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, February 9, 2019

Classroom rules

I am rule-adverse.  I never set about making rules when something happened in the classroom that I did not like or when there was a conflict arising from any sort of disagreement.  In fact, when I first started teaching back in the mid 70's, I had no rules in my classroom whatsoever.  My modus operandi in the classroom could only be described as laissez-faire: a policy of leaving things to take their own course without interfering.  I truly believed that children were capable of resolving their own conflicts and life would be rosy in the classroom.

Early in that first year of teaching, I experienced a day that was far from rosy.  I had a child who said that he wanted to be Oscar the Grouch---and he could emulate him quite well.  One day he antagonized every other child in the room to the point that they were all mad at him and were chasing him around the room.  In other words, it was utter---and I mean utter---chaos.

I have no idea how I got things to calm down.  But at the end of the day, the teacher in the adjacent room told me that I had to do something---anything---so that did not happen again.  The director also called me into the office and told me the same thing.  Little did they know that I had decided that there needed to be a change so there would never be another day like that in my teaching career.

What I decided to do was drop the the laissez-faire policy and create some rules.  I came up with three rules:
                                              RESPECT YOURSELF
                                              RESPECT OTHERS
                                              RESPECT THE MATERIALS

Operationally, those rules meant: do not hurt yourself,  do not hurt others and  do not hurt the materials.  As the teacher, if I thought a child was going to hurt themselves or others or the materials, I would step in to stop the activity.  I would always use "I" messages like: I can't let you do that because I can't let you hurt yourself or I need you to find something else to do because I am afraid the toy will break.

I never sat down with the children to talk about the rules.   Instead, we lived the rules.  When an issue arose in the classroom, we dealt with it immediately and respectfully.  For instance, my Oscar the Grouch friend loved to pick up garbage on our walks.  Instead of making a rule about no picking up garbage, I decided one day that we would take a garbage walk.  I gave every child a paper bag and told them they could pick up anything they wanted on our daily walk.  The next day, I brought out each of their bags so they could each make a garbage collage.  The children glued anything they wanted from their bag onto a nice big piece of tag board.  The collages were 3D and all masterpieces---from my perspective.  However, something very interesting happened: my little friend quit picking up garbage on our walks.

And herein lies the beauty of those three rules.  They are flexible and can be adapted to any context.  For instance, a rule about no hitting would seem to be a no-brainer, right?  For me it was not.  Since I allowed some play fighting in the room, children did end up hitting each other.  When and if children were hitting, then I had to make decisions about intent and degree of force, because intent and degree of force varied with the game and with each of the individuals involved in the game..  If I had a rigid rule, then I would have absolved myself of those decisions.  All I would have had to do was enforce the rule. 

However, by simply enforcing a rigid rule, I would have changed the locus of control from the children themselves to an external rule.  As a consequence, the children would be expected to obey the rules.  I was not looking for obedience.  Rather, I was looking for the children to have the opportunity to internally modulate their behavior by making fine distinctions about the context in which they were operating. 

Those three rules were all I needed for 35 years of teaching.  I think one of the reasons was because, for the most part, life in the classroom was not about rules.  Rather it was about creating  and co-creating a respectful environment that was based on children's innate curiosity and eagerness to learn and connect with others.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Water level - depends

A colleague asked me recently if I had ever done a post on the ideal level of water for the water table.  My answer was: no.  However, that did get me wondering about how I decided how much water to put in the water table.  My conclusion was: it depends.  But in all cases: enough.  What does that mean?

Since I do not limit the number of children at the table, there had to be enough water for all to engage in meaningful and sustained play.  For instance, the nine children pictured below around the water table needed enough water to fill half the table to satisfy their need to play and explore.
That was all the more true considering that some of them kept pouring water from the blue sensory table into funnels embedded in the pipe.  The pipe then carried the water out of the table into the tub next to the table thus depleting the water in the blue water table.  For that reason, I added even more water to the water table.

Here was a concrete example of enough water for meaningful and sustained play.  The two children in the foreground figured out they could plug the pipe with a plastic measuring cup.  Once the pipe was plugged, they could actually fill the pipe with water. That took quite a bit of time and effort and a little help from the other two children at the table. How did they know when the pipe was full?  They figured it out themselves: When the water no longer drained through the funnels into the pipe, the pipe was full.

