario associated with this structure that totally surprised me. One child took to crashing into the outside of Box 1 and said she was a tornado.  


We live in the Midwest part of the United States and every year in the summer we hear about tornados.  Tornado season, though, is over for us, so where does this scenario come from?  It seems to come out of the blue, but if you work around children, you know they are always trying to make sense of their world.  I asked her dad if he had any idea where her idea came from.  He said he did not have a clue.

From the video, we do know that the child has an idea about what a tornado does: it crashes into structures and tries to knock them down.  For her it is truly a full body experiment to crash against the wall of the box.  For her it is about the power of her body against the box.  But why does she become a tornado?

What is also surprising is that the children in the box pick up on the tornado scenario. Heads pop up yelling "tornado!" and "get out, it's a tornado!"  And everyone knows to get into the boxes when the tornado is coming.  That even includes the girl who is the tornado.  She, too, reassumes her role as a person and scurries into the box to seek shelter from the tornado. (Did you notice, this is an all-girl, big-body play scenario?)

Surely there is a lot of drama as the children play "tornado."  There is a lot of yelling and acting scared and hiding from the danger.  Those are all elements that seem to make the play infectious. But why a tornado?   

If it had something to do with the structure itself, I do not know.  However, the tornado play continued the following week when the box structure was no longer in the large muscle area. Instead, the children---some of the same children and some new players---made up a new script for the tornado game.  Interestingly enough, the girl who personified the original tornado was not part of this reconfigured group. This reconfigured group of children which now included both girls and boys decided to build a wall to keep out the tornado.  They built the wall in the window with the window blocks.
This was all very serious work.  One of the children even states that we have to get the wall built before the tornado destroys the whole world.  

Just this morning at a conference I was attending in New York, I heard Lella Gandini say: "Nothing is banal to the eyes of a child."  Surely this was important for this group of children.  But why did this play scenario about a tornado stick?  How did the play transform from someone embodying the tornado to a generalized, amorphous threat?  And will it continue to have a life in the classroom? 

Why the tornado?  

Saturday, November 8, 2014

BIG BOX FORT

I write almost exclusively about life around the sand and water table in my classroom.  Permit me to deviate to show you what transpired in my large muscle area a few weeks ago.  Believe it or not, it has to do with cardboard boxes and duct tape.

I have dedicated a 6' X 12' area in my room for large muscle play so that type of play is always available to the children.  I change the area every two weeks so children work on all types of motor---and social---development.

Here are two examples.  On the left are Stepping Stones and on the right are trampolines.  The Stepping Stones accommodate many children and foster many types of group play.  The trampolines do not accommodate so many children but do foster turn-taking.


A few weeks ago, a program in another part of our building received some new toy shelves that came in big boxes.  Since everybody in the building knows I love boxes, they offered them to me. I gladly accepted and proceeded to set them up in the large muscle area.  Over the course of three weeks, I strung five big boxes together.  (There are six if you count the periscope box that allows the children to peek into box 4 and vice versa.)

I started with boxes 1, 2 and 3.  I decided to orient them horizontally.  I was afraid if I oriented them vertically, they would be unstable and could be prone to tipping.

For the first three boxes, only doors are on the sides and ends and only windows are on the top.  I will be totally truthful: I did not do that consciously.  The result, though, was fantastic.  To enter the boxes, the children had to get down on their hands and knees to crawl in.  That meant they were horizontal.


When the children went vertical, their heads popped out.






When I added box 4, I cut a window on the side of the box.  Notice it is at the same level as the top of the horizontal boxes.  This was a conscious decision because I did want the children to be able to look out of the vertical box.  (I no longer needed to worry about the vertical box tipping because it was duct taped to the other boxes.)



On the inside, I connected the boxes with doorways and windows so the children could crawl and climb through and between the boxes.  I taped the openings together so the boxes were all connected giving the whole structure a lot of stability.






