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, January 20, 2018

Perspective taking

I just finished reading a book by Vea Vecchi called Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia.  I was struck by something she said about seeing things from different points of view.  On page 143 she states:

          I think analyzing the same object from different points of view is a lovely, intelligent 
         game and also represents and ethical attitude towards awareness of plurality of ways
         of seeing the same problem.

In other words, for children to be able to see and understand different points of view they need experiences in perspective taking.  Since Vea is an atelierista, her examples naturally emphasize children working out different points of view through various forms of representation.

I would like to play with the same idea of perspective taking at the sensory table.  To do that, I will use documentation from 2012 around an apparatus called Big Box on Top.
I acquired a large box and decided to place it over the table.  I cut big openings on two sides of the box.  I cut notches in the bottom panels of the box so I could slip the box over the lip of the table on two sides.  That allowed me to securely fasten the box to the table.  I embedded cardboard tubes of various lengths through the box.

With this apparatus there are a multitude of ways children can experience different perspectives.    From the outside of the box, they can pour and watch the corn go down a cardboard tube.

Or they can take the opposite perspective by catching or blocking the corn coming down the cardboard tube.

For a little bit different perspective, the children can reach into the box to pour and see where the corn goes.

By wedging her head inside the box, another child is able to gain yet a different perspective.  She can see the corn flowing in the tube through a hole cut in the tube.

If possible, children will always ask what does it feel like to be totally under the box inside the table and how does that change the experience of transporting the corn out of the table into a bucket.

Or, what does it feel like to inhabit the space under the box inside the table with others? 
It is certainly imperative to understand where your body ends and another person's body begins in this tight of space.

Here is an example of perspective taking that is a little more complex.  One child is in the table under the box and the other child is outside the box.  The child inside pushes corn through a horizontal tube.  The other child reaches in to grab what the other is pushing through.  Neither can see the other, but they can feel each other's actions through the tube.
The complexity arises because they know where each other is but they cannot see each other.  As a consequence, they have to interpret the actions of the other strictly through verbal cues and nonverbal cues to understand where the corn comes from and where it goes.  In essence, to complete their actions they need to begin to grasp the other's perspective without even seeing what the other is actually doing.

In the video below, a similar scenario plays out.  A child is pouring corn into a tube from inside the box and the child on the outside is catching it.  As the video starts out, the child on the outside of the box uses a blue scoop to catch the corn.  When the corn stops coming, he transfers the corn into the tube to his right so it drops back into the box.  At the same time he is doing that, he anticipates that more corn is going to come out of the tube from inside the box so he uses his left hand to block any corn that comes out.  And indeed it does.  After emptying his blue scoop in the cardboard tube, he adeptly re-positions the scoop replacing his left hand to begin the process all over again.

How does this child know that more corn is coming?  Where does he think the corn goes when he pours it in the tube to his right?  Does he think the corn coming out is the corn he returns to the box?  There is a reciprocity in play here that forces the child to understand the actions of another.

Perspective taking is essential to understanding others---and ourselves.  And as the two examples above point out, perspective taking is not static.  Rather, it is dynamic.  It is constantly changing because either we are moving or the objects are moving or both are moving at the same time.  Perspective taking requires initiation, reciprocity and imagination.  And therein lies the richness of perspective taking in all domains.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Classroom picture of the year.

For the past four years, I have posted "my classroom picture of the year."  Since I am no longer in the classroom, I technically do not have a classroom in which to take photos of children playing and exploring.  However,  whenever I am out and about, I focus on young children and their play and sometimes I take pictures of moments that peek my curiosity.  In that way, I consider the world my classroom, so I feel fine in keeping the title for this blogpost. 

I was lucky enough to take a trip to Vietnam in late October.  I was there to visit a friend I have known for over 60 years.  It was a very good visit and my friend and his wife were extremely gracious hosts.  We spent a lot of time walking around the city of Hanoi.  This year, my picture of the year was taken on a busy sidewalk in the downtown district of Hanoi, Vietnam.

Walking with my friends, we came upon a small child in a cardboard box.  (Anyone who has followed this blog knows that I appreciate a good cardboard box.)   She had taken off her sandals and climbed inside the box making herself quite at home. 