Once the pipe was full, they pulled the "plug."  To their great surprise and enjoyment, they created a gusher.  All the water that filled the pipe poured out with force in seconds.  I came to this play late, so I do not know how it started.  I have no idea how the children decided to plug the pipe and eventually fill it.  I do know that without enough water, this play never would have happened and never could have been sustained.  (Too many conditionals.  Sorry.)

Here was another nice example of enough water for meaningful and sustained play.  The children set about the task of filling a five-gallon bucket next to the table.  In the video, the water was already inches from the top when a child poured a little more water---carefully and accurately---from a stainless steel bowl into the bucket.  As she finished her pour, the child with the spoon declared that it was enough water.  The child with the spoon then started to stir the water in the bucket with her spoon.  She was soon joined by a child with a little metal measuring cup.  They seemed to want to know how vigorously they could stir without spilling.

Filling the bucket from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Because the bucket was full and there was still water left in both the sensory tables, there was more than five gallons of water to begin with.  Without at least that amount of water, the children would not have been able to play with the idea of "what is full and what does that mean for our operations?"

However, the amount of water always depended on the setup.  For the giant sponge, I used much less than five gallons.  I used only as much as the sponge with hold.  If I used too much water, the sponge began to float in the table and it became hard to squeeze and make suds. 

Another setup that took very little water was baby washing with a clothesline. An inch or two of water in the table was all that was needed for the children to wash the babies and to wash the clothes.

Water beads was another setup that did not need a lot of water because the children's exploration and operations revolved around the water bead themselves.  In fact, too much water would have necessarily changed the focus of play. 

Water beads from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

There may not have been a need for a lot of water for this setup, but there was a definite need for plenty of water beads for varied and sustained play.

There are absolutely other factors that go into deciding how much water to put in the water table.  For instance, is the setup inside or outside?  If the setup is outside, teachers usually care less about spilling.  If the setup is inside, teachers' tolerance for spillage comes into play for making the "how much water" decision.

When my colleague first asked me the question about how much water, my first reaction was that it was not about the amount of water.  Rather it was about children's need to transport (axiom #1 in the right-hand column of this blog).  The amount of water had to optimize the children's need to transport what was in the table out of the table, whether that meant filling the pipe or the bucket or transporting the beads around the table.  (If you have read this blog post, here is a question for you: How did the idea of transporting inform the question of how much water to use for these setups: the giant sponge and the baby washing with the clothesline?)

Let me leave you with my answer to my colleague's question.  Depending on a your tolerance for messy play and spilling, and depending on the apparatus you set up in the table, and depending how and where you setup your apparatus, use enough water to optimize play and learning.  Oh, and it also depends on you knowing the children and other adults you work with.  In other words, it depends---and you have to make that decision.  By the way, after you make the decision, you can always make another decision about reducing or adding water depending on your observations of the children's play with the original amount of water.

P.S. Before all other "depends," is the implicit assumption of who is in control of the play.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Picture of the year

Every year I designate one of the pictures I have taken as my "picture of the year."  Since I am not in the classroom anymore, I have a very limited set to choose from.  The set for all intents and purposes is comprised of pictures of my grandchildren and their play.

This year I chose a picture that I captured when I took my three-year-old granddaughter to the zoo in late October.  She is the middle child of three and had never had any alone time with grandpa.  I picked a day when her sister was in school and she did not have preschool. Another benefit was that mom could have some rare alone time with the baby.  My granddaughter was excited to go and I was excited to show her the animals.

We did see animals, some real and some not real.  In fact she actually spent more time with the animals that were not real.
Maybe the draw was that she could substantiate her agency by climbing on them and getting up close and personal to them.

There was one other feature of the zoo that captured her attention more than the lions, tigers, polar bears and such.  That feature was the rocks that formed the boundary between the path and the ground.

That got me thinking a lot about boundaries.  What makes up a boundary and how negotiable is that boundary?  The path at the zoo has a boundaries, namely its edges on either side.   When the boundary is not substantial---when the edge of the path is level with the ground---the boundary is easily transgressed simply by not seeing it as a boundary.  Of course, the adult on the scene will make sure the child knows that she has stepped over the boundary.

However, there are times when the boundaries are substantial.  At the zoo, there are fences.  Those are substantial---and nonnegotiable.  Are there substantial boundaries that are negotiable?  For my granddaughter, the rocks that formed the boundary between the path and the ground seemed to be one of those boundaries.  As an adult, I could have pointed out that the rocks were not for climbing and that if she fell on the sharp rocks she might get hurt. 
My granddaughter did not see the rocks as a boundary.  Rather, they presented themselves as  a challenging path to test her balance and navigation skills.

