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 23, 2016

More water

This year, the water pump was set up so the children could send water across and over the blue table into the clear table through pipes connected horizontally that were supported by a pink crate.
Once water reached the clear water table, children scooped the water and put it in the red funnel.  A translucent hose that was connected to the bottom of the funnel carried the water back to the metal tub to be pumped out again creating a built-in water cycle.

Watch what this looks like in real time.  The video starts at the water pump and follows the pipe into the crate.

Water pump operation from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

The video delineated well at least one important aspect of the setup: children could enter play anywhere along the length of the pipe.  In the video, two children were at the pump; one child poured water directly into an opening in the pipe; a little further down the pipe, another child spooned water into funnel she had placed in one of the pipe connectors; and finally at the end of the piping, one child caught the water in a metal bowl. 

What was missing from that video was someone pouring water into the funnel.  This next video captures that and more.  In the video, one child catches water coming from the pipe.  He is the same child who was catching water in the first video.  At the same time, the second child pours water into one of the holes on top of the crate inches away from the child catching the water.  The child pouring does so very carefully and just misses getting the other boy wet.  The child catching the water goes off camera to dump his bowl into a green bucket next to the table.  While he does that, the child with the metal cup scoops up some water and dumps it into the funnel.  This is where it gets interesting for that child because he notices that air bubbles and water move in the translucent tube after he poured the water into the funnel.  He decides to test his new-found theory that if he pours water into the funnel, both air bubbles and water will move in the translucent tube.  To do that, he scoops some more water and pours it into the funnel.  He does not watch where he is pouring, but blindly pours into the funnel so he can watch what happens in the tube when he pours.  He does a further experiment at the end of the video by pouring water directly onto the translucent tube to see the effect.

Where to pour? from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

When the child blindly poured the water into the funnel, some splashed out on the other child who had re-positioned himself right next to the funnel to catch some more water.   Why didn't the child get upset? 

The complexity of this short video is astounding for the child doing the experiments.  The complexity becomes even more astounding as a narrative further unfolds for the child catching the water in the metal bowl.

The child who was catching the water and then pouring it into the green bucket from metal bowl positions himself above the green bucket.  Another child is along side him over the bucket.  At first, they seem to be working at cross purposes.  The smaller child pours water into the bucket while the other child with the metal bowl pulls objects out of the bucket.  Then both children reach into the bucket and together they pull out a spoon.  The one child takes the spoon and the other takes the bowl he has been holding in his right hand the whole time and fills it up completely by immersing it in the bucket of water. With his full bowl, he proceeds to walk to the other side of the table to pour water into the metal tub from which the children are pumping water. In the background there is a chorus: "More water. More water." In fact this is what the child is responding to because knows the pump tub was running low on water.

More water from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Lifting the bowl from the bucket and carrying it over to the other side of the table is no small feat.  With the bowl being so full, he has to transport the water carefully so he doesn't loose too much water in the process.  That said, he did spill a fair amount.

I contend that the narrative of the child with the metal bowl was astounding.  It was astounding because it looks liked he was on a mission from beginning to end.  In the first video,  he caught the water in his bowl coming out of the pipe.    In the second video, he gathered the water in his bowl and emptied it in the green bucket.  In the third video, he switched positions to gather water back in his bowl to return it to the pumping tub.  The mission was to get more water back into the pumping tub.  How much did he plan this whole operation?  Did it develop because of the chorus of voices asking for more water? What allowed him to keep to his mission even though there were hiccups along the way like getting splashed or working at cross purposes with another child?

I wonder if I have just contrived this narrative to try to make sense of the complexity of the children's play.  Maybe by shaping the children's play into a narrative, I did not do justice to the complexity of the their play.  I am sure I did not do justice to the children's emerging skills and competences.  How many more narratives would I have created to give children their due?

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Hand pump II

For many years,  I wanted to set up a water pump inside.  Last year for the first time I finally set up a hand pump in the sensory table.  The pump was purchased from Kodo Kids.  This is how I installed it last year.

I could have set up the apparatus the same way this year, but I usually don't work that way.  For me, I have to construct it anew.  What effect does my playing have on the children's play?

