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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 25, 2015


In March of 2013, I introduced the Pegboard Platform.  This is an apparatus made with a piece of pegboard the corners of which are embedded in sturdy cardboard tubes.

I re-introduced the same apparatus this year in May.  I did add one element to the original structure: a cardboard tube set on an incline from the platform. Sand poured into the tube emptied into a tub at the end of the table.

One of the more fascinating aspects of this apparatus is the flow pattern of the sand as it is poured over the platform.  Watch. 

The video clearly shows the uniform pattern of the sand.  It also shows that the child with the scoop watching from below interprets it as snow falling.  We are in Minnesota, after all, so the child knows snow.

The addition of the small cardboard tube created another range of play specifically around that incline. For instance:

They poured the sand down the tube.

They pushed the sand through the tube.

And at times, they plugged the tube.

There was one operation that gave me pause.  The operation involves increasing the flow of sand through the tube by banging on the tube.  Watch.

How do children know that hitting the tube increases the flow of sand through the tube?  Is it inherent body knowledge?  Is it trial-and-error?  Do they simply imitate what they have seen others do?

I am always curious about what other practitioners may try to build after reading about the many different apparatus I build at my sensory table. About three weeks ago, I was pleased to get a note on my SandAndWaterTables Facebook page from Shelli at Explore Inspire EC.  She invited me to look at her version of the Pegboard Platform.  Check out her construction here.  For me, the best thing about her apparatus is that it is different than mine.  She found a totally different solution for holding the pegboard above the table.

And if you read this blog and do try to build apparatus for your sensory table, please feel free to share. Who knows who you might inspire.

Saturday, July 18, 2015


In Minnesota, we have a fair amount of snow in the winter.  One of the great winter activities is sliding down hills on all kinds of apparatus from sleds to toboggans to even cardboard boxes. One of those contraptions is a snow saucer.

It is a plastic disc with handles.  It is bowl-shaped to ride above the snow.

Did you know the the snow saucer can be utilized in the summer, too?  Put some sand in it and set it on a table and you have an impromptu sandbox.

I did not set this up.  My wife set this up for our grandson.  For me, though, it was pure genius. First, it provides a comfortable level on which to work.  The saucers are set on summer tables that are 17 inches off the ground.  Perfect for a two and a half year old.  Second, the two saucers are connected with an improvised bridge made from a piece of gutter screen.

I did add one feature to the sandbox: a box into which my grandson could transport the sand from the saucer sandbox.
Axiom #1 on the right-hand column of this blog states that children need to transport whatever is in the table out of the table.  In the picture above you can see a pile of sand on the grass that was dumped there before I found something for my grandson to dump it into.  When I told him he should have something to pour into, he actually suggested using the blue pail seen in the saucer. It was a good suggestion, but I wanted something bigger to catch as much of the sand as possible.  The first thing I found was a box destined for recycling.

It was immediate and temporary and worked out quite nicely.  I am always a bit surprised at how well this works; maybe it has to do with offering the child a target for his actions.   

And there seems to be an added attraction of dropping things from heights.

The advantage of this temporary solution is twofold:  It satisfies his need to transport sand out of the table and, when he is all done, the sand can be easily poured back into the saucer sandbox.

When all is said and done for the day, the saucer sandbox contraption is easily put away and covered.

This quirky type of genius must run in the family.  Earlier this summer, my daughter made a water table of sorts out of a snow sled.  My grandson looks pretty comfortable in an industrious sort of way with his chair partially in the sled water table.

I am kidding when I say this quirky type of genius must run in the family.  There are countless examples of others in the blogosphere combining ordinary objects into something new.

This post is a celebration of how the ordinary can be transformed into something else that is ordinary. Two ordinaries, of course, make something that is extra-ordinary.

Saturday, July 11, 2015


The last two weeks I have written about the same apparatus: Piggyback Inclines.  Here is the apparatus.

This is what you need to know about this apparatus.  Children can pour corn into the apparatus into 8 different holes: #1 goes into a gutter tube that is woven between the two inclines; #2 empties straight into the top incline; #3 leads to the white cardboard tube that goes through the top incline and ends up in a second table; #4 is the open end of the top incline; #5 is the open end of the bottom incline; #6 is a window cut in the top incline; #7 is another window cut in the top incline; #8---which you don't see---is a third window cut in the top incline on the other side.

