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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, December 13, 2014


Last week this blog featured a Box Peak apparatus that I had built in early November.  Colleagues and parents commented on the architectural nature of the construction.
The children, of course, did not comment on the nature of the apparatus, but they sure did play on, in and around the whole structure.

The second week I added some new elements, a channel and tubes, and a new loose part, a homemade plunger.

The channel that was added had two holes on the top into which the children could pour sand. The lower of the two holes also gave the children a peek at the sand flowing down the closed chute. The hole on the end of the channel directed the sand into the hole at the bottom of the apparatus. If you look closely, you see that the sand coming out of the channel is split in two, but is transformed into one stream coming out of the hole emptying into the tub.

There were two types of tubes added to the apparatus.  The first was a cardboard tube.  The purpose of this tube was to direct sand through the hole on the other side of the box.  Watch how this works; you will have to wait to the end of the video to see the child pour the sand---the red, hot lava---down the tube.  The video begins with the child saying:"Hot lava for sale.  Who wants hot lava?  Red, hot lava with a lot of candy in it.  And a lot of healthy things.  There are healthy things in here."  All the while she is scooping sand from the bucket and putting it in her measuring cup.  Every time she puts some sand in her measuring cup, she uses the scoop to smooth off the top.  When she is satisfied with her exact measurement, she stands up and pours the sand down the tube.  It rushes down the tube and out of the box---you might even say like hot lava.

Red hot lava for sale from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Did you notice all the areas of development that were touched upon in this 30 second video.  Here are a few I noticed: motor skills(both fine and large motor), language, role play, math(measuring the red hot lava), science(pouring the sand down the tube), cooperation(the other child is also in on the role play) and imagination.  Not bad for 30 seconds of play.

The second tube was a plastic tube that was embedded horizontally in the Box Peak.  The tube was set fairly high in the apparatus so the children could still reach under the apparatus to get at the sand.

The main reason for this tube was to encourage play with a new loose part: a sand plunger.  The sand plunger is a jar lid screwed onto the end of a sawed-off piece of broom handle.

The lid was the perfect size to fit into the tube.  That way the children could use the plunger to push the sand from one end of the tube out the other.  Or a child could just push the plunger through the tube without moving any sand.
The child at the top of the picture has just pushed his plunger all the way through the tube.  At the same time, he has pushed the other plunger out of the tube.

Of  course, the children found their own uses for the plungers that had nothing to do with the tube. Below, the children are using the plungers like shovels as they try to move the sand at the bottom of the box to the hole.

I can always enumerate the features of an apparatus.  I can explain how the different elements fit together.  I can illustrate how children use loose parts.  What I cannot do is begin to explain how the children come up with ideas like "red, hot lava" or appropriate a loose part to be a shovel.  It all happens in a context---physical, social, emotional, intellectual---that is greater than the sum of the parts.

Saturday, December 6, 2014


Did you ever have the experience in which you had an idea, but when you actually got around to implementing it, it turned out to be completely different than what you had envisioned?  I had this long, narrow box that I wanted to set up with a horizontal orientation.  It was to look something like this:
The box was bigger than this, so I envisioned using two sand tables.  I also wanted to put movable channel boxes inside the stationary channels.

What I quickly realized was that the box, if set on the horizontal, would be too long for my sensory table area.  What to do?  The idea struck to create an apparatus with two large incline planes with a peak in the middle.  To do that, I scored the box in the middle.  (Score the box means to cut the box, but not all the way through.  Once the box is scored, it can be easily bent at the cut without the box coming apart.) To be able to bend the boxes down the middle, I had to cut the edges through, which left a triangle shaped space that was subsequently covered by a cardboard patch.
To give this structure stability, I had to embed a tower box into the middle of the two inclines.  To embed the tower, I cut a slit the size of the tower box.  I wanted the height of the tower box to be the same height as the peak.  Here are a couple more views that give a better idea how the tower box is embedded and taped to the original box.

The tower box was not simply a support, though.  A hole was cut in the top and in each side on the bottom for the children to use when pouring and retrieving the sand. (Think about how this child is experiencing space both above and below the apparatus.)
I had one big surprise with this apparatus.  Since the large incline planes basically covered the whole table, I thought there would be a lot of spillage on the floor as the children moved the sand from the table to the structure.  That did not happen.  Instead, the children seemed to transport more carefully so there was less sand on the floor than usual.