Older children use boxes to create imaginary worlds.  I think this child was too young to imagine the box as anything other than a container for her body.  I say that because she wiggled around in the box playing with the flaps.  It was as if she was measuring the inside of the box with her body.  And the measurements varied as she manipulated the flaps.

(Is it any wonder that the cardboard box was inducted into Toy Hall of Fame in 2005?  "The strength, light weight, and easy availability that make cardboard boxes successful with industry have made them endlessly adaptable by children for creative play.")

In a way, the box served as a refuge for the child because all the people passing by had to walk around the child without disturbing her play.  However, this young child appropriated the box in a way that became more than a refuge.  It was an apparatus that she explored and manipulated to her heart's content.  It was a toy in the true sense of the word.  I would even go so far as to say it was more than a toy.  For this child, it became an entire playground on a busy sidewalk.

With that, I give you my classroom picture of the year for 2017: a beautiful child in a cardboard box on a busy sidewalk in downtown Hanoi, Vietnam.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Oldie but goodie

Early in my building career, I constructed an apparatus using a small toddler water table, two five-gallon pails, two crates and two PVC pipes.  My sensory area was small---4' x 4'---and I wanted to expand it a bit with easy-to-find materials.  I cut one of the PVC pipes in half.  I taped it to the table and to the handle of the five-gallon bucket on the floor so the water would flow down into the bucket.  I set up the second PVC going the opposite way, from a five-gallon bucket back into the table.  This second pipe had a cutaway at the bottom.  To be able to pour water back into the table, I stacked two crates on top of each other for height and placed the second five-gallon bucket inside the top crate. 

I could have reversed the ends of this second pipe so the cutaway was on the high end making it easier for the children to pour water into the pipe.  Instead, I left it at the bottom and I inserted an empty plastic paint bottle that was cut to catch the water and direct it down the pipe.

 Empty quart tempera paint bottle

I cut the top of the bottle completely off.  Next, I cut away half the bottom of the bottle.  That allowed me to insert the uncut portion of the bottle into the pipe and tape it inside the pipe.
This little contraption allowed the children to pour water down the pipe more easily with less spillage.  Once the bottle was taped into the pipe, it was was strong enough to hold its shape.

I put little toy bath boats in the table and it was not long before the children figured out how to make them slide down the pipe. 
Essentially they figured out that pouring water behind the boat carried it down the pipe out into the pail.  They were experiencing first hand the power of hydraulic flow.  

These pictures were taken 28 years ago with film that had to be developed.  As a consequence, I have very few pictures to work from.  Here is my favorite.
What I appreciate about this picture is that it shows one of the children immersing his arm in the bucket of water.  He had a ball in his left hand and was probably fishing for another one.   So often adults regulate the depth of water that children can experience and it is usually quite shallow.  By allowing for different depths at this simple setup, children used their hands and arms to experience appreciable depth---at least up to the elbow. 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Horse play

Not every apparatus I install in the sensory table is complex.  Sometimes they are downright simple.  One of the earliest installations I created was also one of the simplest.  I bought two planter trays to see if they would fit in the table.  The body of the trays fit perfectly inside the table, while the lips of the trays rested on the sides of the table in such a way as to hold the trays above the bottom of the table.  Not only did that create another level for the children's operations, but it also created space between the bottom of the table and the bottom of the trays that was an "underneath" space for their explorations.

The trays fit snugly inside the table, but I still wanted to secure them to the table.  I used strips of duct tape to hold the trays down.  I reinforced those strips with more strips across on the lip of the table itself.

The trays were a simple way to add another level to the children's play and exploration (See axiom #3 on the right hand column of this blog).  However, it was not simply another level, but another level with depth.  What did that mean?  It meant that the children worked on different levels AND with different depths: the depth of the table and the depth of the trays.  That almost sounds like math.

Any simple apparatus can offer opportunities for very complex play.  With this particular setup, besides the usual scoops and containers, I added animal bedding and farm animals.  Children used the scoops to fill the containers so they could feed the animals.  In the picture below---even though it is hard to see---the children have filled containers to feed the horses.

Something special happened with this setup that made play especially profound for one class.  It started with one child whose eyes lit up when she walked in the room and saw the animals and the animal bedding.  I noticed her reaction, but had no idea why she was so taken by the setup.  I soon found out.  This child loved horses and knew a lot about horses.  She knew how to take care of them.  She knew what they ate. See even knew about Barbaro, a coveted race horse that broke its leg and how they tried to fix it.  In other words, she knew more about horses than anyone else in the room including me.  She is the child in the light blue below holding court with the others on the subject of horses and the care they need.

