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, July 14, 2018

Simple operations?

I have always been curious about the operations children employ as they explore and experiment with a new apparatus at the sensory table.   Below is an apparatus I built over seven years ago.  I called it Boxes in boxes - bridge.
This construction was unique because it was not built inside the table, but next to the table.  It consisted of a iMac box embedded in a furniture box.  The iMac box formed the "bridge" between the table and the furniture box.  Children poured corn into the holes that collected on the bottom of both boxes.  They also used the holes to reach in to collect the corn.  In other words, the holes also offered multiple entry points for their operations.

There were even holes inside the iMac box that connected it to the furniture box.  As seen from the top hole of the iMac box, one hole was bigger for pouring and one was more like a slit to sweep the corn from the bottom of the iMac box into the furniture box.

Many of the operations that the children used in their play and explorations of this apparatus looked simple at first glance.  One child used a simple operation to fill his measuring cup.  He reached inside the iMac box to scrape corn into his measuring cup.  In the video below he repeats the operation three times and the third time, he reaches as far as he can into the box to collect his corn.

Collecting the corn with his hand from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Why did he collect his corn that way?  It would have been easier to scoop it directly from the sensory table.  That is especially true when he had to contort his body to reach as far into the box as possible.  Though the operation looked as if he was simply filling a container, there was a lot more going on than just scraping corn into a measuring cup.  For instance, there was also some good trunk flexion and trunk extension as he bent over to reach the corn.  Is that why he did it that way?

Another child filled a black bowl and then poured the corn into one of the top holes of the apparatus.  He collected corn from the table in his bowl.  He filled it as full as he could.  Since he did not want to spill, his whole operation was done slowly and carefully.  Even when he poured the corn from his bowl into the box, he made an effort to create a measured flow instead of just dumping it in the hole.

Pouring the corn from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Though this was essentially a simple filling and pouring operation, again, there was a lot more going on.  For instance, to complete his task, he had to use a good deal of balance and eye-to-hand coordination.  I would go so far as to say that there was a zen-like quality to his operation, especially as he focused on the corn from his bowl hitting the bottom of the box.   Why did his filling and pouring take such a form?

Compare that pouring operation to the child who filled a big bucket and poured it rapidly down one of the holes on top of the apparatus.
Again, this is a simple pouring operation, but for this child, the operation involved a little more muscle strength and control.  He also had to exhibit more perseverance to fill the bigger container.  Why did he dump when the other poured methodically?

As adults, we sometimes think we know what children are experiencing.  Our experiences have imprinted our thought processes in such a way as to control what factors we see as salient when interpreting children's actions.  At first glance, we only see children filling containers and pouring them out.  We do not see the complexity and nuances of their operations.  Their actions are much richer, maybe even richer than we can know.  Why bend over to reach into a box to fill your container with corn?  Why fill your bowl as full as possible to empty it carefully into a hole at the top of the apparatus?  Why expend so much energy filling a big bucket just to dump it into a hole? 

Without a deep curiosity about what children do and why they do it, we never see past the simple operations of filling and pouring.  Without that deep curiosity, we often forget to ask questions that help us understand where these operations originate and why they take different forms.  I am not saying that we can know, but without an effort to take the children's perspective, we are limited in understanding what the children are truly experiencing. 

Why does this child lie on the floor over the stool to look in the hole of the apparatus?  What does she see?  What does she hear?  What does she smell?  What does she feel physically and emotionally?

Sunday, July 8, 2018

How to pump with a hand pump

A few years ago, I added a hand held pump to the Duplo ramp.  There were basically two reasons for adding the pump: 1) because it invited one child to pump and one to direct the water being pumped, it connected children in play; and 2) because it connected children in play, it gave them agency in different ways to pump and different avenues for directing the water out of the hose.

To illustrate these two points, I offer the following videos.  In the first video, one child used her hands to pump the water from the white pail.  A second child directed the water from the pump into a plastic bottle.

Hand pump from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

This was a serious endeavor.  The child with the bottle somehow gauged that one more pump-worth of water would fill the bottle to overflowing and spill on the floor; he was forced to empty the bottle into the tub next to the water table.  On the other hand, the child with the pump kept on pumping making it imperative for the child with the hose to simultaneously empty his bottle and re-direct the water from the hose into the tub.  He was able to get the hose back in the bottle and stand up for another fill.  The child with the pump, though, had to find another way to pump because her right hand was too tired.  What does she do?  She switches hands.

In this second video, two children again filled the same plastic bottle.  However, this time the child with the bottle propped the bottle onto the Duplo ramp against some Duplo blocks.    The child with the pump, on the other hand, ended up trying a new strategy for pumping: he tried to pound the pump handle to make it work.

