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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, March 28, 2015

MERZBAU

Last April I received and email from a fellow teacher, Aaron Senitt, who teaches in a kindergarten in Guelph, Canada.  In the email, he attached one of the newsletters he sent home to parents in February 2014 he entitled "Creating Space."   He opens the newsletter writing about a Kindergarten Merzbau, "...a structure that has been growing in our classroom.  It began as a single sand table…"  That sure got my attention.

Since receiving that email, I have carried on a correspondence with Aaron.  One of the issues for me is: what exactly is a Merzbau?  How do I understand it?  Aaron has a background in arts education that he draws from.  He states in an article for Canadian Art Teacher, that Merzbau is a term created by a German artist named Kurt Schwitters that refers to "…a solid, organic, inhabitable form located within the house he lived in."1  Aaron points out that Schwitter's Merzbau was an open ended and "highly personal, sculptural space."2  One of the defining characteristics of the Merzbau was the connections it created between spaces within his house.

For Aaron, the Merzbau was a concrete construction around the sensory table that changed and grew and created new connections with space for everyone in his classroom.  It was also a metaphor for life in his classroom because connections continually change and grow along with relationships with others, the materials and space.

Because of our correspondence and his writing, I began to look at the constructions around my table differently.  Over 15 years ago, I remember attaching several large boxes together in a 6' x 12' area of my room over the course of a month.  Children could enter into or exit the structure through multiple doors and windows.  Back then I thought simply that this was fun for the kids. Aaron inspired me to look at the bigger constructions in a new way.  These constructions became solid, organic spaces that the children inhabit.  From his email, I resolved to build my own Merzbau this time with an eye towards seeing how the children inhabit the spaces created by the structure.

Last October, I recreated the structure from 15 years ago.   It was not exactly the same because the boxes were different sizes and different shapes.  I called it Big Box Fort.

From my observations, I started to see different types of interactions by the children depending on how the inhabitable space divided them or brought them together.  Whether those interactions took place outside, partially outside or inside.



I subsequently moved some of the big box structure over to the sensory table: Big Boxes Migrated to the Sensor Table.
Because the big boxes were now at the sensory table, they became more than places to socialize.  The structure now created spaces in which work was done.  The work was done inside the boxes, inside the table from inside the boxes and next to the boxes.  There was a lot of transporting between spaces both inside and outside.

Like any good Merzbau, it grew.  More boxes were added with different connections and orientations.

The new configuration created new spaces that separated play in some ways, but connected play in other ways.







In my latest attempt to create a Merzbau, I have combined 10 boxes over four weeks to form one apparatus.  Here is the progression.  The first week was a  Big Box Big Windows apparatus that was installed horizontally across the top of the sensory table.
This is two boxes because there is a box embedded horizontally in the top of the big box across the width of the box.

The second week I added two more boxes: a large box inserted in the window of the big box and a column box embedded vertically in the big white box.  These two boxes created an addition to the original structure.

The third week, I added three more boxes.  Two boxes were column boxes embedded vertically through the big box in two conners.  One column box was long and reached from above the big box to the floor.  If children poured pellets in it, the pellets emptied into a tub on the floor.  The second column box fit completely into the big box.  
The third box was embedded horizontally through the white box and could be accessed from either side of the apparatus.

With the addition of the column boxes, the nature of the play necessarily changed ever so slightly.  Without the column boxes in the corner, the child on the left could easily reach the pellets at the bottom of the table. The child on the right, however, had to prop himself in the window to reach around the column box to get to the pellets.



The fourth week, I added three more boxes for a grand total of ten boxes to complete this Merzbau.  Two of the boxes are flat boxes taped to the top of the two big boxes.  A third box stands vertically next to the big white box and through the bottom of the flat white box.

When you look at the overall footprint of this apparatus compared to when it was comprised of two or four boxes, it has not grown substantially.  Here in lies the difference from the previous big box structures at the table.  I added boxes on the inside and on the top so the structure grew inwards and upwards as opposed to the the other one that grew out and around.   Two different types of growth.  Sounds like another metaphor for a Merzbau and life in the classroom.

As a consequence, the children's operations become more constricted on the inside.

And at the same time, there are more levels to work on in a smaller, vertical space.

And an opportunity for the children to further challenge themselves vertically in their operations.

For me, then, a Merzbau is a construction that creates spaces that are solid, organic and inhabitable.  As children operate in those spaces, they form connections with their own capacities, with the materials and with others.  I especially like the concept of inhabit because without the children at the apparatus, there is no life in the constructions.  And children know how to inhabit the apparatus---literally.