One of the great features of the "fort" was that it provided enclosed spaces where the children could be away from the adults.
Maybe that is something they need and crave.

Whether or not they need or crave spaces away from adults, they are masters at exploring the spaces offered to them.  Below you can see a video of the children crawling in and out of the boxes.  Notice the child on the left tries to negotiate his way into that box with a child who seems to be the gatekeeper.  In the middle box, one child enters and then two different children exit.


What you did not see were the three different children exiting the boxes from the right.  That makes at least eight children in the boxes.  How many more were there?  I do not know.  It is, after all, their space to be away from the adults.

There was clearly a lot of large motor activity in the last clip.  What was harder to see was the nonverbal negotiation of space that was happening inside the boxes.  You got a glimpse of it as the child negotiated his way into the box on the left.

That is just one type of social interaction fostered by the fort.  There were plenty more, but let's look at one more. The video shows children creating a little game of referencing each other as their heads pop in and out of the boxes.  


You may have heard me chuckle during the clip.  I have shared the video with the parents and some colleagues and inevitably the video elicits smiles all around.

This little game the children created turned out to be significant.  The two girls had played together before, but the boy was not part of their play.  The following class, all three sought each other out for play.  

It now becomes very interesting to consider how the features of a structure and the children's actions combine to foster relationships.  And will those relationships be sustained over time?  Will new structures with different features change the relationships as the children act upon them?  If they do change, then in what way will they change?






Saturday, November 1, 2014

AGENCY

There are some things that happen in an early childhood classroom that are a surprise.  Often times, those things are ordinary and magical at the same time.  Does that sound counterintuitive? You will have to decide for yourself after you see a series of short videos that capture some ordinary moments next to the sensory table.

In the videos, a child uses loose parts from around the sensory table to build his own construction.  It is not an expansive structure, nor is it an aesthetic marvel.  It is ordinary in every sense of the word.  In fact, it only uses a few ordinary elements.  Not only are the the structure and elements ordinary, but so are the operations used in building the structure.  

Next to the sensory table, there is always an assortment of what I call Hodgepodge and Doohickies.  Children go to the shelves to pick out what they want to use in the sand and water table.

On this particular day, many of the implements had already been transported to the sensory table. One child, though, found four things he could use to create a little building project for himself.  For more insight into this child's actions, I solicited the parent's reaction to the videos. Her reactions are in italics after each clip.

In the first video, you see a child take a clear plastic tube and drop it inside a larger cardboard tube.  With great facility, he puts the tube combination into a measuring cup.  He seems to have an ultimate plan: standing the tubes upright in the measuring cup.  His actions are extremely measured (no pun intended) because he seems to realize the structure is not stable. With a leap of faith, he places another measuring cup onto the structure and lets go.  The result?

engineering 1 from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

In the first video I noticed his uncertainty (which was really obvious when compared to video 2). I could tell the wheels were turning the whole time and I must say was impressed that he knew he had to hold the tubes at the bottom in order to keep the clear one in the cardboard one without trial and error.

Even though he did not succeed, he carried out his actions and intentions with great care and a budding aptitude for building.  (If you read the action writeup on the Vimeo clip, you will get an idea just how much care and aptitude he exhibits.  Nothing is easy when balancing different things in each other or on top of each other.)

After being unsuccessful and little frustrated at trying to get the tube to stand up in the measuring cup, he inserts the tube into a red coffee can.  As the video begins, you see from his actions and his definitive "Huh" that he has realized his plan.  He now places the measuring cup on top of the tube with a lot more confidence.  He turns to the camera and gives another "Huh" and proudly declares: "It stays."

engineering 2 from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

In the second video, I noticed how much more sure of himself and his method he was. He said "Huh" right away in the beginning because he anticipated success with the smaller coffee can. He had no apprehension on his face the whole video and used "huh" again at the end (when he was actually successfully) as a kind of completion and "I've bested you" to the now standing tube. His smile at the end was priceless and showed how pleased he was with himself and his accomplishment. 

