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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, November 14, 2015


In the March 1994 issue of the Child Care Information Exchange, Loris Malaguzzi wrote:
"We need to produce situations in which children learn by themselves,
in which children can take advantage of their own
knowledge and resources autonomously... (p. 54)"

In a recent piece from the Bing Nursery School at Stanford, Colin Johnson wrote:
"...through the lens of inquiry—of valuing internal, cognitive interactions 
with materials—playing with water is the perfect foundation for scientific thinking 
because it increases children’s tendency to spend more time 
noticing, wondering and exploring."

I want to share a video with you that illustrates both of these points.  I took the video as I watched a child explore one section of a recent apparatus: Trash Bin II.  
The section the child explores in the video is the bin on the left with the funnels and black hoses.

The hoses drop into the bin from the funnels; exit about midway down the bin; and are strapped around the outside of the bin.  
Because the paths of the hoses are partially hidden within the apparatus, a child has to do some research to understand how the apparatus works.

The video shows one child at the sensory table.  There were many more earlier, but this child has been at the table for at least 30 minutes trying to figure out where the water comes out when he pours it into each and every tube and funnel.  

As the video starts, he is looking at the water trickling out the black hose near the bottom of the right side of the left bin.

He scoops some water in his plastic measuring cup from the table to pour into the beige funnel.  In the process of pouring he says: "Watch this one come out."

He is already anticipating where it will come out, so when he pours, he immediately looks to his right to the bottom of the bin on that side.

He steps off his stool and crouches down to watch the water come out of the hose.

At this point, something amazing happens, he starts to trace the paths of the two hoses with his eyes and his hands.   He first traces the hose that has the water coming out.  He realizes that there is a second hose.  He points up at the black funnel and says that it goes around here... 

...as he continues tracing the second hose with his hands and his eyes.
Here is the video clip.

The child is not talking to me.  He is verbalizing his thoughts as he is executing them.  This child is constructing knowledge right before our very eyes.  He is learning by himself through internal, cognitive interactions with the materials.  Or, does his external, physical interactions with the materials usher in the internal, cognitive interactions with the materials?  Or, is there an interplay between the two that can't---or shouldn't---be separated?  Or, does one augment the other in an intricate dance.  In any case, his thinking is clearly visible in the movie clip .

I showed the video to the child's parents.  They realized very quickly what their child was doing and were duly impressed.  That is all the more true because whenever they would ask him what he did in school, he would basically say nothing.  The parents now have a different picture of their child at school.  They now have a picture of him as a competent scientist.

I will be taking a week off from my blog.  I will be at the NAEYC national conference in Orlando this next week.  If you are interested in hearing about building apparatus in and around the sensory table, I am on the docket for 8:00 Thursday morning.  

Saturday, November 7, 2015


Why am I never satisfied with keeping an apparatus the same?  Part of the reason is because when I observe how children use an apparatus, their explorations yield new questions.  The Trash Bin apparatus is a good example.  Below is the first iteration.
Two trash bins are placed upside down in the sensory table.  One trash bin has a large hole in the middle and the other has black hoses woven through it.  Funnels are connected to the hoses at the top of the bin.  A clear plastic tube on a slant connects the two bins.

Two different observations of the children's play spawned two different questions .  The first observation actually came from play with a previous multiple tray apparatus, 
What I noticed from this apparatus is that children were attracted to water dropping from a height, in this case, the water falling out of the tube into the tray below.

The second observation was the seemingly lack of interest in the big hole in the middle of the one trash bin.  To me it looked so inviting, but the children were more interested in the funnels, hoses and tubes.

From those observations these two questions emerged.  1)What would happen to the children's play if I increased the height of the drop?  2)Would the hole be more inviting if I raised the elevation of the hole so it would be at eye level for the children?   To answer my questions, I disconnected the two trash bins by removing the clear plastic tube.  I turned the trash bin with the hole around and placed it on a planter tray that spanned the width of the table. 
I cut the clear tube in half and reinserted one half into the trash bin so it would empty---at height---into a tub next to the table.

There were changes made in the second trash bin, too.  The other half of the clear tube was inserted back into the bin so that the end emptied into a tub at the end of the table.  After the hoses exited the bin, they were wrapped around the trash bin itself.  They were held in place with zip ties looped around the hoses and tightened to the bin from the inside.
Here is a view from inside the bin.  You can see the clear plastic tube; the black hoses entering and exiting the bin; and three ends of the zip ties wrapped around the hoses on the outside of the bin holding them tightly in place.