1. Sennit, Aaron. Kindergarten Merzbau. Canadian Art Teacher.  13(1) 2014. P. 4.
2. Ibid.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

BIG BOX BIG WINDOWS EXPANSION

Setting up a large box horizontally over the sensory table was just the beginning.  Besides the large windows all around the big box, there was a big hole in the bottom. 
 And a channel box was embedded in the top running across the width of the large box.

To this Big Box Big Windows apparatus, I added another good size box inserted through one of the windows and supported by a second, smaller sensory table.

I cut holes in both sides of the white box and on each end.  You cannot see the hole on the end that is embedded in the big box, but it is there.

I inserted the white box into the big box to the edge of the window and the hole in the bottom.  I cut the hole of the white box on the end inside the big box so there would be no lip. That way the children could move the pellets into and out of this second box simply by pushing or sweeping.

I embedded another box that traverses the white box from the top of the box to the bottom of the clear sensory table.
With the column box embedded this way, I have increased the stability of the white box and the whole apparatus.  I cut a hole in the side of the column box to offer children an opportunity to pour into the column.  It is an inviting operation because the children have to reach into one box to pour into another box.  If children pour in the column box, there has to be an outlet.  That is why I cut a hole at the bottom of the column box. 

There is also a hole in the top of the column box so children can pour from the top.  That makes two ways the children can get the pellets to the bottom of the table: through the hole in the side or through the top. 

How do children find this top hole?  Most of them are too short to see it from the floor.  What is the impetus for them to check out this top level?  I am not sure why.  I do know that they will find the highest level of an apparatus and they will appropriate it for their own purposes.  If there is no hole on top, they will just pile pellets up there; if there is a hole, they create their own physical challenge to see if they can pour it in the hole.  Watch.


This short video shows the child working with his whole body and mind on the single task of getting the pellets into the hole at the top of the box.  I especially appreciate how he moves the bowl away from the hole to make it easier to balance which makes it easier for him to pour because he no longer needs to reach over the bowl.  How did he know to do this?  Was it simply an intuitive move on his part?

Let's take a video tour of the apparatus with the new addition.  The video shows seven different children engrossed in seven different operations (or variations thereof) in seven different locations around the apparatus.


More often than not, the sensory table is a very active place in my classroom.  It is a space that the children take over and get totally lost in time and place.






Saturday, March 14, 2015

BIG BOX BIG WINDOWS

The first time I set a box on top of the sensory table was for Big Box on Top in the spring of 2012.
It was a sturdy box with big holes cut on two sides to allow access into the table.  Inclined tubes were embedded to allow the children to transport the corn into, out of and through the box.

The second time I set a big box on top was in the spring of 2013 when I changed a wardrobe box from an incline apparatus to a Horizontal Wardrobe Box.

There are holes all around this box so the children can access the inside of the box from the ends or the sides.  There are also holes and a channel on top to extend play to the top of the box. There is another large hole inside on the bottom of the box so children can scoop down to the bottom of the actual sensory table.

The most recent box on top is similar to the Horizontal Wardrobe Box.  There are holes cut all around the box and trays are used to support the box across the width of the table.

This apparatus also has the big hole in the bottom of the box that provides access to the bottom of the sensory table.
The invitation to scoop from the bottom of the table poses physical challenges and unique spacial awareness such as being outside the box but operating inside the box through two different holes.

The windows for the current apparatus are bigger, thus Big Box Big Windows.  The bigger windows grant easier access for the children into the box.  In addition the holes on the sides are closer to the ends, again allowing easier access from the windows on the side.

For this apparatus, I added a channel on top of the box that is embedded across the width of the box.  The embedded box is longer than the big box is wide so there is an overhang with a cut-away so the children can more easily access the channel.
There are four holes in the embedded box.  There are two on the top, one on the side and one on the bottom.  The holes on the top are relatively small to retain the integrity and strength of the channel box.  Also, the top holes of the channel box do not align with the holes on the bottom of the channel but the hole on the bottom of the channel does line up with the hole at the bottom of the big box. Got that?  The reason I did this was to make moving pellets from the top of the apparatus into the bottom of the table a two-stage process.   

Let's see how that works.  In the video below, someone dropped pellets down the top holes so there are already some pellets in the channel.  The child uses one of the small brooms that is always at the sensory table to sweep the pellets down the hole in the bottom of the channel box.


