About Me

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Early childhood education has been my life for over 30 years. I have taught all age groups from infants to 5-year-olds. I was a director for five years in the 1980s, but I returned to the classroom 22 years ago. My passion is watching the ways children explore and discover their world. In the classroom, everything starts with the reciprocal relationships between adults and children and between the children themselves. With that in mind, I plan and set up activities. But that is just the beginning. What actually happens is a flow that includes my efforts to invite, respond and support children's interface with those activities and with others in the room. Oh yeh, and along the way, the children change the activities to suit their own inventiveness and creativity. Now the processes become reciprocal with the children doing the inviting, responding and supporting. Young children are the best learners and teachers. I am truly fortunate to be a part of their journey.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Does space have agency?

I am reading the book The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram.  One of his important premises is that there is a fundamental reciprocity between the human world and the non-human and inanimate world. We affect the non-human world and the non-humane and inanimate world affects us.  I thought I could play around with this idea to see if I could understand this reciprocity as it relates to the sensory table in an early childhood classroom,

Children are always situated in a space.  According to Abram, then, the space plays an important part as the children create their own story.    

For this post, the space in which the children are situated is a Horizontal channel apparatus.  It is a cardboard box set on top of the sensory table.  It has channels and a ramp connect to a tub next to the table.

Abram would not only say that the space is important, but so is the time.  So to include the idea a time, I chose a specific episode. 

The episode is a 14 second video of six children playing around the horizontal channel apparatus.
I will break down each child's actions in the episode to see what role space plays in their exploration of the medium and the materials.   I will start with the child in yellow on the right and work my way around to the child in blue who has lined up his vehicles.

The child in yellow fills his pickup truck that he placed in the second channel.  In a way, that channel holds the truck in on the sides.  And since it is in the channel, it plays a part in focusing where he drops the sand.

The next child with the spoon, scoops the sand in the same channel as the first child.  However, for him to scoop the sand, he must run the spoon horizontally down the channel.  In essence the walls of that channel direct his actions.

The child with the small red dump truck works in the same space as the child with the spoon and the child with the pickup truck.   She, too, is directed in her actions to scoop sand in the truck by the walls of the channel she is working in.

The child in blue with the yellow dump truck is not working in one of the channels.  Instead, he tosses his truck into the blue tub next to the table.  Why?  Maybe the drop off that is the ramp suggests to him that the truck should fall.  Of course, once the truck falls into the tub, he has to drive it out with great effort out of the tub, over the ramp and back onto the channels' platform

The child in grey below is opposite the child with the yellow dump truck.  He is not playing in the channels, either.  Rather, he is retrieving other construction vehicles that have fallen into the tub.  Why does he retrieve them?  At this point I can only venture a guess.  Maybe he reads the space such that the cars and trucks do their work on the channel apparatus and not in the tub.

The last child has a small bulldozer.  At first he drives the bulldozer in two different channels.  Again the walls direct his actions.  However, when he drives out of the channels, he uses his front plow to push sand off the platform, down the ramp and into the tub.  Since there are no walls to direct his actions and the open platform is less restrictive, he pushes the sand faster and with more force.

Below is the what the 14 second episode looks like all put together

What is so interesting is that each child reads the space differently.  That allows each child to create their own story.  It is as if the children are forming a direct and intimate relation to the space.  And maybe that is possible because the space is not passive.  Maybe space has agency and speaks to each child differently?

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Getting to know the properties of corn - part 2

Last week, I wrote about Getting to know the properties of corn.  In that post, most of the children's explorations centered around how they used their hands (and feet) to come to know the properties of corn.  Even though I introduced an apparatus, I really did not mention how that helped shape the children's explorations.  However, the apparatus did play a role in helping them understand the properties of corn.

Here is an example:  The Cardboard divider apparatus on the right divided the sensory table into cubicle-like spaces.   

The cardboard walls of those cubicle-like spaces actually allowed the children to reach a higher degree of focus to better know the properties of corn. 

I kept the divider apparatus up for a second week, but I added some new features.  I added a PVC pipe and a clear plastic tube both on angles through the cross vertical panels on either side of the apparatus.  I also added a cardboard tube embedded horizontally through the cross vertical panels.  
If the apparatus played a role in how the children understood the properties of corn, how did the addition of these features shape to their explorations? To give this examination a manageable focus, I will highlight some of the operations the children carried out using only the clear plastic tube. 