There was one more surprise with this apparatus: Getting the sand through the bottom of the box became a two-stage process.  Someone would pour the sand down the incline and it would collect at the bottom of the box.  Another child would then shepherd the sand through the hole into the tub.

I started out with a box I thought would make a great horizontal structure.  I ended up building something totally different.  I know as I play with creating the spaces, the children play in and apprize those spaces in some surprising ways.  For instance, look at the picture below.  The child is playing outside the structure, but she is still playing in a space created by the structure.
This child is using a stool as a table next to the table and the structure.   She is in an in-between space created by the wall behind her and the structure in front of her.  She works from her knees because that in-between space is low; the table is low and so is the overhanging structure.  To scoop sand she has to reach under the structure and pull the sand out.  It is almost like the space helps her focus on her task at hand.  Without the structure, her spatial experience would be totally different.  



Tuesday, December 2, 2014


I change the setup at the sensory table every week.  You may ask: How do I do that?  Often times, it is a matter of extending or modifying the existing apparatus.  A case in point is the Big Boxes around the Table.
In the picture above, there are three big boxes arranged around the table.  In a way, the table is an enclosed space on three sides.  Children can be inside the boxes or outside the boxes transporting the pellets both inside and outside the sensory table.

As you can see, even though the sensory table is "fenced" in by big boxes on three sides, the table itself is open.

Let's add three new components into the structure: a reservoir box that spans the width of the table; a box embedded on an incline into the reservoir box; and a cardboard tube embedded in the reservoir box on one end and taped to the lip of the table on the other end.  

I call it a reservoir box, because this box basically collects pellets that are transported into it via one of the three windows---two on the end and one on the side---or via the embedded box on an incline or through the cardboard tube.  It holds the pellets because the window openings have edges.

The additions to the apparatus now divide the table itself, which used to be completely open, into three distinct areas.  
The first area (1) is defined by the big box on left and the reservoir box.  The second area (2) is the enclosed space of the reservoir box that children can access from multiple entry and exit points.  The third area (3) is defined by the reservoir box and the big box on the right.  Taken as a whole, this is now a very complex space that has separate work areas that are all connected.  

How would you expect the children to carry on in a space like this?  Let me highlight just two examples of how the children went about exploring this new configuration.

The smaller, more defined spaces seem to invite the children get into the table itself.
You count correctly if you see three children in the table and one in the box.  What about this new configuration prompted the children to crawl into the table?  Was it the small spaces that invited the children to use their whole bodies for exploring the spaces?

The second curious exploration to emerge from this setup has to do with the proximity of a window in the top of the box close to the window of the box that is embedded on an incline. Children took it upon themselves to gather pellets into containers from the table and then stand up through the hole in the top of the box to pour the container of pellets down the incline box.

Because the hole on the top of the box is relatively small this is not as easy as it seems.  A child cannot simply stand up and lift a container through the hole.  Often times the child will push the container through the hole with his head already through making that a very tight operation.  

You must see how this works in real time.  Below is a video of a child with his head through the top of the box pouring pellets from containers into the window right next to his head.  You will see that his whole operation takes careful execution and balance in a very tight space.   There is a little bonus with this video because there is a child behind him on the outside of the box who is scooping pellets from her measuring cup and dumping them down the window right next to his head.  They reference each other and still carry out their own operations almost as if their operations are finely choreographed.  

There were many children who tried to pop their heads through the top of the box and empty containers or scoops into the that adjoining window.  Before the three additional elements were added, the holes on the top of the box were rarely used.  What about this configuration prompted the children to use the holes and use them in this way?  Does it have something to do with the size of the holes that helps create a unique challenge?  Does it have something to do with the positioning of the holes relative to each other that also helps create a unique challenge?  

My take away is this: Extending and  modifying an apparatus at the sensory table necessarily prompts the children to extend and modify their play to fit the new conditions.  (Sounds like a life skill to me.)

Saturday, November 22, 2014


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


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


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


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?