 The result of the modification became Trash Bin Apparatus II

Did the modifications change the children's play?  Yes they did.  Play in the big hole increased, but not by much.  The big change in play and exploration happened with the clear tubes that extended beyond the table.  

One of the big attractions was to plug the tubes to see what happens.   In the video below, the child pours water into the tube that is plugged with a bottle.  The video starts with him pouring and then stepping back to see what he has done.  His smile is telling.  At first he has to concentrate to make sure he gets the water in the tube.  Before long, though, he can pour into the tube without looking so he can watch the water accumulate in the bottle and tube in real time.  Watch.

This is a good illustration of Axiom #6 in the right hand column of this blog, namely: Children will try to stop or redirect the flow of any medium in the table for any given apparatus.

That, of course, was stopping the flow of water.  Below is a very inventive---and wet---example of redirecting the flow.  This operation involves two children.  One child pours while the other redirects the flow of water using a long, narrow funnel.  As the one child pours and the water races down the tube, the other child gets doused because the water splashes against the funnel spraying the child holding the funnel.  As the child who is doing the pouring points out, though, some water does end up in a second tube via the funnel.  Watch. 

What did I learn from modifying the Trash Bin apparatus?  I learned that what I thought was the most salient feature of the apparatus---the big hole in the middle---was not the most salient for the children.   Rather, the children seemed to gravitate toward the features that allowed them to explore in such a way as to set things in motion and see the consequences of their actions.  


Saturday, October 31, 2015


This school this year, we got new recycling bins.  That left us with a dilemma: What do we do with the plastic trash bins---two of them---we had been using for recycling?  They were perfectly good, but nobody needed them.  I offered to take them thinking I might be able to make something out of them.  My initial idea was to set them in the table upside down with tubes running in and out of them.  When I looked over my stash of tubes and hoses, something started to take shape.
Well over 10 years ago, a parent brought in a wired-reinforced tube made from strong flexible plastic.  The tube was large in terms of diameter, but short.  I could never seem to find a use for it.  I saw the tube and I saw the width of the trash bin and I saw it was a good match.  I also added a clear plastic tube that ran through the waste basket on a slant.  All this was done by simply using duct tape and a utility knife.

In part, the hole in the middle of the apparatus was a provocation with space.  How would the children react to a big hole where there should be no hole?  How would they explore this unusual space? 

In addition, children could pour water into the top of the trash bin through a hole cut in the top.  The question was:  Where did it go?

Children thought that the water dropped down into the big tube.  However, when they looked, the water did not fall or even drip into the big tube.  If they looked closely enough, though, they could see the water flowing around the outside of the big tube.

That was one trash bin, but there were two.  The second bin ended up to have the hoses running in and out of it.  The black hoses were attached to funnels at the top and then the hoses were woven inside the basket and exited at different points.
The clear, plastic tube also got embedded in the second waste basket.  It connected the two trash bins and connected children in play across the two bins.  In the picture above, one child poured water into the clear plastic tube on the high end and the other child caught it on the lower end.  Interestingly, one child did not need to see what the other child was doing to be connected in play.

There was a little trick to how the water came out of the black hoses because of how they were woven through the trash bin.  When water was poured into the black funnel, it exited through the hose closest the beige funnel.
I have to admit that I even fooled myself.  Two days after I had set this apparatus up, I kept pouring water into the beige funnel and looking for the water to come out into the black tub.  I even got a little worried that I had woven it in such a way as to produce a kink in the line.  Then I realized that the water poured into the beige bucket was set up to empty back into the table.

I dare say that the play fostered by the trash bin apparatus was anything but rubbish.

If you are going to the NAEYC national conference in Orlalndo in November, I am presenting on sand and water tables.  The session is on Thursday morning from 8:00-9:30.   Any readers of the blog who want to share stories or chat, I would love to find a time to meet.  Please feel free to contact me through my email: tpbedard@msn.com

Sunday, October 25, 2015


In an earlier post this year, I said I wanted to leave each new apparatus up for two weeks instead of the usual one week.  One of the reasons I wanted to do that was to share some of the documentation with the parents and the children from the first week to get their input as to what was transpiring at the sensory table.  Let me describe a couple of my initial attempts to share the documentation with the parents and the children.