Just like the walls focused children's attention, the tube also focused one child's attention on how the corn flowed down the tube.  Below, the child scooped up corn in a plastic measuring cup and slowly and deliberately poured the corn down the tube.  Sometimes only one kernel dropped from his cup and sometimes several.

Corn down the tube from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

In either case, he observed how the corn went down the tube.  Once or twice, he even made sure he saw how the corn exited before he poured any more corn down the tube.

I was very impressed at his laser-like focus as he observed how the corn went down the tube.  I was not only impressed, I was curious.  I decided video tape the corn going down the tube.  

Corn sliding down the tube from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

I was surprised at how the corn behaved in the tube.  First, the flow was really quite smooth.  From my experience with corn going down an incline chute,  I thought the kernels would have bounced or tumbled down the tube.  The other surprise was that kernels ended up flowing single file as they exited the tube.   

The corn flowing down the tube connected children in their play.  Below, one child poured corn down the tube and the other caught it in a stainless steel bowl.

Connecting in play from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

The tube was not enough to connect these two in play.  The corn and how it flowed through the tube completed the play circuit.  In fact at one point in the operation, the flow of corn physically connected the child pouring, the tube and the child catching.  It is almost as if the corn drew a continuous line connecting the two children through the tube.

Here is much different example of how the corn sliding down the tube connected children in play.  A child poured corn down the tube after another child had placed her eye over the bottom of the tube.   This operation, in essence, added a somatic component to this child's understanding of corn as the corn piled up against her eye.

Eye on the corn from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

As she moved her eye back from the bottom of the tube, the kernels gently fell on her cheek, again adding a somatic component to her exploration.

The child who did the pouring, of course, wanted to know how the corn felt against his eye, so they switched places. 

In my last post I asked: How many ways are there to know the properties of corn?  Maybe it is enough to know that there are innumerable ways for children to know and understand corn.  And that it is possible to expand on their ways of knowing by offering them richly provisioned environments---physical and social---in which they can recruit their competencies and imagination to come to know the properties of corn.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Getting to know the properties of corn

Every space or setup in an early childhood classroom has an energy and rhythm.  How is it possible to examine that energy and rhythm?  One way is to look for ways in which children examine the properties of the materials in a chosen area with a particular setup. 

To do that, I choose the sensory table with a cardboard divider setup pictured below.  The setup is basically a long cardboard sheet that spans two sensory tables down the middle with smaller panels inserted horizontally to create multiple spaces in which the children can choose to work.
There are also multiple windows cut in the apparatus to facilitate cross-barrier play.  Below is another picture of the apparatus from a different angle that highlights how the apparatus divides the sensory table and creates multiple work spaces.

To focus my observations even more, I choose to look at how children in this space examine the properties of one very specific material in this space, namely, feed corn. 

One way the children examine the properties is to actually feel it with their hands.  And that can take on a different energy and rhythm.  The child below is using his hands in a back-and-forth motion to feel the corn both under and over his hands.
Besides feeling the corn, the child is also hearing the sounds the corn makes as it get pushed from side-to-side.  Feeling and hearing the corn in this way is never uniform.  Another child may come along and sweep the the corn more vigorously or more slowly.  Through the individual energy and rhythm of feeling the corn, the children will come to understand the corn differently.

A case in point: the video below shows two children basically doing the same operation with different energy and rhythm.  They are both transferring corn with their hands from their spot at the table into their respective five-gallon buckets.

Corn in the bucket from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

The child in the blue transfers the corn into his bucket faster than the child in red.  And, whereas the child in blue throws the corn with force into his bucket, the child in red simply drops his corn into the bucket.  Again, this is a way to for children to make sense of the properties of the corn.  It can be dropped; it can be thrown; it makes a different sound when thrown than when it is dropped; and when the the corn is thrown it bounces, sometime even out of the bucket.

In the photo below, the child uses a tool to examine the properties of the corn.  First, the scoop allows her to gather certain amounts of corn.  Second, when she pours the corn from the scoop, she creates a corn flow, so to speak.  It also has a different sound and visual as it hits the side of the bucket.  
That flow will necessarily have a different energy and rhythm than the previous examples of the children throwing and dropping corn into the bucket.

The child below gets right up close and personal with the corn.  She uses the handle of a small red measuring cup to dislodge individual kernels of corn from a corn cob.