Something magical happened in that class on that particular day.  The child who knew about horses raised the level of play for those who joined her in horse play.  This child connected with the others in a way that was authentic and from the heart.  And the others responded in kind.

More importantly, the status of that child was forever changed in the group after that class.  She was the resident expert on horses.  That status carried over to other parts of the room with other children in other types of play.  Like I said, it was magical.

Watching this child act with confidence and enthusiasm, someone could have concluded that I had created this setup just for her.  That was not the case.  However, by offering this setup as a provocation for all the children, I found that this setup had special meaning for this child.  The setup offered her an opportunity to share her knowledge with others.  No amount of planning on my part could have duplicated the experience both for our resident expert and for those who joined her in play.  Not only was it magical, it was transformative.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Playing with ideas

Last week, I wrote about an apparatus that, from my point of view, was a failure.  It was a failure because the top box was so large over the table that when the children tried to pour feed corn into the tubes more corn got on the floor than down the tubes. 
I am not adverse to messes.  In fact, I think they are a part of life that we all need to deal with.  At some point, though, the amount of mess can get in the way of play.  That is what I felt about this apparatus and that is why I called it a failure.

In the post from last week and on Facebook, I asked readers how they might change the apparatus to cut down on the mess.  A couple people took up the challenge with some good ideas of their own.  I actually decided to riff on a couple of ideas from Teacher Sam.  One of his ideas was to open up the bottom box and have corn from the tubes drop into the base box.
So the children could access the corn in the base box, I cut holes on each end of a new base box.  I cut the openings but left the flaps because I wanted to use those flaps to tape the box securely to the bottom of the table.

So the children could pour the corn into the base box, Teacher Sam suggested I cut a couple of holes in the top of the base box.  Instead of cutting the holes, I cut the notches in the tubes to different lengths.
The tube with the shorter notch would empty into the base box and the tube with the longer notch would empty onto the top of the base box.
I used four cardboard tubes, two had the shorter notches and two had longer notches.  This configuration encouraged the children to figure out where the corn exited because the exit point was not the same for all the tubes.

To cut down on the mess, Teacher Sam suggested I remove the top of the top box so if the children missed the holes of the tubes, the corn would just fall in the top box.  I liked that idea, but I wasn't quite sure how to make it sturdy.  Instead, I attached another box on top of the box with the embedded tubes to serve as a catchment for the corn that did not go down the tubes.  I cut off the top of the box and cut holes to match the cardboard tubes that were embedded in the box underneath.   The box was a sturdy black box that was made sturdier by taping it to the box underneath.
I also added an additional element to the original setup: a white PVC chute.  The purpose was to add an additional constructive way for the children to transport the corn out of the table.

Was there still spilling?  Of course, you cannot invite children to transport and expect them not to  spill (see axiom #1 and it's corollary in the right hand column of this blog).

By the way, the other ideas that people offered were not lost.  Either they will use them for their own purposes or I can see myself riffing off of their ideas to make a completely different apparatus.  For me, this is adult play that is analogous to children's play.   It is not quite the same, because adults have more experience with the materials and can do more manipulations in their heads.  For children, the play process is all through their hands as they build their knowledge of the materials and what they can and cannot do with the materials.

In any case, thanks for playing.

Saturday, November 25, 2017


In the last two months, I have given four presentations to different groups of early childhood educators.  Whenever I give those talks, people often ask me: How did I start building things for the sensory table?  Sometimes people get right back to me to proudly show me what they built and how the children used it.  Sometimes, though, I hear from someone who has tried to build but for some reason their construction failed.

I started simply so my first bit of advice for anyone who wants to build is to start with simple constructions.  Here are two: a wooden tray and a box tower.

The first construction I ever made was a wooden tray cobbled together with scrap wood from my basement. 
This wooden tray spanned the width of the table and offered the children another level on which to work (see axiom # 3 on the right hand column of this blog).  In this setup, the extra level created a platform/counter above the table for children to put their Moon Sand creations.

Another apparatus that was simple and that I built early on was a box tower.  I simply embedded a vertical box into a wider, base box. 
Not only did this structure offer the children different levels to work on, it provided them with lots of holes for their operations (See axiom #5).  In addition, this construction promoted spacial literacy by creating spaces over, under, around and through (See axiom # 2).