I made a few minor changes this year.   A couple of the changes were made in the initial setup and a couple of them were made after I saw how the children played with the apparatus.

The first change was that I connected the pipes on a straight, horizontal line traversing the blue table.  To make that work and to support the pipe, I had to set the crate on the end that gave this section of the apparatus the most height.  
I also changed the orientation of the second table: instead of it being perpendicular to the blue table, I placed it next to the table on one of its longer sides.  As a consequence, that changed the orientation of the crate.

These small changes created a significant change in the space in and around the crate.  The new height of the pipe and the crate orientation created a bigger space for the children's operations.
The space was now more open.  Not only was it more open within the crate, but spaces were created on either side of the crate.  Though the new spaces next to the crate were small, they were still big enough enough to accommodate four children at the same time in their operations. Speaking of accommodation, the children's accommodation in the space is not too shabby, either.

There were two changes I made after I saw how the children messed around with the apparatus.  Both of the changes can be surmised from the picture above.  If you look closely, you can see a small gap between the two water tables.  As a consequence, there was a lot of spillage.  The second change was with the blue funnel.  For the children's operations, it proved to be too small, so again there was a lot of spillage.

In the picture below, you can see the changes I made after watching the children explore the setup.  By the way, the red funnel is connected to a hose that brings the water back to the pumping tub so the water keeps circulating between the two tables.

Here is closer look at the apron I made to close the gap between the two tables.  It is made entirely out of duct tape.  It may not be pretty, but it worked as intended.

One of the reasons the blue funnel was not big enough was because the size of the pans that were set out for the children to use.  One pan in particular seemed to grab the children's attention.
This is a water pan for a dog.  It is light, made of metal and has a wide mouth.  And thus the need for a bigger funnel.

There is one final note about this set up.  When the children really start pumping, the duct tape by itself was not enough to keep the connections secure.  As a consequence, I also taped a wood rod underneath to make the line of pipes more rigid and less prone to disconnecting.
That is especially true when the children pull the pump from the side which they will do especially if they are smaller.

That was the technical.  Next week will be the operational brought to you in a way only the children know how.   

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Natural elements, natural exploration

Besides the hodgepodge and doohickies on the shelves next to the sensory table, I like to set out natural elements of various sizes and shapes.  That was just as true with the apparatus I wrote about last week, namely,  table covering with holes.
A child has placed a tree cookie under the yellow pan.  It looks like a burner or a hot plate for the pot.  If you look closely, you can see that two pieces of bark have also been placed on top of the apparatus.

I will often include big pieces among the natural elements.  The big pieces give children a chance to work together or to test their strength.  Why?  Because children are are always looking for physical challenges (Axiom #9 in the right-hand column of this blog).  

In the video below, the child decided to test her strength and balance while carrying a heavy object.  She found a wooden log and lifted it off the shelf.  She said: "I found a really huge cookie".   She used her whole body to carry this log around the table to her ultimate destination, the tub of water next to the table.  When she got to the tub, she dropped it in the water and made a huge splash.  

Really big cookie from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

The child was quite astonished at the size of her splash.  (I even had to move the camera to keep it from getting wet.)  I asked the child to wipe up the water on the floor from the splash.  She did it willingly without a moment's hesitation.  At the end, she declared: "That cookie took a long time to cook."

That was pretty dramatic, but there are many other undertakings that are not so dramatic but still wondrous in an ordinary kind of way.  One child found out that she could spin the tree cookies as they floated in the tub. 

Spinning tree cookie from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

You can tell she was pleased with her discovery because as she spun the cookie faster and faster on top of the water, she looked up at me with a big smile as if to say: "Look what I can do."

One child found that stirring the water in a bottle with a small stick could be an investigation of buoyancy.  In the video below, he started to stir the water in the bottle with his stick.  As he pushed the stick further into the bottle, the sticks pushed back and bobbed up between his two fingers.

Stir stick from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

He was able to get the stick to stay in the bottle, but then he knelt down and started to stir the water again.  This time it did not go between his fingers, but he stilled played with the buoyancy of the stick.