Like all good builders and experimenters it was time to test the structure.  He exudes confidence with his body language as he tests putting a couple of other loose elements on top of his structure.  It is not hard to see that he is smiling with his whole body.

engineering 3 from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

In the third video, I thought it was so cute how he could barely contain his excitement and couldn't sit still (It almost looked like he had to go to the bathroom!). He was willing to tempt fate by placing another container on top but wasn't too sure it wouldn't wreck his masterpiece so he ended up taking it off. He seemed a lot more relaxed after he took it off to know the tube would remain standing.

The videos really show his mechanical aptitude, which runs in the family (my husband is a 3rd generation elevator mechanic).

The parent watched the videos with her son.  This is what she said about his reaction to the videos:

He had a big smile on his face the whole time we were watching the videos and was so proud that a video of just him was commanding all of our attention. At one point he asked me, "Why did I go "ha, ha"?", I said I didn't know and asked him why he did it and he said "Because I liked it" which I interpreted as him being proud of himself.

The videos show a child who has the time and the space to employ a sense of agency to begin to figure out how things work in his world.   And he does it while working with the most mundane elements: a plastic tube, a cardboard tube, two measuring cups, an empty coffee can, and a metal pail.   

There is a postscript to these videos.  I left the area and came back several minutes later to see what was going on.  The child was still there and had replicated his structure.  This time, though, he said: "I can make it fall."  He then proceeded to kick it over.  In the span of 15 minutes, he had moved from being unable to make it stand; to being able to make it stand; to being able to make it fall.   Now that is agency.

Did a little magic unfold in these ordinary moments?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

MODIFICATIONS

I made some modifications to the the Triangle Dividers.

I made three to be exact: a partial roof over the middle area; a cardboard tube embedded in the roof; and a false bottom for the middle area.

Let's start with the false bottom.  

I cut the bottom of a box, the dimension of which I knew would fit into the middle area. Using two cardboard sheets, I added a cross section to the inside of the box bottom to give it more load bearing strength.





I placed the box bottom in the middle area so the solid end was up. Next, I placed a piece of cardboard cut to fit snugly into the middle area onto the box bottom.  Finally, I duct taped the piece of cardboard around the edges to hold it in place and to prevent leakage into the bottom of the table.





You can easily see the difference in in the children's operations with the false bottom in place.  On the left, where there is no false bottom, the child has to stretch are far as she can to even get a cup.  She gets the cup, but cannot reach the pellets. The child on the right, where there is a false bottom, stretches, but he is stretching to get the pellets.



For the cardboard tube, I had to cut an oval in the roof so the tube would be straight up and down. If I just cut a circle the circumference of the tube, the tube would enter the roof with an incline perpendicular to the roof.  If I tried to force the tube to be straight, I would rip the cardboard.

On the inside, I duct taped the tube into a corner for stability.  Notice, also, I cut a notch in the bottom of the tube so the pellets could flow out freely when poured down the tube.  I learned the hard way that the tube has to be several inches off the false bottom otherwise some of the objects the children put down the tube cannot be extracted.  (I say I learned the hard way because I had to destroy one false bottom to get a bottle out of the tube.)

Modifications in the original apparatus will necessarily change the play and exploration around the apparatus.  So, how did the modifications change the play?

The main difference was the added focus for play around the cardboard tube.  That included pouring pellets into the hole.
That is not as easy as it looks because the child has to continually gauge the position of her cup and the rate of pouring to maximize how much she is able to pour in the tube.

Seeing where the pellets go.

And even doing both at the same time.
This child poured and watched the pellets come out the bottom of the tube.  How great is that to be able to reference your own action when you can only monitor the beginning and the end and not what happens in the middle?