Dislodging the corn kernels from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

The energy and rhythm in this episode is markedly different.  There is a focus here in which the child discovers the relation between a kernel and the cob.  To do that, the child draws on her capacity to invent, concentrate and persist to dislodge each kernel with the handle of the measuring cup.  

The child below also gets up close and personal with the corn---with her feet!  Not only does she step into the bucket, but she maneuvers her feet so her boots begin to sink further into the bucket of corn.   There is certainly a different feel to the corn when a child uses her feet.  For instance, individual kernels drop down into her boot.  When she comes out, she feels those individual kernels pressing against the soles of her feet.  And what is her visual interpretation of seeing her boots/feet disappear down into the corn?
The energy and rhythm of this episode encompasses contagion, too, because after she steps out of the bucket another child steps into the bucket to experience the properties of the corn similarly.

How many ways are there to examine the properties of the corn?  I could not even hazard a guess.  Since the energy and rhythm are dependent on those examinations, they, too, will be many and varied.  

Why is that important?  That is important because there is no script.  No one needs to tell the children how to examine the properties of the corn.   That is also important, because depending on the energy the children bring to the exploration on any given day, they will create their own rhythm of play.  Through that energy and rhythm of the play, the children come to know the corn and its properties in so many different ways.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Picture of the year: adults thinking inside the box.

Every year I designate a photo as my "picture of the year."  Usually that picture focuses on children and their play.   I want to change that this year to focus on the adults and their play/work. 

I was in Australia this past September to do a number of workshops on building apparatus for the sensory table.  In looking over the pictures I took of teachers building things, I came across what might be considered a theme: Adults thinking inside the box.

I have several pictures of adults who have crawled inside a box in the process of building their construction.
Did this adult really need to crawl inside the box?  Maybe not, but by crawling inside the box, this adult experienced space physically, emotionally and cognitively.  Not only that, this adult got up close and personal with the materials and---with the help of others in his group---got a taste of what could be done with them in the given space.  I would guess spatial literacy is as important for adults as it is for children.

One group went so far as to purposely cut a door in a large television box as an invitation for the children to go inside.  
They actually had a dual purpose for cutting the door.  Since they were embedding a plank and tube through the box, they also needed to crawl inside to align the holes on each side to get the angle of incline that they wanted.  Sounds a lot like spatial literacy for adults again.

With that introduction, I give you my picture of the year.  It is a picture taken from the other side of the box.  This group cut a window in the television box opposite the door but in an unexpected place.
I suppose I could call it: Thumbs up for adults thinking inside the box.  And some of the best thinking inside the box comes with a dose of fun and humor.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Thinking Inside the box

At least once a year, I would set up several big boxes as a large muscle experience for the children.  I called it a Big box fort.  The big boxes were be taped together on the outside and on the inside so the children could navigate their way through from one end of the fort to the other---or exit in the middle.
I saw this primarily as a large muscle apparatus that made children get down on their hands and knees to crawl through.  Of course it was much more than that, but I set it up for children to find ways to inhabit a space inside the boxes

After the fort, I would move the big boxes over to the sensory table.  Again the idea was for children to crawl into the boxes and play in the sensory table from the space inside the boxes.
I always felt the big boxes around the table offered children a way to experience an enclosed space while playing at the sensory table.  Put another way, it was a chance for children to "think inside the box."

However, there have been several big box constructions that were not specifically made for children to go in.   An example was the Big box on top.  I set a large box over the top of the sensory table and embedded several cardboard tubes through it.
I am not sure why, but one child saw it as an invitation to actually crawl into the table under the box among all the tubes.  What was it about this apparatus that said to the child "come on in?"
Of course, if it was an invitation for one child to experience the enclosed space, surely it was an invitation for others to join her.
Eventually four children ended up in the table under the big box. It was so crowded that any movement set off a chain reaction of children squirming inside the box.  The box both contained and restricted their whole body play and offered the children an intimate experience in spatial and personal relations.

I eventually embedded another cardboard tube as an experiment to see if that would prevent children from crawling into the table under the box.  
It did not.  I suppose I could have added even more tubes through the box, but the children demonstrated their propensity to inhabit spaces like this.

I was not surprised then when children crawled into the box of another apparatus that was the sensory
I actually partially embedded the sensory table into a large box.  One child (above) crawled into the box from the table.  He then crawled out of the table into the space next to the table that was still inside the box.  He was pleased with his little journey, a journey made possible by the very nature of the construction.