The second bit of advice I would give anyone who wants to build is to embrace failure.  When I give talks, people only see what works.  There were plenty of times a construction did not work as planned.  Sometimes that was OK and sometimes that was not OK.  Usually when something was not OK, there was a design flaw.  Here is a cool looking one---at least from my perspective---that did not work very well.  I called it vertical tubes between boxes.
I connected two boxes using cardboard tubes.  I embedded the tubes in both the boxes.  The bottom box was the base that I taped securely to the bottom of the table.  I wanted to invite the children to pour feed corn down the tubes.  I cut notches in the tubes so the corn would exit the tube on top of the base box, which also give the apparatus an aural component.  So where was the failure?

The failure was in the design.  Because the top box was almost as wide as the width of the table, a lot of the feed corn ended up on the floor.  That was not the children's fault; they were just learning to pour so, of course, they spilled.  They spilled moving the corn from the table up and around the top box and then they spilled when they tried to pour corn down a tube.  As they missed the holes on top, a lot of corn ended up on top creating an invitation for the children to bush the corn off the top---right onto the floor.  Mind you, it was not a failure from the children's perspective, only from my perspective because of the amount of mess.

Interestingly, I usually was able to modify an apparatus soon after I saw what I consider a flaw in the design.  With this particular apparatus, I could not figure out how to modify it so there would not be so-o-o-o-o much spilling.  After a week, I took it down and never made it again.

I still think this was a cool apparatus.  To me it was a small sculpture or model for a piece of architecture.

Here's a question for you.  If you were me, how could you have modified this apparatus to eliminate the design flaw?


Saturday, November 18, 2017

Thanks a million

According to google analytics, my blog reached one million page views on Thursday.

How did that happen?  I am not sure, but there are a few people I need to thank that helped to make that happen.

The first person I need to thank is Lani Shapiro, a colleague and a mentor.  I remember the very first time I showed Lani a video I had taken of children playing at the sensory table.  I just thought it was a cool video.  When I showed it to her, she also thought it was a cool video.  But then she started to point out all the things that were going in the short video such as the three-year-olds actually taking turns and how they were experimenting with hydraulic flow and that they were doing all this without any teacher direction.   From that moment on, I kept showing her videos and she kept helping me understand truly how capable young children are in directing their own learning.

The second person I need to thank is Juliet Robertson, an early years trainer in the UK of some renown for her work in outdoor education.  Juliet was an early follower of my blog and does an excellent job of taking some of the foundational ideas from the blog and applying them to outdoor settings  Three years ago when I floated the idea of doing presentations and workshops in the UK, she encouraged me and helped me get enough gigs.  For that, I am eternally grateful.  Juliet has a blog of her own and I encourage you to check it out: http://creativestarlearning.co.uk/blog/

The third and fourth people I need to thank are also from the UK.  Natalie Adamson was also an early follower of mine and was one of the first people to actually send me a picture of an apparatus that one of her teachers built that she said was inspired by my blog.  Gaenor Nokes and Natalie invited me to do a workshop at their new school.  They were so proud to show me a room they called the "tomsensori" room.  They said my work was their inspiration.  That have since really taken sensory play to a whole new level.  Make sure you check out their Facebook page because they are doing some amazing work: https://www.facebook.com/OdstockDayNursery/

The last person I want to thank is Alec Duncan from Australia.  Alec wrote to me to tell me that I should do a sand and water Facebook page and connect it to my blog.  He said he was giving me this advice because he thought the Facebook page would increase my readership.  He was right and I thank him for that.  Whenever he re-posts a blogpost of mine, I get a get a ton of hits from his followers on his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ChildsPlayMusicPerth/?pnref=about.overview

There are even more people I could thank like the local people I meet with on a regular basis to talk about early childhood practice or the the people in Ontario with whom I have corresponded with for several years, but I want to leave it at these five because they were most instrumental for my blog reaching one million views.

However, I would be remiss if I did not thank the thousands of children who entered my classroom through the years.  They have taught me everything I know about how children learn.  No two children were alike and they each challenged me to see beyond the t-shirts and the shoes to create a connection and relationship that honored who they were and who they were becoming on any given day.

Thanks a million.