A favorite activity was to plug the tube.  The children learned quickly that if they put other objects in the tube, it was easy to plug.  If you plug the tube, though, you do have to figure out how to unplug it.  And the children did.  Watch as these two boys unplug the tube by removing the sticks they had originally put in the tube.  Listen for the grunting and the counting.

Did you notice the third child.  She was the observer taking it all in.  She started in the same space as the child at the bottom window, but moved to the next window over to get a better view. Never discount the observer; in her own way she is as active as the other two.

Play and exploration around the apparatus did not totally change with the modification.  There was still plenty of activity in the triangular spaces and through of the various windows.
As proof, look at the picture above.  There are seven children total.  Two of them are focused on the tube.  The other five are around the table doing their own operations in the those original divided spaces.

Modifications create a whole host of new possibilities for play. In this case, they added great play value as the children appropriated the novel spaces and elements.  





Saturday, October 18, 2014

ARE WE TALKING SPATIAL LITERACY?

I have built two types of dividers.  One type, a Cubicle Divider, divides the sensory table into cubicle-like spaces.

The most recent type, a Triangular Divider, partitions the table into triangular spaces.

I am left with the question: How does changing the configuration of the divider change the children's play and exploration?

Some of the operations, of course, stay the same.  In both configurations, there is a lot of transporting through the holes in the cardboard walls.
Another similarity is the degree of enhanced focus for the play within a divided space whether it is rectangular or triangular.  Is that the result of each space being enclosed by walls of cardboard, thus keeping out distractions?
The biggest difference in play, though, does not seem to come from the shape of the spaces. Rather, it comes from one feature particular to the Triangle Divider.  In dividing up the table into triangular spaces, a kind of reservoir, or totally enclosed space, is created.  You can see it in the square space labeled 4 in the picture below.
That square is accessed through spaces 2, 3, 5 and 6.  In all practicality, it is a common space. Children can pour the pellets into the space or scoop the pellets out of the space, but because it is enclosed on four sides, children cannot occupy it like they can the triangular spaces.

So how does that change the play?  It changes the play by creating more physical challenges. That is not so true for pouring into the reservoir, but it is true for scooping out of the reservoir.  I ended up with a lot of pictures of arms reaching through the windows to get at the pellets.  
You can see that it is a physical challenge by this boy's body position.   He has to bend down; reach through the hole; look through the hole to gauge his operation; and keep his balance by holding the divider with his left hand.  

In the picture above, the children have already spent a fair amount of time filling the reservoir. When the reservoir is low, this whole operation becomes that much more challenging.
Oh my, that is a good stretch.

There is an additional physical challenged fostered by the feature.  A child does not necessary have to go through one of the holes to get at the pellets.
As you can see, this child goes over the top.  That is possible for two reasons: 1) the apparatus is made from two-ply cardboard which is more rigid and 2) the triangular configuration makes the structure stronger.  Whether you think that this child's attempts to reach the pellets is good or not, he would have never had the chance for this physical challenge without this reservoir feature.

There is one more difference of note in the children's play between the two types of dividers.  With the original Cubicle Divider, there is more cross-barrier social interaction.  There is much more peeking through the windows and openings to see who is on the other side; there are more attempts to engage the other with games like peek-a-boo.


There is definitely social interaction with the Triangle Divider, too, but it seems to be different.  It tends to be more utilitarian in nature.  For instance, a group of children will enthusiastically fill the reservoir in a joint effort.

Why is there so little social interaction between the cardboard walls in the Triangle Divider?  Is the space too cramped to foster a boisterous game of peek-a-boo?  Does the greater number of windows and openings in the cardboard walls of the Cubicle Divider give license for children to engage each other more through the holes?  I do not know, but it is clear that the configurations promote some operations that are similar for each and some other operations that are unique to each.  Are the possibilities limitless?  Probably not, but the children in their interactions with the spaces will test the boundaries---or in this case, the cardboard walls---and create a multitude of responses that give multiple meaning to the spaces.  Wait, are we talking spatial literacy here?