The apparatus I left up for two weeks was the  Multiple Trays with Water.
Besides the apparatus there were the provisions which I call Hodgepodge and Doohickies.
You will notice there is an assortment of measuring cups, funnels, bottles, pots and pans and basters.

The first video I shared with a parent shows the child trying to get some water from a bottle into a baster.  I ask the mother to look at the video because I was intrigued with his operation.  I also wondered where he got the idea for his actions.  Watch.

Filling the baster from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

I was intrigued by his actions because it looked like a scientist using a syringe to get liquid out of a bottle.  I asked his mother what she thought.  She wrote:   

"I'm not exactly sure what H. was thinking, except that he may be modeling some things I may do in the kitchen at home??  That is my only thought.  I commonly make his sister's own yogurt pouches (instead of the store bought kind) and he always watches me transfer the yogurt into the pouch, which can kind of be messy and at the same time tricky.  However, I do not own a turkey baster!  The closest thing we have is oral syringes for children's Tylenol."  

She did say later that his actions reminded her of how she gets the Tylenol out of the bottle using a syringe.

The second video I shared with a parent shows a child with a heaping container of suds that he says will explode in five minutes.  He also says we have to place it lower in the tray.  Watch.

It is going to explode from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Again, I was intrigued with where his ideas might have originated.  I thought the pot full of bubbles looked like an explosion.  When mom looked at it with her son, she wrote:

"I showed it to W. and he said the bubbles had exploded onto his apron before and so he knew they were exploding bubbles. That is why he said he needed to put them down low - so they wouldn't explode up on to his face. This is very typical play for W. - I am guessing he is also thinking about volcanoes as his aunt was recently in Iceland and came back with stories of the volcanoes there. He is very interested in fireworks and anything to do with fire."

When I talked to her in class she also divulged that earlier this year a big house on the block burned down and that seems to have made a big impression on him.

I sent a set of two pictures to a third mother.  Her daughter had brought her dolly to school.  At some point in the afternoon, she decided to wash her baby in the sensory table.

I wondered whether the bubbles had attracted her attention so she could give her baby a bath.  Or maybe the trays and container created an ideal spot for baby washing.

This is what mom wrote in response when I asked her why she thought L. was washing her baby.  She wrote:

"We talked a bit about the day she brought her baby to school and she definitely remembered! She said she was washing her baby because she was really dirty. When I asked how she got so dirty she explained that she had been playing in the mud :). 

I have a few thoughts about it as well. First, it is important to know that that day was one of many in recent weeks in which she cared for that baby almost constantly throughout the day--she made sure her baby was fed, had clean diapers, and took naps. She would make sure to take care of her baby before she ate her own meals or got into bed for her own bedtime. I believe that this baby allowed her to experience her every day events in new ways. By helping her baby at home and out on our errands she was reinventing those experiences for herself. I would hear her talking to her baby, explaining where we were going and what we were doing. So when she saw the water in the sensory table at school I think she used the baby to interact with it in a new way and extend her own understanding of how the sensory table can be used."

After sharing the reflections with parents and getting their responses, I was reminded of something I read in a book this summer called: Dancing with Reggio Emilia: metaphors of quality, by Stefania Gamminuti.  In the book, she relayed a conversation she had with one of the teachers at Reggio Emilia about what to tell the parents about a child's day in school.  She turned it into a question: What image of the child does the parent wish to have?  And from the teacher's perspective: What image of the child are you going to offer to the parent? (p. 95).

I think I offered these three parents an image of their children that was unique, positive and intriguing.  I offered the images to see if they could give me more insight into the children's operations around the sensory table.  What I got back were rich narratives that added to my understanding of their children.  The children seemed to be taking their own unique experiences and combining them with the materials and setup to process those experiences and make new meaning from themselves. 

I am glad I shared.

If you are going to the NAEYC national conference in Orlalndo in November, I am presenting on sand and water tables.  The session is on Thursday morning from 8:00-9:30.   Any readers of the blog who want to share stories or chat, I would love to find a time to meet.  Please feel free to contact me through my email: tpbedard@msn.com


Saturday, October 17, 2015


At the sensory table, planter trays have been a staple in my classroom for many years.  However, this is the first year I set up a multiple tray apparatus to be used with water.

Holes were punched in the bottom of the trays so water would not collect in the trays, but drop into trays or tubs placed under the holes.  The focus of play was pouring water into the trays and catching the water dropping from the holes in the trays.