For others, it was not a journey, but an enclosed space in which to work.  In the picture below, two children crawled into the space in between the box and the table.  The space both constricted and defined their play.  For instance, these two children were older and bigger so they were forced to work from a kneeling position.

Below is one more example of an apparatus that beckoned children to experience it from the inside.  I called it Big box big windows

Two children crawled into the larger box through the large side windows.   These two sat comfortably inside pouring and filling their containers.

I have always said that children are masters at exploring space. What may be just as important is the idea that spaces themselves play an active part in those explorations.   Even though all three examples show children working inside a big box structure, each has a different energy and rhythm depending partly on the construction itself.  If I try to imagine the sensory table without these constructions, the play would necessarily be different; there would not be the beauty and creativity of  "thinking inside the box."

Sunday, December 15, 2019


This past September/October I was in Australia for a speaking and workshop tour thanks to Niki Buchan and Brownyn Cron of Real World Learning.  I did 16 sessions in 26 days all around Australia.  I am pleased to report that all the Aussies I met were great players.

Most of my sessions were building sessions.  I introduced a framework for making constructions that go in and/or around sensory table.  (The framework can be found in the right-hand column of the blog under Dimensions and Elements for Building.)  Before any building session, I asked the participants to look at my blog, not to copy what I have already made, but to get them thinking about possibilities.  In addition, I asked them to gather their own materials for building.  That way, they would come to the session with ideas about what they wanted to build.

In this post, I would like to highlight a building project that happened in my last building session at Mittagong Preschool.  I could spend a year highlighting all the building projects in Australia because no two were the same and each emerged from the effort by the participants to realize their ideas with the materials they collected.

This project, however, was different in two ways.  The first way in which it was different was what they used as the base for their project.  I can't remember exactly the story, but the gist of it was that they had this piece of equipment in storage that had been lying around for some time.  They did not want to throw it out because they thought they could put it to use someday. 
The piece of equipment was a sturdy blue metal frame.  I do not remember what its original purpose was, but here was a piece of equipment taking up precious storage space that they felt was just waiting to be repurposed.  

The second way this project was a different was the fact that someone actually drew up a plan to be realized.  It was a simple plan that included the essential elements. 
To be sure, other people have drawn up plans for what they wanted to build, but that has been the exception rather than the rule.  Most people gather materials and spontaneously start building and make adjustments as they go along.  Below is an example from the same session of a apparatus that emerged spontaneously: one piece led to another piece that led to another piece that led to another piece and so on until viola!


Once a groups had their plans either on paper or evolving in their head, there were a lot of similarities in the process of building like experimenting with different saws to make holes. 

Or experimenting with power tools like drills to make holes.  And if the holes were not big enough, how to use a tool to enlarge the hole to accommodate a tube to be embedded in the larger cardboard tube.

Another similarity no matter what was being built was how to securely attach the elements of the apparatus.  Most of that was done with duct tape, but in this case, there were also zip ties to attach the plastic tubes to a second, black metal coat rack.  Again, they took something from the classroom and repurposed it.

One final similarity in the building process was a desire to improvise.  This group found a piece of mesh that transformed the one large rectangular hole into many small square holes.  This was a spontaneous addition that they decided would add some play value to their apparatus.

At the end of the day, this group had built a novel construction from a piece of equipment that was just taking up precious space in the preschool.  They were quite pleased with their apparatus and were ready to offer it to the children for their explorations.  

How many of us have bought something great and then found little use for it other than taking up space in the classroom or storage area?  Maybe instead of looking to buy something new, we could take a tip from these teachers at Mittagong and try to repurpose something we already have. With a kernel of an idea and maybe a little help, we surely could build something that would invite children's exploration and enrich their play.

P.S.  Thank you Jeanne Vergeront from Museum Notes for helping flush out this post.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Every place has a soul

I am reading the book The Wonder of Learning: The Hundred Languages of Children published by Reggio Children.  One of the reasons I find it fascinating is the language they use when they talk about young children's learning encounters with the world.  For example, in the section called Dialogue with Places, they say at the very beginning that "Every place has a soul, an identity..."(p.19).  I can identify a place, but can I know its soul?