How many times have I set up the float/sink science experiment in my classroom?  You know the one where you have a tub of water with objects set next to the tub.  The children try out each item to see if it floats or sinks.  There is usually two trays provided with the words "float" and "sink" so the children can sort the items.  I have done it many times over the years.

Well, along come these three children and they create their own version of this experiment.   Their pursuits, though, are much richer.  They are richer because they are authentic using natural elements. The pursuits are richer also because they are part of a richer context such as making cookies or stirring the water.  And finally, they are richer because, instead of me posing the questions, they are posing their own questions.  Isn't that where true knowledge begins?


Saturday, July 2, 2016

Table covering with holes

I consider the apparatus Table Covering with Holes one of the more unique installations I have built.  Simply put, it is a piece of plywood cut to fit inside the sensory table so that it divides the table horizontally in two; there is a bottom half of the table and a top half of the table.  The bottom is the bottom of the sensory table itself and the top half is the surface on which the children work.  The children access the medium in the table through holes cut in the plywood.

The table covering has legs so from the underside it looks like a table.  You can think of it as a table within a table.  Because of the expanse of the sensory table, I screwed in cross pieces on the bottom of the plywood to give it more load-bearing strength.  I also used those cross pieces to help anchor the legs to the bottom of the plywood sheet.

When children pour and fill at the water table, they usually hold their container with one hand and then pour with the other.  Children do this all the time.  Often times when they do that they are holding the container next to their body.  As they pour, especially into a bottle with a narrow neck, they often spill and water goes down their smock into their shoes.  With the table covering with holes, the children can pour hands-free so if they overfill, the water stays in the table.
This child has filled her narrow neck bottle to the top.  She actually overfilled the bottle, but the water just spilled right back into the table.

I consciously cut the holes different sizes.  Part of the reason was for aesthetics and part of the reason speaks to one of the elements for building in the right-hand column of this blog, namely, make holes of various sizes.  Holes of various sizes add an additional challenge for some of the children's operations.  The video below is a good example.  The child tries to pull a yellow pan through one of the holes.  It doesn't fit and he gives up.  I suggest he try the next hole over.  He does and he is able to pull it through the larger hole.  Watch.

Sizing the hole from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Compared to how hard he pulled when he was trying to get the pan out of the smaller hole, I was intrigued by how deftly he floated the pan to the next hole and adroitly lifted it through the larger hole.  When he lifted the pan out of the larger hole, he was careful not to have it hit the sides of the hole.

What I noticed late in the school year was that there was a lot more role playing everywhere in the room.  That was true for sensory table, too.  Here is a video of three children making "poison water."  The clip opens with a child saying that he has drunk all the poison water.  The play continues with pouring and mixing.  Watch.

Poison water from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Where does a scenario like this come from?  Isn't poison water a subject that should be frowned upon?  Are they recreating something from stories they have been reading?  Did one child start it and the others negotiate their parts on the fly?  Does the color of the water have anything to do with it?  Who understands what in the scenario?  The child pouring into the funnels is an integral part of the play, but what part do the funnels play in the narrative?

When I watch children play, I often wonder where they come up with their actions because so many of them just seem to flow.  The actions may be singular---pouring water into a bottle---but so often they are contagious---poison water.  In any case, their actions are like ideas that come one right after the other until they are played out.  Children think by doing; their ideas are realized in their actions. I am baffled sometimes when I hear adults tell children to stop doing something they are trying out or totally engaged in.  You would never tell an adult to stop thinking.  Why would you tell a child to stop doing?

Here are four more post talking about the Table Covering with holes.  In each, the medium and the setup is a little different.  They are table covering with gems, Jurassic Sand, water beads and wood fuel pellets.   If you want to see how a couple of other early childhood educators adapted this apparatus using cardboard and a dry medium, check out this post from Cathy at Preschool Play or this post from Kristin at Exploring the Outdoor Classroom.  Who knows, you might be inspired to build something, too

P.S.  Speaking of building, I just recorded my presentation on the framework I use for building apparatus for a virtual conference by Fairy Dust Teaching that begins on July 11th.  Besides myself, there are three other keynote speakers and 19 featured speakers.  It is the fourth year for the conference and can be viewed anytime without travel or hotel costs.  Here is the link to the conference:  https://io156.isrefer.com/go/summer16/tpbedard/   Check it out.