On the other hand, the corn exits the apparatus in only three places: #1 is the white cardboard tube that empties into the adjacent table; #2 is the open end of the bottom incline box; and #3 is the end of the guttering which is woven through the two incline boxes.

How do the children make sense of this apparatus?  How do they make sense of the space created by the apparatus?  How do they make sense of the materials such as the cardboard, corn and containers?  How does interacting with the apparatus inform the child about him or herself?  

Children make sense of the apparatus in dialogue with the apparatus.  Some might call this exploration or experimentation, but it is more complex and intimate than simple exploration or experimentation.   The apparatus invites children to use their whole body to join with it to make it come alive.  In return, the apparatus offers unique challenges both physically and cognitively back to the children.  Think of it this way: If there is no child, the apparatus has no actuality.  That also means, that the dialogue will change depending on which child or children take up the invitation.

One of the ways they make sense of the space is to explore all the spaces offered by the apparatus. Some of those spaces are not so evident at first glance. For instance, there is a big space right underneath the incline and there is a more constricted space under the base of the apparatus.  
There is even a space that would escape most of us, but not a child.  It is the space between the catchment boxes.  The child pictured below is using that space to hold his pot for his particular operation.

Their are even tangential spaces that the children appropriate for their operations.  Two such spaces are the shelves that hold the containers and implements and the five-gallon bucket ensconced next to the table.
Since the materials are many and varied with this apparatus, let's just look at how children make sense out of a set a materials, in this case, containers for holding or transporting the corn.

They will fill containers that are different in size and have different size openings. They also fill them differently, one with the fingers and the other with another container.  Also, one container is plastic and the other is metal.
The children will also use different size containers for pouring.  The child on the left used his left hand when he turned his container over so he could let all the corn go at once.  The boys on the right were physically challenged to simply dump the big bucket into the apparatus.
How does interacting with the apparatus inform the child about him or herself?  For one thing, a child becomes the agent of his own actions.  By pouring corn in a particular hole, he comes to see that he can transport the corn into another table with his actions.

Not only does he see himself as an agent of his actions, but he also sees how physically competent he is as he gets up and personal with the apparatus.  You have seen it time and time again in the pictures with the children climbing on the lip of the table and balancing their bodies---often times leaning up against the apparatus---to complete their operations.  Let me offer one more picture showing the physically competent child checking out where the corn goes when poured into the top incline.  This child is straddling both tables at once using the narrow lip of the small table and the cardboard tube to balance.  Oh, and he seems to be hovering over another child.

There is at least one important question I have left out of this post: How does interacting with the apparatus inform the child about his or her relationship with others?  I will not try to tackle that in this post.  However, it is an important question because school is, after all, a social milieu in which the possibilities for making sense of an apparatus like this are multiplied exponentially.  As more and different people enter--and exit--the dialogue with each other and the apparatus, new ways and forms of knowing are invented and created.  With that understanding, making sense of the apparatus has so many variables that it is important at times to stop analyzing and to relax and savor the journey.

Sunday, July 5, 2015


Piggyback Inclines are two large chute-like boxes taped together and set over the sensory table on a pitch.  I could have aligned the boxes so they were directly on top of each other, but I decided to stagger them so the top box (1) extended beyond the bottom box (2) at the top of the apparatus. I built it so all the corn drained into the bottom box and exited the apparatus into the tub on the left end of the table. That is not exactly accurate because children also poured corn in the top hole on the right into the white cardboard tube.

I knew there would be a problem with this configuration: children attempting to pour corn into the top holes would spill a whole lot of corn.  One reason was the size of the holes; the holes were not tiny, but neither were they big.  They were about the size of the containers the children used for pouring.  Another reason was that children would be pouring into holes that were oriented on a slant. It takes a different level of eye-to-hand coordination to get all the corn in a hole on an angle.

To keep the mess somewhat contained, I took small boxes and set them over the holes.  I cut a hole in the bottom of each of the small boxes to align with the hole in the incline box.

Once the boxes were fitted over the holes in the top incline box, I used duct tape to tape them to the top box.  I also taped inside around the holes so there was no gap and the box would be held in place even more securely.

As the children poured corn into the holes in this top incline box, these small boxes around the holes served as a catchment for any of the corn that missed the hole.
Imagine, where would all that corn go that missed the hole and ended up in the catchment box?