Since this blog is about sand and water tables, the place I choose to identify is the space that holds the sensory table. The space is approximately six feet by eight feet.  The space is partially enclosed on three sides: a cabinet that holds the smocks on the right, a wall in the back and a counter with a sink on the left. 
The sensory table itself is a blue plastic tub nine inches deep on metal legs.  It is 21 inches wide and 46 inches long and sits 19 inches off the ground.  Next to the table is a five-gallon bucket.

There are a few other features that help identify this space.  Under the counter, I have tubs with extra implements to be used in the table.  There are curtains that hide the tubs which means they are not available to the children but near enough for me to reach when I want to switch out objects from the table.  In one corner, there are brooms and a mop.  I place rubber mats under the table.  And I pull the table away from the wall so it is open to play from all sides.   On this particular day in the table itself, I have put water implements with a giant sponge sprinkled with dish soap in an inch of water.

Though I have identified the space, it does not feel like it has a soul as of yet.  However, there are some hints at its soul.  For instance, the brooms, mops and rubber mats hint that messes are welcome. The table is simple so it can be easily transformed by changing what is in the table.  The pail is empty asking to be filled.

To discover its soul, they say in the book that we must learn to recognize our own soul as we interact with the space.  Since this space is an invitation for children to play, in other words, to interact, maybe I can surmise its soul by looking at the children's interactions in this space. There are really so many interactions, that I need narrow it down to one type: playing with the suds.  My thought is that at least one of the essences (souls?) of the sponge is that the children can use it to make suds.
To make suds, they use the weight of their upper body to push their hands down into the giant sponge.  One intriguing aspect of making suds this way is that they can leave hand prints on the sponge that disappear momentarily.  Maybe the intersection of the children using the sponge to make suds and the ephemeral imprints in this space that allows/encourages such explorations is part of the soul of this space.

There are other actions that make suds.  In the following video, two children first punch the sponge before pushing down on the sponge to make suds.

Beating the giant sponge from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

These two children interact differently with the sponge .  Their actions are much more vigorous.  Maybe the intersection of the children beating the sponge and the sponge absorbing the punches in this space that allows/encourages such explorations is part of the soul of this space.

Besides making suds, children use the suds in many different ways.  The child in the following video has dumped a pail full of suds on top of the giant sponge.  She uses her hand to spread the suds almost like frosting a cake.

Spredding the suds from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

The energy in this video is much different from that of the previous video.  As she glides her hand over the suds there seems to be a meditative aspect to her actions.  Maybe the intersection of the child gliding her hand over the sponge and the sponge acting as a platform on which to spread the suds in this space that allows/encourages such explorations is part of the soul of this space.

By adding implements, the children find other ways to use the suds.  In the video below, the children have filled a bucket halfway with suds.  The child hovering over the bucket grabs two small sponges from the table and drops them in the bucket.  He begins to use a long-handled spoon to stir the suds.  He chuckles and says that he is stirring the soup.

Stirring the soup from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

The children have appropriated the five-gallon pail to constructively transport the suds from the table to the pail.  In the process one child has also appropriated smaller sponges and a kitchen spoon to stir his soup.  Not only is there yet a different purpose (transporting the suds) to this episode, but the children have added role playing to their actions.  Maybe the intersection of the children transporting the suds out of the table into the pail and the appropriation of a couple of loose parts (small sponges and a big spoon) to stir the "soup" in this space that allows/encourages such explorations is part of the soul of this space.

Suds even have the power to change a child's identity.  When a child spreads suds on her arm with a little ladle, her arm is transformed into a...???  When a child puts suds on his face and head, is he still the same person?

Maybe the intersection of the children feeling the suds on their arm or seeing themselves in a mirror to check their identity in this space that allows/encourages such explorations is part of the soul of this space.

I know I have found my soul in this space.  It is my creative outlet; It is a place for me to play with ideas and offer them to the children.  Because each child brings something different to the this space, it becomes a reflection of their soul, their identity.  The space itself has no soul without the interactions.  Since there is no end to the possible explorations in this space, could that be its soul? Could its soul be a space that constantly allows/fosters new interactions that enrich our collective experiences? What do you think?

P.S.  If you are curious about the multitude of possibilities just with the giant sponge, you may want to look at the following posts:  Making cookies, Bubble cakeGiant sponge with jewels, Giant sponge - 2014, Giant sponge - new axiom, Beyond the giant sponge, Giant sponge