Boundaries are important.  How we perceive those boundaries is even more important.  How children perceive those boundaries is also more important.  Hard and fast boundaries are limiting.  Negotiable boundaries open up a world of possibilities for children to make new meaning in any given context.  Children will always question the boundaries.  That is one of their jobs as part of living in this world.  As adults, maybe we can come to appreciate their penchant for testing boundaries.  And maybe we can even re-examine our own ideas about boundaries.  How do you question your boundaries in the classroom, at home and in the world?  What boundaries are nonnegotiable and why?  What boundaries are negotiable and why?

With that, I give you my picture of the year: my granddaughter using the boundary of the rocks to create her own path, one that is more interesting and has more meaning for her than seeing the exotic animals at the zoo.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Conference thoughts part 2

This post is a continuation of my last post.  Recently, I wrote that when practitioners go to conference sessions, they often look for activities that they can use in their classroom---immediately.  It is perfectly fine to be inspired by others, but early childhood educators need to make the activities their own.  They do that by examining their own values and assumptions around those activities that they choose to recreate in their classroom.

The same is true for strategies.  We were asked in our Teaching with the Body in Mind session at the National Association for the Education of Young Children annual conference last month for strategies for handling loud/boisterous/big-body play. Believe it or not, the four of us each had different strategies that we could name.  Interestingly, we all pretty much agreed on the values and assumptions around this type of play (see last post), but we all approached handling it in a way that fit the context and our own perception/tolerance of this type of play.

Now I cannot speak for the others, but I will tell you how I answered the question around strategies for handling big-body play.  For the most part, I rarely intervened when there was a potential conflict.  For example, in the photo below, two children were crossing the board in opposite directions.  There was a potential for conflict, but I did not intervene.  Instead, I started with the assumption that they could work it out themselves.   I stayed close, waited and kept silent.  However, I was always on the  ready to put my camera down if they needed help.
They actually worked it out themselves with very little verbal negotiation; they negotiated with their bodies in a relational field that was the defined by the board.  Now, if I had intervened too soon, I would have robbed them of the opportunity to practice reading each other's cues and figuring out what to do with those cues.  I supposed I could have asked them to verbalize the cues they noticed from the other or I could have narrated what I saw, but I do think the verbal dialogue/narration, especially from me, can be a distraction from their own body dialogue/narration.

This strategy of wait and see and trust the children to negotiate their differences worked the best for me in my classroom.  In fact, I would say that it worked well over 90% of the time.

However, there were those times when I did step in.  Those times happened when the children seemed stuck; when there was a great power differential between the children; or when I thought someone was going to get hurt physically or emotionally.  Below is a case in point.  Two children were driving across the board from opposite ends.  Their wheels met and neither one was going to budge.  At first, they just pushed their wheels against each other.  But as the confrontation got more serious, they started to use their driving sticks like swords.  One child in particular was getting very upset.  At this point, I put the camera down and intervened.
I cannot tell you exactly how I intervened.  I can tell you that I did not assume that either one had the right to cross the board first.  Rather, this was a conflict that they both were going to work out themselves---with a little help.  To that end, I probably got between the two children and began asking questions individually to each child about what was going on.  I probably restated that child's position to the other child and asked that child the same question and then what they thought about each other's responses.  I imagined we went back and forth many times before they were able reach a solution.

The vexing question that everybody asks is: "What happens if they cannot agree on a solution?" Instead of answering, I beg the question because it always depends on the context.  And the context includes more than what is happening in the moment.  If the children have had plenty of practice in working through potential conflicts---as illustrated by the first example---that vexing question rarely surfaces.

Actual conflicts in an early childhood classroom are inevitable.  They produce moments with great learning potential, especially in the social and emotional domain.   However, potential conflicts are many times more inevitable.  I contend that if we as adults trust the children to handle and negotiate those potential conflicts without adult interference, there will be fewer actual conflicts.


Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Conference thoughts

Three weeks ago, I was part of a group of four early childhood teachers that presented at the National Association for Early Childhood Education annual conference in Washington DC.  Our presentation was called Teaching with the Body in Mind.  We were basically advocating for the children's need to move to learn.  Because I was in a group of four, I actually got a chance to step back to observe and listen to participants in a way that I could not if I were doing the presentation by myself.  What follows are some thoughts from my observations.

