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

Saturday, March 24, 2012


In this blog, many times there is an apparatus that takes center stage.  For this post, the apparatus is as simple as it gets.  What gets center stage in this post are the loose elements that are provided with the apparatus.  First the apparatus.  It is a wooden tray that connects two different sensory tables.

The tables are filled with a fine, white sand.

Loose elements were provided in four bins on a table near the sensory tables.  The containers held grey rocks, sticks, and gems.

Before you see what happens, you have to understand what is the first and primary operation the children have to complete: transporting all the loose elements into the sensory tables.  And the most attractive of those loose elements are the gems.

It is a guarantee, though, that before long, everything is in the table.

Once everything is in the table, then the children get down to the job of exploring and manipulating the loose elements.  So what does that look like?

A solitary gem balanced on the head of a bolt.

Gems---plus one rock---arranged on an up-turned pot.

A "house" made by balancing sticks, gems, and rocks on top of an over-turned pail.

A rock and gem forest

Besides the transportation and arrangements of the loose elements, there are a myriad of other operations the children execute.  Some of those operations are common and look similar no matter which child effects them.  

One such operation is collecting gems.  The child in the picture below prefers clear ones.

And there are common operations that can be actualized quite differently.  One of those is burying the gems.  Though most children will simply pour sand over the rocks to bury them quickly, watch how the child in the video below buries the gems one-by-one with delicate precision.

And then there is the not-so-common operation carried out by one child.  The child in the video below took a liking to one particular rock with a small hole.  In the video, she shows how each of her fingers can fit in the hole.  Watch.

What an excellent way to discover the distinctive feature of this small rock.

What she does next with the rock is simply amazing.  She begins to use it as an implement to scoop and pour sand onto a dustpan.  Watch.

She has just made the rock a tool, an operation that harkens back to the dawn of man.  Amazing!

With such a simple apparatus and these loose elements, how can the children be so creative? Look no further than The Theory of Loose Parts by Simon Nicholson (1972).  He says: "In any environment, both the degree of invention and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it."  In this case, the environment is small, the sensory table, but still fraught with possibilities when infused with "loose parts."


  1. So the question on my mind is...
    Do you clear out all of the rocks, gems and sticks each day so they can do it all again on their next visit?

  2. Maureen, the answer is yes. But it is funny you should ask that because just this week I was thinking the children can play a more active role in clearing out the sensory table for the next day. I will let you know how that goes.

  3. We have done similar sensory tables in our home and it's a favorite of ours. Do you allow the children to include other objects? Maybe cars, dolls, animals? Just curious.

    1. Children are always bringing different things into the sensory table. I have one child that always brings cars into the table. For some reason, though, there was not a lot of other things brought to the table with this activity. I think the gems were a real draw.

  4. Did any of the children just take the tubs of loose parts and dump them in the table? Or did they all take the loose parts by handfuls to transport? Christi

    1. Christi, yes there was dumping, but very little When it did happen, that just meant that they started to explore and manipulate sooner. I was actually surprised at how little there was. The children seemed to enjoy transporting from the flat table to the sensory table.

  5. I have a lot of "collectors" in my class! Do any of the gems go missing?

    1. Sally, I do not know. I do not seem to have many "collectors" and I do not know why. It seems like I should. Good question.

  6. Tom,

    Your blog is amazing and it is exactly what my district is wanting our Science learning center to be like. I am a 1st grade teacher and actual have and use a sand and water table in my classroom. I am so excited to have found your blog and am going to explore it!

    I am your newest follower and would love for you to come visit me when you get the chance. =)

    I am going to share your blog with the ECH director in my district! =)

    Heather's Heart

    1. Thanks for you kind words Heather. I have always thought of my sensory table as a science table---a hands-on science table.

      I now follow your blog, too. Tom