Let's see what this looks like in real time.  Watch what happens when this child attempts to pour the corn from her little pail into one of the holes in the top incline. 

She actually seemed to miss the hole with almost all the corn.  Again, imagine where all that corn would go without the catchment box.

There was an unintended consequence to the catchment box: How do you get the corn out of the catchment box?  A question raised is a question answered.

Without any suggestion or encouragement, the children gladly scooped the corn from the catchment box to drop it down the hole.  It was like another job in a series of jobs to get the corn down the hole. 

I said this was a new feature to help keep down the mess around the sensory table.  How did it work?  It worked well.   
Were there still messes?  Of course there were still messes.  But in this case, most of the messes came from corn bouncing out of the holes in the sides of the boxes or from children transporting full containers of corn around the table.

I firmly believe you cannot have a sensory table without some kind of mess.  If the mess is too great, then it is usually not the children's fault; it is usually a design flaw.  Especially with cardboard, it is easy to make modifications.  Sometimes the process of modifying a structure happens quickly and sometimes it takes a long time to figure out how to minimize the mess. Heck, it only took me a couple of decades to figure out the catchment box.   One thing I have not done, but have resolved to do, is to bring the children into the process of minimizing the mess.

Messes are a part of life.  What happens when you spill?  Besides using a few choice words, you will clean it up.  Is it OK for a child to spill?  If it is part of life, why not?  Look at it this way: it is an opportunity to learn to tidy up.  The picture above shows a case in point: the child squatting in the bottom right is sweeping up some of the corn.   Does she get all the corn up?  No, but the effort is what counts.  A habit formed early may even cut down on some of those choice words when she spills as an adult because she will see it as an unavoidable part of life.

Saturday, June 27, 2015


The Piggyback Inclines apparatus is a variation on the Big Box Incline

I do not save a lot of my cardboard apparatuses because of storage issues.  I usually break them down, tear off the duct tape and recycle them.  However, I did save the long, chute-like box that comprised a recent version of a large, closed incline.  It just so happens that a neighbor recently purchased car mats that came in a sturdy box with almost the same chute-like dimensions.  I quickly asked myself: Why not combine the two?  I could have done it side-by-side, but piggyback fashion seemed to offer some intriguing possibilities.
One of the possibilities that emerged immediately was to place the top box in a staggered position over the bottom box.  That decision led to some additional intriguing possibilities.

That same week, another neighbor bought a very large flat screen TV.  It also came in a sturdy box that begged to be used.  I decided to use it as the base for the Piggyback Inclines.
The TV box was wider than the table.  As a consequence, I cut notches in the bottom of the box to fit over the lip of the table on each side.  

Before securing the TV box to the table, I had to figure out where to cut the box in the front and where to cut the box in the back to embed the Piggyback Inclines on a slant.  Whenever I try to figure out an incline, I measure by eyeball.  What does that mean?  I simply hold the box I want on a incline next to the base box.  I then make a mark for the depth of the cut on the front side and then a mark for the depth of the cut on the back side.  Rocket science it is not.  Maybe I should use my high school geometry but my constructions are too ephemeral to be ruled by real math.

Once the cuts were made, I duct taped the Piggyback Inclines into the base.  I also duct taped the base box to the table and the bottom incline box to the end of the table.  That means I secured the apparatus at three points forming a triangle if I were to connect the dots.  There is that pesky math again.  Math or not, it did create a lot of stability for the whole structure.  

Here is a picture from the other side of the apparatus.  The cut into the base box on this side was just three inches less than the front; that gave the apparatus enough of an incline.  
There a couple of features of note here.  The first is the long cardboard tube that is embedded in the top incline and runs down into a second table next to the blue table.  Holes in the ends of the two inclines are another.  Children are able to pour corn down either incline though those holes.  

Here is a picture of the whole apparatus from the side.  Is it a structural monstrosity or a thing of beauty?  I guess you would have to ask the children.

There is a bit of subterfuge with the apparatus.  When children pour corn into the chutes, there is only one exit for the corn.  Children can pour corn down the tube at the top but every other hole empties at the bottom into the tub next to the table.

To understand how the corn poured into the top incline empties through the bottom incline, let's go back to the initial decision to put one box on top of the other.