I kept the apparatus up for two weeks, but the second week I added a PVC pipe and a wired tube.

By adding the pipe and the tube, did the children change the focus of their play? There was still a lot of pouring into the trays and of catching the water trickling out of the trays...

but I do have a lot more of pictures of the children using the pipe and tube than simply using the trays.   

Here is an example: One group brought over the little dinosaurs from the manipulatives and set up a dinosaur "water slide."
The picture shows the girl just letting go of the dinosaur so it can speed its way down the pipe.

The tube attracted a lot of attention, too.  It was short and higher above the table so children had a more dynamic view when tracking the flow of water coming out of the tube.

Did the children change the focus of their play or did I change the focus of my documentation?  Another possibility is that the children added another focus to their play while my attention was only centered on what was different the second week the apparatus was up.

In comparing my documentation, though, I did find one operation that was essentially the same, but looks completely different from one week to the next because of the affordances of the two setups. The first week the child pours and catches the water through the bottom of the tray.  He is using a clear bottle to pour and a baster to catch.  He has to use a lot of fine motor coordination to catch the water.

The second week, a child pours water into one end of the tube with a metal measuring cup and then quickly reaches with a small metal pot to catch the water coming out the end.  There is some fine motor work here, too, but her undertaking really relies more on large motor coordination.  There is a lot of stretching to pour and stretching to catch.

These two children are essentially making sense of the world with the same question: If I pour the water in here, can I catch it coming out at the bottom?  The question and answer both require the body and mind together to physically form and complete an idea.  The idea takes shape in real time as the children interact with the materials and the setup.

No matter what the setup, learning about the physical world is a serious endeavor.  Children, given the time and space, will ace the test every time.  And we must not forget, inherent in that quest there is bound to be great joy---and an ample dose of silliness.

If you are going to the NAEYC national conference in Orlalndo in November, I am presenting on sand and water tables.  The session is on Thursday morning from 8:00-9:30, so we will see who are the early birds.   Any readers of the blog who want to chat, I would love to find a time to meet and exchange ideas.  Please feel free to contact me through my email: tpbedard@msn.com

Saturday, October 10, 2015


This summer I did a couple of workshops in Madison, Wisconsin.  In one of the sessions, I asked a group of participants to brainstorm ideas for building an apparatus using multiple planter trays.  I gave them three trays and a set of documentation describing some of the things I had already built using multiple trays.  They saw examples like the following.

(If you want to see examples and explanations of multiple tray constructions, here is a good place to start: Planter Trays Sensory Table Staple.)

The workshop participants took the documentation and ran with it.  All my examples had a dry medium---wood pellets or feed corn---with the multiple trays.  One of their ideas was to change the medium to water and put the trays on a slant.  Their suggestion was like that proverbial light bulb going on in my head.  Why had I only used dry ingredients with multiple trays?  I know one of the reasons was that I could not get past the idea that the trays would fill up with water and be too heavy.

I took their suggestion and set up a multiple tray apparatus to be used with water.  As it turned out, it looked very similar to my previous multiple tray apparatus. The big difference was that there were holes in the trays so water would flow out without filling up the trays.
The two bottom trays formed the base of the apparatus.  One hole was punched in the bottom of each of those trays so water emptied directly into the water table.  The second level was created using two trays, each taped to one lip of the base and each end of the table.  Because the lips of the trays were higher than the ends of the table, the trays slanted slightly toward the ends of the table.  Notice the end of the trays on the second level extended beyond the table itself.  Two holes were punched in the bottom so when water was poured into the trays of the second level, it dropped through the holes into the tubs next to the table.  The third level was one tray taped onto the two trays of the second level.  There were two holes punched in each end of this tray so when water was poured into the top tray, it emptied into the trays on the second level.  In the picture below you can see how this worked.  When the boys poured water into the top tray, water flowed out in two streams into the tray on the second level.  The water continued to flow down that tray and out two holes into the tub next to the table.

There ended up to be a lot of focused activity around these streams of water from the bottom of the trays on each level  And those activities ran the gamut from simply catching the water coming from the bottom of the trays...

...to trying to pour and catch at the same time.
This child was pouring water from a clear bottle into the tray.  At the same time, he placed the baster over one of the holes in the bottom of the tray to catch the water he was pouring.  That was a highly complex maneuver that only a child could think up.