In an effort for full disclosure, Fairy Dust Teaching gives me a % of the registration through this link.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

What is play?

I have been thinking a lot about play lately.  Today I did a conference session on play at the sensory table in Mankato, Minnesota at the Midwest Play Conference hosted by Mankato State University.   Whenever I do conferences or workshops for early education venues, I always emphasize play.   This seemed a little different because what is the value of play in a classroom and, more specifically, just in one area of the classroom?

To make sense of play at the sensory table, I have been looking at three episodes of play from the apparatus I wrote about last week: the channel board.  I am astonished with what the children come up with.  Sometimes it is so simple and sometimes it is elaborate and sometimes it warms the heart.

The first episode is a child washing out a metal measuring cup.   The cup has residual mud and she wants to clean it out. 

Washing the cup from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

This is a fairly simple operation, but what does it have to do with play?  Why does she want to clean the cup in the first place?  She will just go back to scoop mud with it and then do it all over again.

The next episode shows a child directing a more complicated operation.  First, the middle channel is padded down with mud.  Once enough mud has been padded down, it is then swept down the channel.   The child directing the action takes a small piece of bark to scrape the remaining mud out of the channel.  She then uses that same piece of curved bark as a sled for a dinosaur and sends it zooming down the clean channel.

Cleaning the dinosaur slide with mud. from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

How does a child begin to create such a complete and elaborate scenario that draws in and accommodates others?  How did the child who is directing the operation ever come up with the steps for cleaning the channel with mud?  Why does one child help and the other watch? Why did the child help even though he was not sure exactly what they were doing?   How did that same child realize that the whole operation was to make the sledding dinosaur go faster?

The final episode is beguiling to say the least.  The child has made a mud birthday cake with a stick for a candle for her bear.  She sings happy birthday to it and then tells the bear to blow out the candle.  Of course, she animates the action herself by holding the bear in front of the candle and blowing.

Happy birthday from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

What gave her the idea to make a birthday cake?  Was it the mud? the pot? the stick for a candle? did she just experience a birthday?  In any case, the joy she feels playing out the episode is palpable.  How can that be?

I am convinced that adults, for the most part, play differently than children.  Adults are much more linear and need external rules for play to hold together and make sense.  For children, if there are rules, they are more internal and very mercurial.  They are expansive and unpredictable.  They are highly idiosyncratic with a deftness for making connections, connections with things and others.  Play for children is not so much a thing as a production.  Through play they produce their own reality, a reality that makes sense of the worlds that surround them: the physical, the social and and the emotional worlds.

In the end, the place where children play may not be so important because they play constantly and everywhere; it is their way of being in the world.  What may be more important is creating the space, the time and the means for uninterrupted play.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

New element for the channel board

I have built a couple different channel boards over the years.  The first one I built was made of wood.
One of the main objectives with this type of apparatus was to have children explore how water flowed down and over different textures.

The first one was heavy and cumbersome so I built a second one using lighter materials that were more impervious to water.

For both channel apparatus, I would continually look for something new to fill the channels.  This year, I found something new in a dumpster that looked promising.  I do not dumpster dive much anymore, but I could not resist the plunge when I saw the object below sticking out of  a dumpster.

I had no idea what this was.  It was white; it was metal; and the cross pieces had tiny holes.  I thought if I could nest it in one of the channels, the children would create a beautiful cascade with water gushing through the holes and dancing over the cross pieces.

By pure chance, the new element fit perfectly into one of the channels; all I needed to do was tape it into the channel.  As far as the other channels go, one channel was kept clear and the third channel had DRICORE squares all up and down the channel.

I usually set up the channel board with water, but this year I was experimenting for the first time with mud in the sensory table.  The mud was pretty clean as far as mud goes because I used Jurassic Sand to make the mud.  Since Jurassic Sand is so fine, I still thought that as children poured the mud down the ladder-like element, they would still experience the cascading affect, just more of an oozing cascade.

That was not the case at all.  Instead, the mud would not flow over the ladder-like element.  The children put mud inside the little compartments, but when they poured loose mud or water down the channel, water and sand flowed under the cross pieces.