Like any conference, participants came looking for activities.  For our session, they were looking for ways to foster large motor/big body/boisterous play.  There is nothing inherently wrong with that.  However, without examining the values and the assumptions behind those activities, one cannot begin to understand the different ways and layers of learning that children engage in as they physically explore any given set up.  To that end, we offered several value statements and questions for discussion to the participants.

Teaching with the Body in Mind
           NAEYC Annual Conference. Washington D.C., 2018

Value Statements

Children use their bodies as thinking tools to explore and make sense of the world.

There are body-based modes of knowing and reasoning.

Action experience alters reasoning in a range of contexts.

There is a role for movement in cognition.

There are times when children cannot do what you ask.

Biology and the need to move trump social expectations.

Children ask questions and make statements non-verbally with their bodies.

Children need to be able to control their bodies.

There are times I feel like I need to control children’s bodies.
Discussion Questions

What are our assumptions surrounding the place for risk in care and education?

What are the invisible assumptions that we do not talk about?

How do we create an understanding of risk that confirms or questions our assumptions?

Who controls the risk and how?

What are some of the ethical considerations around risk and risk taking in school?

What conditions make risk possible?

What conditions make risk productive?

What conditions make risk dangerous?

How does allowing for risk-taking differ from anything-goes?

How does the language of possibilities compare with the language of regulation?

What are your values around risk taking?

Below is one of the main setups we used for illustration purposes.  A board was set up as a bridge between two sets of steps.   If we valued order and turn-taking in the name of safety,  we would make sure that only one child crossed the board at a time and that everyone crossed in the same direction.

If, on the other hand, we valued the children's ability to use their bodies as thinking tools to make physical and social sense of the world, we began to notice how well children assessed their own risks to stay safe.

That certainly held true even when the play on the bridge became loud and rambunctious.  In the clip below, the children hung upside down and screamed.  Some of them even tumbled off the bridge onto the mat.  Even though there was a very real possibility of a foot hitting a head, no child got bonked in the process.

But wait, were the children really in control of their bodies?  Was this acceptable risk taking or an example of anything goes?   

We are all on a personal journey of becoming a teacher.  It is not enough to simply copy activities.  We must make them our own.  And an important part of that process is to examine our values and assumptions around the activities we chose to copy or use.  We cannot do it without the children so if you need inspiration, step back and watch the children as they make any part of the world their own.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Conference notes

A little over a week ago, I was part of a presentation at the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington DC.  There were four of us presenting on the need for children to move to learn.  My part of the presentation revolved around making space and time inside the classroom for active, boisterous play.  Furthermore, I advocated for space and time for spontaneity in this type of play.  I wanted to draw a contrast between activities that a teacher sets up and those that emerge spontaneously from the children.

The example I used was a balance board I inherited from the classroom teacher before me.  When I found the board in the closet, it had black construction paper footprints taped individually across the board to signify the direction the children were to use when crossing the board.  The picture below shows the board after I removed the directional footprints.
Even though there were no footprints, some children agreed by themselves to cross the board in one direction.

However, since the children were not required to go one way, they spontaneously came up with their own way to cross the board.  In the picture below, children are stepping up onto the board from both ends.  And the child in the blue is about to climb up onto the middle of the board.
Utter chaos, right?  No.  This just happened to be a raucous game of "Three Billy Goats Gruff."  All the children on the board were the billy goats and the ones sitting on the mat were the trolls.  When the trolls said they were coming to eat them up, all the billy goats jumped off the "bridge."

When I contrast this spontaneous version of the story with a play that a preschool teacher might try to stage or direct, I see a very rich and rowdy version of the play the children authored themselves using their imagination.  They owned it.

The "Three Billy Goats Gruff" episode had a strong verbal narrative in addition to the a strong physical narrative.  However, the children did not always need a verbal narrative.  In the episode below, the children again climbed up onto the board from both ends.  They would meet in the middle and then jump and then repeat and repeat...  This made-up game of climb and jump evolved without words; they agreed non-verbally to meet in the middle and jump.

Board jumping from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

By removing the directional footprints, the children were given agency to use the board to their imaginations' content.  And the possibilities were endless. 