Hand pump pound from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Because the child managing the bottle did not need to hold it with his left hand, which would have obstructed his view, and because he propped it approximately at eye level, he was able to observe more closely how the hose filled the bottle.  As for the child with the pump, his fatigue with pumping opened up another way to work the pump: pound the handle.  I find it interesting that he laughs the first two times he tries to pound the handle.  Maybe he simply acknowledged the surprise and novelty of pounding the handle to make it work.  He finally got down to business and began to pound in earnest.

In this third video, two children demonstrated another way to operate the pump and to direct the water coming out of the hose.  The child with the pump actually uses his tummy to complete the pumping action.  The child with the hose, on the other hand, blocks the end of the hose by placing it over one of the nubs of the Duplo ramp.

Hand pump using the tummy from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Where did the idea of using his tummy to push come from?  Was he tired of using his hands to pump?  Did he think he could push with more force using his belly?  And where did the idea of putting the end of the hose over one of the nubs come from?  Did he know it was going to make the water spray out?  Of course once they knew they could make the water spray, they had to do it again and again

Though I focused on the connection and agency of the children as the explored the pump, I feel a need to champion the joy and laughter in each of the clips.  The joy and laughter must surely come from both the connection and agency the children feel as they discover the ordinary and surprising things they can do with the pump.  However, the children are not simply acting on the materials, on the structure or with each other.  They are inhabiting the space in a way that gives each episode its own texture, its own shape and its own rhythm.  Each joy is unique.  Each laughter is unique.  And they are all authentic.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Milk carton cascade

I dove back into my archives of pictures I took over 20 years ago.  I was pleasantly surprised to find a milk carton cascade for the water table that I had completely forgotten about.  The setup below consisted of two clear toddler water tables.  I removed the legs of one of the tables so its tub rested on the floor.  I taped six milk cartons together in a cascade formation and then taped the structure to both the top water table and the bottom water table.

I cut a panel out of the top of each milk carton.  Children could then pour water into any milk carton of their choosing.  Water emptied out of each carton into the next through each of their original spouts.
Once the water reached the bottom, the water exited the bottom milk carton into the tub on the floor.

Axiom #6 on the right hand column of this blog asserts that children will stop or redirect the flow of any medium in the table.  In the picture below, the child nicely illustrates this axiom because he blocked the flow of water from the cascade with his hand.  In addition, he poured enough water into the bottom milk carton to make it overflow. 
Why would he do that?  My guess is that he plugged the cascade so the cartons would fill up.  When he removed his hand, he actually increased the rate of flow through the cascade.  

I have seen in early childhood catalogues that cascades are for sale.  They are durable, they are beautiful and they are guaranteed for life.  They are usually advertised as outdoor equipment with outdoor water tables.  The good ones are almost $2000.  And that is just the cascade piece.  

Can you guess how much this milk carton cascade cost?  

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Conference reflections

For the past five years, I have been reading books in the Contesting Early Childhood Series from Routledge Press that are edited by Gunilla Dahlberg and Peter Moss.  The series questions common assumptions in the field of early childhood education and "...examines the possibilities of risk arising from the accelerated development of early childhood services and policies, and illustrates how it has become increasingly steeped in regulation and control."

The first book I read in the series was called Beyond Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care: Languages of Evaluation.  The book basically questioned the concept of quality and how is it measured in early childhood education.   Before I started reading the book, I thought I knew what quality was.  After all, I had honed my craft for over thirty years. The book asked me to be critical about who gets to decide what quality is and for whom.  Since quality is a political, social, cultural and ethical construct, the concept of quality can be examined from multiple angles.

Two weeks ago I was in Austin, Texas, for the Professional Learning Institute of NAEYC.  Many of the conference attendees were trainers, administrators and researchers.  In other words, many of the leaders in the field who shape the discourse around such things as quality.

Sonia Nieto, professor emeritus from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, gave the opening plenary session.  Much of her work has been in the area of emergent bilingual education.  In her own way, she troubled the dominant discourse around bilingual education.  She asked the attendees to see and appreciate children's strengths and potentials rather than their perceived risks and deficits.  She even questioned one of the prominent constructs in education, namely, best practices.  She never uses the term because from her point of view there are no best practices for all children.  Each practice is contextual and needs to adapt to the cultural, political and ethical exigencies.

For the sessions I attended, I did my own troubling of the dominant discourse.  Many of the sessions privileged language and literacy.  Usually there was an added emphasis on social and emotional learning.   What was missing for me was some mention of the children's need to move to shape their own learning.  If movement was talked about, it was usually directed by adults and always in the service of learning academics.  Where was the language of children's actual play and exploration?  Where was the language of children's own movement and their dialogue with materials?

Children's actions are their thinking.  To question their thinking or the ways they think, adults need to step back and observe their play and exploration.  Sometimes they use words, but often times their actions are pure play and exploration with the materials.