A hole already existed in the bottom of the top box.  I cut a flap in the bottom box to create a slit for the corn to drop into from the top box.

A cardboard piece is taped over the hole so corn does not spill out and is further directed into the bottom incline box. This closeup shows the patch outlined in yellow.  Of course, there is one on each side.

Below is a picture of the path of the corn when it is poured in any of the holes in the top incline.

If you look closely, there is a pipe coming out of the bottom of the bottom incline box.  The corn does not exit through the pipe, but on either side of it.  The pipe is a gutter extender that can be extended and bent.

The gutter extender is embedded through both boxes so corn poured into it travels through both boxes until is exits out the bottom incline.  Here is a very rough schematic of how the gutter extender is woven into the apparatus.

If I reach up as high as I can on my tippy toes and dump the corn in this hole, where does it go?

Where did it go?

Did I say intriguing possibilities?

Saturday, June 20, 2015


Last week I told you my story about the hand pump.  This week I would like to tell you a story about the children and the hand pump.

The story begins with three girls cooperating to make the pump work.  Their actions are full-body actions that take a lot of effort and a lot of coordination.  The handle is not long enough to accommodate three pairs of hands so their hands are on top of each other as they work in unison. The child on the right wants to give more power to her pumping action so she starts to jump. Almost immediately, the child on the left also begins to jump.

Working the pump from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Their jumping action takes on a teeter-totter rhythm which interferes with their coordinated action. As a consequence, their pumping ceases.

After these children leave, another child tries his hand at the pump.  He figures out how to do it himself.  By jumping, he is able to put the force of his whole weight behind his pumping stroke. He does not have to coordinate his jumping with anyone else, but he does have to coordinate his jump with the downward thrust of his arms.  You can see a couple of times in the video that his timing is a little off and his pumping is interrupted.

Jump pumping from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

This video also captures a conversation between two children that is important to the story.  We don't hear it, but the child on the boy's right has already asked if she could try the pump.  A child off camera says: "And if she is not strong enough, you can do it together."  To which the boy responds: "No, she's going to try by herself."  As the video backs away to include all of the sensory table, we can see with whom the boy is talking.  It is one of the girls from the first video who knows how hard it is to pump and thinks that the child waiting patiently to pump may need help. In fact she states: "But if it can't move that means there needs to be help."

One of the things to note about this conversation is how it arises naturally in the course of the children's work.  It also incorporates their point of view---from their own experiences---relating to how they think the waiting child will make the pump work.

One other note about this video is how patient the child is who is waiting for a turn.  Is that because she knows she will get a turn because of an implied message from the boy who says she's going to try to pump by herself?

Her patience pays off and she does indeed get a turn.  And she does indeed try it by herself.
As you can see, she is working hard to make the hand pump work.   She is even using her left foot to create more leverage.  No matter how hard she tries, though, she cannot get it to work.

Help enters the picture in the form of the child who already knows from experience gained in the first video that it sometimes takes more than one person to make the pump go. Even with two people it is not so easy.  First they try to jump together to push the handle up, but since they do not do it in sync, that does not work.  They pause ever so briefly and reposition themselves under the handle and push up together.  When the handle is lifted as high as it can go, they shift their weight together to pull down on the handle.  At this point, they realize they have reached synchronicity.  The one child exclaims: We're doing it!

We're doing it! from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

As I began to write this post, I thought I knew what this story was about.  I thought it was about children figuring out how to use the pump.  I also appreciated that there was a strand with a beginning, middle and end running through the story.  The strand is embodied in the child helping another child work the pump by using her knowledge gained from previous experience.

That story is still there, but there is much more.  There is a part of the story for which language is inadequate in the telling.  That part has to do with questions that arise around how the children communicate and coordinate their actions.  When they tried to communicate verbally by saying jump, they did not coordinate their actions.  How, then, did they figure out how to coordinate their actions?  And at what point did they know they were in sync and that they were making the pump work?  If you watch the video carefully, you will see that the communication and the knowing is in the physical realm.  How do you explain that their bodies figure it out and that their bodies know?

By the way, the pump was not designed to be so difficult to work.  I did not lubricate the pump until days after introducing pump.  It actually got harder and harder to pump until I realized I needed to add a little oil.  Without this serendipitous mistake, I probably would have had a much different story to tell and query to add.