So the board without the footprints was only an opportunity for the children to negotiate ways of crossing it?  Hardly.  Because there was no prescribed way to use the board, the children even found ways to use the underside of the board.  For example, two children decided to use the board to hang upside down.
Why would they hang upside down?  A primary drive for the children was to engage in physical challenges to promote their own physical development.  For example, they were both working on their core strength as they were activating their vestibular (balance) system.  Children do not learn to sit by practicing sitting.  Rather, they need the core strength and balance to sit up.  Given the time and space, the children naturally work on physical skills that are needed to complete skills and learning in other domains, such as the cognitive and social/emotional domains.

But leave it to children to work on all the domains at once.  Each of the examples above illustrated that children included multiple domains in their actions.  Even the children hanging upside down are working in the cognitive and social domains.  The child on the left said he was the bat from Star Wars.  Many times there has to be a physical representation of an idea (cognitive) before there can be another form of representation. The other child did not know about the bat from Star Wars.  Rather, she was using her body to copy (social) his physical representation of an idea.

So much of children's thinking is physical.  We need to honor that physicality by making sure there is plenty of time and space for large muscle play---spontaneous large muscle play---both inside and outside the classroom.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Amalgamated big box incline

I have made several big box inclines and I have written about them here, here, and here.  Back in 2009, I made an amalgamated big box incline.  I took two large boxes and combined them to make one big box incline apparatus.
One box was an empty electric piano box and the other had held a computer desk.  They were both the same length, but different heights and different widths.

I cut a hole between the two so there would be a window of sorts connecting the two boxes.  This also allowed me to tape the boxes together on the inside which made the connection between the two boxes stronger.
The apparatus was set on an incline using an upside down planter tray the spanned the width of the table and was taped to the lip of the table.  To give the apparatus stability, I taped the box to the tray and to the lip of the table.  When the children poured fuel pellets down either section of the apparatus, the pellets exited into a tub at the end of the table.

With this apparatus, the children naturally engaged in some common operations at the sensory table such scooping, filling, pouring and spilling.  Some operations, however were contingent on the the provisions for play and what the children made of those provisions.
For this apparatus, the children were able to choose a variety of scoops, pails and other containers.  In addition, though, I set out a container of small plastic cars and trucks.  My thinking was that they would roll the cars and trucks down the incline in each section of the apparatus.

Indeed, the children used the cars and trucks for launching them down the incline.  However, depending on the child, that launching took on a very different vitality.  Below are three examples.

In the first video, the child used the high, narrow section of the apparatus to send his cars down the incline.  As he watched his first car speed down the incline, he set up a second car at the top.  He held it there for just a second and then started counting: "One, two, three---go."  On "go," he sent the car racing down the incline.

Big box incline: car play 1 from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

The adults who were watching all this transpire, gave him a big wahoo.  His reaction was one of proud embarrassment. 

In the second video, the child used the incline on top of the piano box.  She first slid her two little trucks halfway up the incline.  At this point, the two cars were situated sideways on the incline.  She took her hands off the two trucks and they started to slide sideways down the top of the box.  The two trucks dropped off and down into the tub next to the table to her great amusement.

Big box incline: car play 2 from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

In the third video, another child also used the incline on the top of the piano box.  However, for this child, the incline offered an opportunity to engage in a sophisticated experiment on trajectory in which he actually changed variables on three different trials.   To begin with, he figured out that when he launched a truck down the incline it overshot the tub at the end of the table.  With that knowledge, he found a red crate and placed it next to the far edge of the tub.   When he tried to get it in the red crate, the truck hit the far edge of the crate and sailed out onto the floor.  On his second try, he put the truck in the back of a small dump truck.  When he let go of combined trucks, they both landed in the target.  He quickly repeated the experiment, this time with a little green car.  Like the first time, the car overshot the crate.

Big box incline: car play 3 from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Operating with the cars and trucks on different sections of the apparatus, the children created their own play possibilities.  The first episode with the child rolling his car down the incline of the narrow computer desk box, I might have expected.  However, the child's counting and emotional reaction to the episode was not something I would have predicted.   The children totally originated their play experience in the second and third episodes. 

In each episode, there was something about the existence that day of an intersection between the structure(apparatus), the provisions(cars and trucks) and the children that actualized these play possibilities.  What that something was, I do not know. (I wish I did.)  What I know is that on any given day, there would have been a myriad of other play possibilities that could have been realized with the same apparatus, with the same provisions and with the same children.  

Maybe that something has to do with young children's innately rich imagination and creativity.