This child does more than simply complete the second stage of moving the pellets to the bottom of the table.  At the beginning of the video, she references her sweeping action through the hole in the side of the  channel.  To do that, she begins with a plan of action.  She looks down the channel to see where the pellets are.  As she pulls her head around to watch the pellets drop through the hole, she keeps her broom inside the channel.  Once she has a clear view of the hole, she begins to sweep.  She then alternates between watching the hole where the pellets drop and her own sweeping action through a side window in the channel. Have you ever tried to sweep without looking directly at what you are sweeping?  When she no longer gets any pellets to fall down and only sees the bottom bristles of the broom, she brings her head back around so she can see where the pellets are that she wants to sweep down the hole.  It is still not an easy task, though, because she is sweeping at eye-level away from her body in a space that is only as tall as her little broom.

Out of cardboard, I rarely make the same apparatus twice.  If I have a box that can go on top of the table, it will become something different from previous box on top apparatus.  Why?  Because there are too many potential configurations to settle on just one.  In addition, those new configurations open up new possibilities for play and exploration first, for me and then, for the children.  This becomes a virtuous circle because as I watch children play and explore, I get new ideas for possible configurations, which gives me a new opportunity to play and explore, which in turn…


Saturday, March 7, 2015

ADDING THE VERTICAL TO THE HORIZONTAL

The apparatus Horizontal Tubes in Boxes offers plenty of opportunity for children to work on and through horizontal planes.  The horizontal planes in this apparatus are long cardboard tubes so children use homemade plungers to reach into the tubes to push pellets through or pull them out.



What happens to children's play and explorations when vertical tubes are added to the horizontal tubes?
You can see from the picture above that children still work horizontally through the long tubes either using their arms or using the plungers.

What does change, though, is that children start to go vertical with their operations.  They do not use plungers in the vertical tubes, but they do reach as high as they can to pour the corn into the vertical tubes.
Do you know how hard it is to pour corn into a tube that is over your head?  Expect some spillage. Sometimes it even drops into your sleeve or down your neck.  That just adds to the sensory experience, right? Also expect some good large muscle work coupled with balance and eye-to-hand coordination.  The child above is using his left hand for stability as he stands on his tiptoes to empty his bowl into the clear tube.  In other words, he is pouring with every fiber in his body.

When I say the children start to go vertical, I also mean that they go vertical with their whole body.
This child has climbed up onto the lip of the table between the two boxes.  He can now pour the corn into the tubes without having to reach over his head.  

In their quest to go vertical, some children will actually climb on the apparatus.  Look at the pink shoe in the picture below.  It is suspended in air which means the other foot is standing on a cardboard tube.
Is that safe?  I know the structure is strong and supports her weight and I look to see how stable she is.  I conclude that it is safe. 

You could even analyze this gestalt further and talk about how the children are using their bodies to create multiple points of stability.
I will go so far as to say that this space off the ground and between the boxes offers a comfortable place for these children to add another dimension to the explorations and operations.

The vertical tubes seem to invite one type of operation that I rarely see with the horizontal tubes: children will often jam-pack the tube to create blockage.  Vertical holes need to be tested and filled with any and all objects within reach.  It must seem like a real-life puzzle to see what can fit in the hole---or what can be forced into the hole.  

There is a corresponding reverse operation to blocking the tube, namely, unblocking the tube.   In the video below, one of the vertical tubes is clogged. Two children try to free the tube of objects blocking the flow of corn.


As you can see, it may take great effort to unclog the tube.  I chuckled when I heard the drama in boy's lowered and strained voice say: "Ah, I can't get this one out!"

There may be yet another effect on children's play and exploration by adding vertical tubes to the horizontal tubes.  If you look at the number of children in the picture below, you might very well conclude that the additional tubes increase the capacity of the area.
I am not sure of that, though. One type of apparatus, whether it is complex or simple, does not in itself determine how many children can play at the table at one time.  The vertical tubes add a new level of intrigue to the apparatus and augment the opportunities for open-ended industry by the children.  However, that alone does not explain the large number of children around the table. To be sure, that is part of it, but there also has to be a parallel willingness on the part of the adult to give the children license to regulate their numbers around the table themselves.  







Saturday, February 28, 2015

HORIZONTAL TUBES IN BOXES

There are three main orientations I think about when I am about to build.  You can see them on the right-hand column of the blog.  For the current apparatus, I decided to set cardboard tubes horizontally through two boxes.
This was harder to do than it looks.  The biggest challenge for me was lining up the holes to make the tubes as level as possible.  I did an initial hole on one side of one box and then measured where the hole was and then used those measurements to make a hole on the other side of the box.  The second box was a different size, so I had to do it all over again.  Since there were four tubes that meant I had to repeat the process a total of four times.  By the fourth tube I was tired and was not as concerned about how level the tube was.  The fact is I may have made it harder than it looks,  My colleague, who sews, told me I should have made a pattern.  I will tuck that tidbit away for the next time.