I added dish soap to the water in hopes of creating bubbles.  To my surprise, copious amounts of suds formed in the trays and in the tubs as the water dropped from one level to the next.  

Suds are an interesting substance.  They have substance, but they have very little weight.  They also stick to everything, so they do not pour.  If they get on the hands, it is not so easy to get them off.  But leave it to the children to figure out how to get suds off their hands.  One child had so much fun getting suds off his hands, he kept repeating the operation over and over again.   Watch.

As you can tell from the video, the child was in control of his actions.  He knew the suds were getting all over the floor.  At this point, as the teacher, I had to make a decision.  Considering the floor was getting wet, do I stop the play because someone might slip or do I let the child continue?  When I heard his laughter and heard him say it looks like it's snowing, it was an easy decision: The play was too valuable to stop.

There was another reason I decided to let the child continue with his play: it provided an opportunity for the child to clean up when he was done. 
With a simple request and the right tool---a handy towel---the child was more than willing to clean up his "snow."  

I need to send a big thank you to the folks in Madison for changing my idea of what kind of play and exploration emerges just by changing the medium.  It seems inspiration is a two-way street that emanates in the free exchange of ideas.  

That said, if you are going to the NAEYC national conference in Orlalndo in November, I am presenting on sand and water tables.  The session is on Thursday morning from 8:00-9:30, so we will see who are the early birds.   Any readers of the blog who want to chat, I would love to find a time to meet and exchange ideas.  Please feel free to contact me through my email: tpbedard@msn.com

Sunday, October 4, 2015


This year I am trying to share with the parents more of what goes on in my classroom.  I sent one group of parents a video of their children around the sensory table.  The video shows eight children each engaged in a task of their own choosing.  Understand that this is the second day of class and many of the children have not been in class together, nor have they ever played together.  Watch.

Around the water table from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

This is what one mother wrote after she saw the video.  "It's remarkable to me that 8 children can play cooperatively at one activity!  They give each other enough personal space and focus on their own work while showing interest in what is going on with the neighbors."

I was intrigued that she used the phrase "enough personal space."  When I look at the how the children occupy the space in the video, I wonder how children measure personal space.  Here is a still picture from the video of one end of the table with five of the eight children.
How much personal space is there for each of them to operate in?  There is not very much considering any sideways movement easily brings them into contact with another child.  Besides lateral space, the children work in vertical spaces, too.
Interestingly the vertical spaces allow children to be in the same space only on different levels.  In the picture above, both boys bending down to get water from the tub at some point end up under the child using the baster in the pipe.  And in fact, there is a fair amount of body contact in the form of inadvertent nudges.  What does that say about children and their concept of personal space?

Here is another instance of three children working in very close quarters.   One child is pouring water into the top tray.  Another child is using the baster to squirt water into the lower tray.  And the third child is scooping water from the bottom of the table.
Does the personal space for children collapse when they work on different levels?  Why are they so accommodating to the other in such close quarters?

My favorite example of children's personal space---or lack thereof---comes from a video I took a couple of years ago.  It was included near the end of this post.  The two children in the video are classmates, but they rarely play together.  On this particular day, they find themselves in the same spot---literally.  They are both on the same stool working to put pellets down holes in the top of the box apparatus.

Close Encounters from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Most adults would not take kindly to the amount of uninvited contact between these two children.  Somebody working over my shoulder ON my back would be very hard for me to manage.  Conversely, no matter how much I wanted to get at a space, I could not reach over another with the full-body contact exhibited in the video.

How can these children do it with such ease and without conflict?  What does it say about children's idea of personal space?  Maybe more importantly, how often do we impose our idea of personal space on children by creating rules about how many children can be in a space?  Can we let go of our idea of personal space to give them the opportunity to negotiate their own personal spaces?  And, even more importantly, do we believe the children are capable of negotiating their own personal spaces?

I think the parent's words bear repeating.  "It's remarkable to me that 8 children can play cooperatively at one activity!  They give each other enough personal space and focus on their own work while showing interest in what is going on with the neighbors."

Looking at the video again, it looks like they manage their personal space so well that there is room for at least a couple more children at the table.

P.S.  If you are going to the NAEYC national conference in Orlalndo in November, I am presenting on sand and water tables.  The session is on Thursday morning from 8:00-9:30, so we will see who are the early birds.   Any readers of the blog who want to chat, I would love to find a time to meet.  Please feel free to contact me through my email: tpbedard@msn.com