Leave it to the children to invent their own use for all the little spaces created by the cross pieces: a dinosaur ladder

I was disappointed because I thought the children would encounter a beautiful cascade.  There are two important lessons here: 1) There are unlimited possibilities for provisioning the channels; 2) No matter what my original idea may be, the children will do with it what they will. 

P.S.  I will be presenting at a virtual conference by Fairy Dust Teaching that begins on July 11th.  It is the fourth year for the conference and can be viewed anytime without travel or hotel costs.  Here is the link to the conference:  https://io156.isrefer.com/go/summer16/tpbedard/

In an effort for full disclosure, Fairy Dust Teaching gives me a % of the registration through this link.  If you register before June 25th you can get a 20% discount on the conference by using the code save20

Saturday, June 11, 2016


I have been thinking about retiring for over a year.  One of my big concerns was: What kind of party do I want because I knew the families in our program would want to throw a party.  That was especially true because my colleague and mentor, Lani Shapiro, whom I have worked with for the past eight years, was retiring with me.  Lani was the parent educator in the program and had worked very hard with the families to build a community, a community that looks inward at its values and outward to use those values to build a bigger, more inclusive community.  To be true to our values, we wanted a celebration that included past and present families.  We wanted a celebration that would bring them all together, not to talk about us, but to talk with us and with each other.  We also had an obligation---yes, an obligation---to have the children be an integral part of the celebration.

In early winter, I had a meeting with an group of educators I meet with on a monthly basis to talk about large muscle play in the classroom.  As we were leaving the meeting, one of the members off-evenhandedly asked another member about their adventure play event at his school.  That question was all that was needed for the light to go on.  I had read blogs over the past couple of years that talked about adventure play events.  The one I have seen the most is Pop-up Adventure Play.   It just so happens that the member asking the question is involved in Twin City Adventure Play.  In January, I asked to meet with the group to talk about the possibility of doing our retirement party.  I liked what I heard and asked them to give me a proposal I could send along to our advisory council.  When the advisory council saw the proposal, they were on board immediately.

Fast forward to last Saturday.  Parents had been gathering cardboard boxes of all sizes, cardboard tubes, fabric, sticks, rods, tape and you-name-it for two weeks.   It was time to party.  All the materials were laid out on the lawn.
It might look like a recycling nightmare, but this was the invitation for the children to play.

The coordinator gathered the volunteers for a brief training, a training that encompassed their role in the event.
Essentially they were to act as play workers to step back and monitor the play from the background and to only intervene when play looked dangerous.  They were also encouraged to help other adults step back to let the children play.

Of course, as the children arrived, they knew immediately what to do. No instructions were necessary; no dividing up into groups; no dividing into age groups.  This was their play space to create their own narratives.

As the afternoon progressed, more and more people came and everyone kept busy.  The adults got to visit and the children played.  Old acquaintances were renewed and new friends were made.
There were short bursts of rain throughout the afternoon, but that did not dampen play.  In fact, when it would rain, the adults retreated under the eaves of the school and the children kept right on creating, usually fabricating little shelters from the rain.

At the end, there was a little talking to the group about us and we got to thank the families for all they had given us over the years. 

As I drove home from the event, I could not stop smiling.  I was ecstatic; I was floating on air.  Ostensibly the families had come to celebrate our retirement.  In actuality they came to celebrate a community; a community of families they had helped build over the years that respects children and their rights, that respects others and are not so quick to judge; a community that knows how to build community and will carry on. 

We had well over 400 people who came and went throughout the afternoon.  Sadly, I did not even get to talk to everyone who came.  So let me now say to all of you: thank you for a splendid party.  It was a superb sendoff.

P. S. I need to send a special thank you to Seniz and Damian from Twin City Adventure Play
for creating the framework for our community to pull off this event.  I hope others come to see the value in your work and guidance.

I also need to give a special thank you to the planning committee who spent many hours planning the event not really knowing what would happen but having the faith and conviction to make it happen.  Thank you Nora, Vanessa, Anne, Brianna, Becca, Ella, and Dawn.  You throw a great party!