The tubes extend beyond both ends of the blue sensory table.  To catch the pellets coming out of the tubes, I set up a smaller, clear sensory table on one end and a big blue tub on the other.  That way, I was able to add more levels to the apparatus.  All but one end of one tube is notched to give the children easy pouring access into the tubes.
The two larger tubes on the bottom also have cut-aways and holes to increase access and viewing for the children.

Below is a picture of the shelves with the provisions for this apparatus.  Note that there are extra tubes and homemade plungers of various sizes and lengths.
The plungers are jar lids screwed onto dowels.  Many of the dowels I use are old broom or shovel handles.

This apparatus creates a lot of spaces for children to explore. There are spaces the children can look into and there are spaces they can reach into.





There are spaces between and under and there are spaces that are between and over.




Not only do the children explore any and all the the spaces, they also author operations that are particular to this apparatus and the provisions.  Let's look at just a couple having to do with the plungers.

The first operation is one that you might expect: a child pushes the pellets through the tube with a plunger.

Pushing the pellets through the tube from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Did you notice the reaction of the child on the other end?  At first, it looks like he moves to catch the pellets but, in the end, he helps the first child unstick the plunger head that was caught on the end of the tube.

After working with the plunger in and out of the cardboard tube, this child noticed that he could see his actions in the mirror.  He showed the greatest interest in motion of the plunger on the other end of the tube.
In other words, he was referencing his actions remotely.

Children not only author a given operation, but often times they fabricate the reverse operation. Instead of pushing the pellets through the tubes, a child will scrape them out.

Pulling the pellets out with the plunger from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

I was impressed with how purposeful and fluid she was in her actions.

I will leave you with one final video.  To understand the video you need to know that I am part of the action.  Besides filming, I am on the opposite end of the tube from the child.  I also have a plunger and I am pushing it through the same tube as this child.  Watch his reactions to this little game we have created.

plunger game from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

I have said many times that after I build an apparatus, I give it over to the children to make it their own. I guess that is not entirely true because, as you can see, I sometimes play, too.  Why should the children have all the fun?


Saturday, February 21, 2015

SUDS PAINTING

What is one of the messiest invitations you set up at the sensory table?  For me, Suds Painting has to be one of the messiest.  Just take a look at this picture from December of 2007.
You can see suds paint up to this child's elbows and covering every cup, pot and jello mold in the table.

I used to set this provocation up every year.  For some unknown reason, I had not set it up since 2011, so I decided to set it up this year.  When I set it up, though, there were a few changes.  In the table, I set up the new Channel Board I built earlier this year.
As you can see, I used a wooden tray that spans the width of the table to prop the channel board on an incline.  The incline is purposeful so suds flow down the channel.  Watch as this child pumps suds onto the incline.  When he has to reposition the dispenser so he can continue to pump suds, he stops briefly to focus on the suds flowing down the channel.  It is a nice little a-ha moment.


From this same video, you can see another change to the provocation this year: I supplied foaming soap dispensers so the children could create their own suds more easily.  When the children first arrived at the setup, paint and suds were already mixed together in separate paint pots so they could start mixing in other containers right away.

Before long, though, they were adding their own suds to the pots.

In years past, the children have spent a lot of time painting loose objects like pots and pans.  This year, the channel board setup became an important object to paint.  That included the top, the sides, the bottom and even the tray.
Since I grew up in the 60s, I can't help but think the best word to describe this painting creation is psychedelic.

When the children painted the channel board, there was not so much mixing because, as you can see, the colors remained fairly true to the original colors in the pots.  That was the exception, though, because there was an awful lot of mixing.  This year, there were even a couple of self-declared "professional mixers." The video below begins with the child declaring that she and her friend are professional mixers. She goes on to say: "We love to mix something.  We always get our hands dirty, so we can mix."  

On this particular day, mixing was serious for this child.  You can see it in the vigor with which she stirs and you can hear it in the excitement in her voice.  She stayed with suds painting for almost an hour. When her mom came back after class, the child told her that, for the first time ever, she did not even stop to eat snack.  Did I say she was serious?

I started this post by saying this is one of the messiest invitations I set up at the sensory table. Just to prove it, here is a short video of two children asking each other if they want a "wash-off." The first child uses a soapy brush on the other's forearm.  The second child reciprocates by putting clean suds on the first child's forearm. 


In the process of "cleaning" themselves, they are also making up their own word: "wash-off".  A "wash-off" with a paint brush full of painty suds is only possible in a child's world.  Many adults just see a mess.  This particular adult, however, sees a glorious mess created with the time, space and agency to bask in the productive joy of their own making.