Below is a Duplo ramp.  Basically it was two Duplo panels attached to a wooden frame and set on an incline.  Children used Duplo blocks to build various configurations to alter the flow of water down the ramp.

This apparatus offered a couple of good examples of children's thinking in motion as they play and explore pouring water down the Duplo ramp.

In the first example, the child poured water from a pot down the ramp.  When the pot was empty, he dropped it back into the table and ran around to see the water come down the ramp.  He got to the end of the ramp before the water.  As he watched the water drop into the tub in rivulets, he said the water was "leaking."  

In this example, his words were important as he made sense of what he experienced and saw.  However, the language was just the culmination of his actions.  His body said that he had an idea about what would happen when he poured water down the ramp.  His body said he was excited to test his hypothesis.  His body said that he was surprised that the water  streams off the ramp in rivulets.  Only after all that body language does he try to make sense of what he saw with words.  

In the second example, a child completely filled a container with water from the tub at the bottom of the ramp.  As he lifted the container out of the tub, he surmised it was too full so he poured a little bit of water out of the container, not once but twice.  He lifted the container which was still pretty full and started walking around the table.  As he walked, he sloshed some water on the floor.  When he got to the other end of the ramp, he lifted the container and poured the water---at least most of it---down the ramp.  After emptying the container, he hurries back around to catch the water coming off the ramp.

Physical challenge from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

The were no words in this episode.  His body said he wanted to fill his container as full as he could.  His body said that the container was too full.  His body said that he was strong enough to attempt to carry the container around the water table.  His body said that he was strong enough to attempt to lift the container to the top of the ramp to pour all the water down ramp.  His body said that he wanted to do it again.

In the first example, there was a lot of action before there were words, a precious few words.  In the second example, there were no words at all.  Often times, teachers ask children to talk about what they are doing; they ask the children to put words to their actions.   The request for children to verbalize what they are doing often times sounds like an interrogation.  It is almost as if their actions must be validated with words.

I am not saying verbal language is not important.  I am saying that it is not always the language that should be privileged.  I am trying to make a case for adults to listen to a very specific language of children that is primary for young children.  I am advocating for listening to the language of their actions.   That can only happen when we set up the conditions for uninterrupted play and exploration.  That can only happen if we cultivate a disposition to privilege their actions as thinking.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Making cookies

I am in Austin, Texas, this week for the NAEYC Professional Learning Institute.  On Monday, I did a session on children's scientific inquiry at the water table.

Below is one of the videos from that presentation.  The children were busy making suds from a giant sponge that covered the bottom of the water table.  One child filled an empty coffee can with suds.  She then slowly inserted a plastic bottle into the the coffee can.  In doing so, she displaced the suds from the coffee can.  One of the other children saw what she was doing and called it a suds fountain.  In addition to exploring the properties of suds, she was working with such things as volume and substance. 

One thing that has always intrigued me about this video is the chatter of the children as they explore and play.  A child asked: "Do you want me to give you some of my sponges?"  The child answers: "Yeh. I need a lot of sponges."  A third child asked: "To make cookies?"  To which the child answers: "Yeh. Chocolate cookies."

In trying to understand that simple dialogue, I asked my mentor and colleague, Lani Shapiro, to help me deconstruct what was important about the dialogue.  I thought the chatter gave the episode authenticity.  This was not a scripted dialogue.  It flowed naturally from child to child as they each did their own thing while still paying attention to what each other was doing.

As Lani pointed out, it was even more complex than that.  The child who collected sponges knew the sponges were not cookies.  However, he was using the sponges to represent cookies.  That is important because for children to be able to read, they need to have plenty of practice understanding how representation works.  To read, children need to understand that a mark represents a letter.  That a letter represents a sound.  That letters together represent a word.  That a word represents an object.  What about sentences?  What about paragraphs?

Talking about sponges being cookies can now be seen as a deep dive into pre-literacy.  It is not just about their talk; it is also about their own penchant to play with representation.  Of course that includes the words the children use in their dialogue, but it also includes the manipulation of the materials which encompasses the nonverbal work they do with their hands and bodies.

Given the time, space and materials, children know how to inhabit a space of learning.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Filling the bucket

Can we fill the bucket?

That sounds like such a simple question.  However, a simple question like that can tell us a lot about how children think.  The underlying assumption of this statement is that thinking and doing are synonymous for young children.

Below are two videos in which children started with the question: Can we fill the bucket?  I would venture a guess that they did not start out with that question.  Instead, their actions began by simply transporting the sand out of the table into the bucket next to the table (see axiom #1 in the right hand column of this blog).  At some point, they filled the bucket enough, that the question of filling the bucket became real.  This is the point at which my narrative begins.

A child filled his pot with sand.  His objective was to carry it around the table to fill a five gallon pail on the other side.  Another child accurately assessed that the pot was heavy so he attempted to help the child carrying the pot to help. That child carrying the pot saw his overture, but dismissed it.  That child who wanted to help then started to back up as the child carrying the pot started walking forward. The child who wanted to help still found a way to help. He darted ahead and gently moved a child out of the way so there was room for the child carrying the pot to empty his pot into the bucket. As the pot emptied, the child who had tried to help got more and more excited as the level of the sand in the bucket got higher. By the end of the video, the children screeched with excitement at how full the bucket was getting. 

Filling the bucket 1 from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

From the video, the question looked more like a dialogue between the children.  Some of that dialogue was verbal and some of it nonverbal.  Some of it looked like a question: How do I help?  Some of it looked like an answer to the question: I'll clear the way so he can pour the sand in the bucket.  And some of it looked like commentary on the process: the screeching and jumping up and down with delight.

The children filled the bucket within an inch of the top.  They could have put more sand in the bucket so why did they stop there?  In any case, this was how full they decided they wanted it to be.  At this point the questioned morphed into: Can we lift it?  This is where the second part of my narrative begins.

One child decided to see if he could lift the bucket full of sand.  As he strained to lift the bucket he said: "Help. We need help." The child right behind him stepped forward but did not offer help.   Instead, he said he wanted to try. This child strained and was able to move the bucket a little bit by himself. He even asserted: " I kind of lifted it." A third child stepped forward and said "let me try now." He was not able to lift or move it. A fourth child stepped forward and said: "I bet I can do it." He tried but he was also unsuccessful in his attempt to lift. The child who first tried to lift the bucket and asked for help then stepped forward to grab the handle of the bucket. As he did that, he uttered a simple command: "team work." He repeated his command implored the others to grab the handle together. With mighty grunts, four of the children grabbed the handle and started to lift. They were able to lift it and move it slightly. The bucket actually ended up on top of that child's foot. "Ow!" he exclaimed. As the video ended, the three other children helped get the bucket off his foot.

Filling the bucket 3 from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

As the children answered one question, another one presented itself.  In the process, their thinking became more complex and eventually even more coordinated.  They worked out taking turns without anyone---meaning an adult---telling them when and how take turns.  They worked out lifting the bucket together without anyone---meaning an adult---telling them when and how to. 

Teachers are not always so good at asking questions.  Too often we ask questions of fact.  Even such a simple question of filling the bucket uttered by an adult too easily morphs into a lesson in which we ask another question such as: How many cups do you think it will take to fill the bucket? Those type of questions don't promote or get at children's thinking.  Not every moment has to be a teaching moment.

Children, on the other hand, are a source of good questions.  Given the time and materials, children's questions, both simple and complex, present a window into their thinking.  Not every moment has to be a teaching moment, but every moment is a learning moment.  Children's questions may be the best measure of how and what they are learning.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Making a joke

As I was looking through my photos and videos recently, I found two videos that showed how one child created a joke.  She did not start out to intentionally create a joke, but was so amused by her actions that she then intentionally repeated the joke with a slight variation.

In the first video, the child lined five figures on a cardboard ledge by propping them next to each other against a cardboard wall. The child tried to adjust one of the figures, maybe because it was too close to a hole in the ledge. As she tried to prop it up away from the hole, she placed the feet on top of a pellet. The pellet rolled a bit so she lifted it away. In doing so, she made the legs of the figure bump a hole in the ledge. When she did that, she lost her grip on the figure and the figure dropped into the table to her great amusement. After a good laugh, she tried to prop up the figure again, but was not successful so she left it lying on the ledge.

Joke 1 from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Why did accidentally dropping the figure into the table amuse her so?  There was certainly an element of surprise for the child, but was that enough to make her laugh?  Was it the bump that knocked the figure out of her hand?  Was it that she lost control of the figure?  Was it that the figure fell into the table?   She looked right at me with my camera when she laughed.  Was she laughing because I had witnessed the little accident?  Was she simply laughing it off?

In the second video taken shortly after the first, the child reached for the figure that was lying on the cardboard edge. Instead of picking it up, she started to slide it toward the hole in the ledge. She got it over the hole and then lifted its feet. With the feet up and the head directly over the hole, she dropped the figure into the hole. She laughed at her joke.

Joke 2 from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

She went from accidentally dropping the figure into the sensory table to intentionally dropping the figure into a hole in the cardboard ledge.  If there was any surprise for the child in the second video, it could only have been that the figure disappeared in the hole.  Otherwise, the only common element of the two episodes was the dropping of the figure, first unintentionally and then intentionally.  Does this qualify as early slapstick humor?

This was a very ordinary moment at the sensory table.  However, with a glimpse into the ordinary, the extraordinary emerged.  The child's actions necessarily led to more actions.  She went from the unintentional to the intentional in her actions.  In essence, she was creating her own reality in the unfolding of ordinary moments.  And that is no joke.  That is extraordinary---with a dash of mirth.