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.

Sunday, July 7, 2013


One of the very first apparatus I wrote about in 2010 was called Cardboard Chutes.  It was a simple apparatus that was made from the v-shaped packing corners of a refrigerator box.  Set on an incline, the chutes provided lots of opportunity to experiment with social conventions and the laws of physics.

Last year, someone gave me some new packing corners.  I added them onto the sides of the original cardboard chutes to create a slightly more complex apparatus.  The children could now put the stuff from the table down either an open chute or a closed chute.  You can find the write-up here.
I hope you notice the boy at the end of the closed chute.  He is all set to watch the cars and sticks race down the closed chute.  Do you think he is going to get bonked?

This year I added yet another component to the original chutes.  I attached cardboard tubes underneath the apparatus.
Oh my, I must say, this is not one of the most attractive apparatus I have ever made.

Here is another view
More attractive?  I think not.

So if the apparatus is not attractive, does it have any redeeming qualities to make it appealing for play and exploration?  This summer I read a book by Frances Pockman Hawkins.  The title is The Logic of Action: Young Children at Work.  In the book she advocates for provisioning for "manageable complexity."  Well, if the apparatus is not overly attractive, then does it provide for manageable complexity?  Take a look at the following picture and you tell me.
Pictured are seven children actively engaged either in solitary play or group play.  If we start on the right and move around the table, lets's see what we get.  The child in the maroon shirt is scooping corn from the tray---not the table---to pour down the cardboard tube.  The girl with the black hair next to him is scooping corn from the table to pour down the chute that has the blue scoop. The child in the foreground on the right is filling a clear plastic tube with corn from the tub. The child in the foreground on the left is catching corn coming from the corn diverted by the clear plastic tube.  He is filling his own clear plastic tube he has in his left hand with the corn he is catching with his scoop.  The child in blue is holding a clear plastic tube to divert the corn through the tube as it tumbles down the chute.  The boy with the pan is pouring the corn down the chute. The seventh child is behind him (you can see the child holding the red scoop).  That child is also pouring corn down the chute that slides underneath the pan.   I was especially struck by the four on the left.  Were they conscious that they were working together?  Or were they each doing their own thing and it happens to look like they are working together?  Or are two or three working together and the other two or one along for the ride?  Manageable complexity?

Here is another possible example manageable complexity.  This is a video clip of three boys filling the five-gallon bucket next to the table.  As the video starts out, you can see they have already gone a long way toward filling the bucket.  The action begins with the child on the right adding a small scoop of corn to the bucket.  Since so much of the corn is in the bucket, they are literally scraping the bottom of the table and tub for more corn.  The child at the end of the tub (not superman) has filled his scoop and proceeds to walk around the table.  As he does, he says: "I know."  He says that because he has an idea.  The idea turns out to be sending corn down the chute for superman to catch and put in the bucket.  Watch.

I hope the fact that he could have put the corn directly in the bucket as he passes right by it on his trip around the table is not lost on you.  Instead he has decided to bring his corn to the top of the chute and send it down to his friends.  You might say he is creating a "corn brigade" to fill the bucket.  Manageable complexity?

As you might guess, I like the concept of manageable complexity.  For me it trumps aesthetics. Maybe someday I will find a way to merge the two.  In the meantime, these types of raw materials will continue to offer manageable complexity to create rich opportunities and possibilities for play and exploration.

P.S. I will be presenting six sessions at the annual CECA conference in Kansas City August 7 and 8.  If you are in the area, you may want to check out the conference (www.CECAkc.org).  If you are going to the conference and attend one of my session, please stop by to introduce yourself. 


  1. I also agree that it trumps aesthetics. I really believe that this kind of play does not need to look "pretty."

    I truly wish that there were a preschool like yours in our area. I'm hoping when we move that we can create a space like this for my sons in our basement. Thanks for the constant inspiration, and for bringing a more scientific approach to play.

    1. Thanks Bebe. I appreciate the comment about scientific approach to play. I think that approach comes from my belief that children are natural scientist themselves and crave the chance to devise their own operations both scientific and otherwise.

  2. Tom,
    I just discovered this site last week and I LOVE it! I teach preschool, and my master's degree focused on learning through scientific inquiry. Your ideas and thoughts are inspiring.

    I do think aesthetics are important (think Reggio schools), but I haven't figured out how to always mix beauty and functionality. If I had to choose, I'd agree with you that manageable complexity is more necessary. I also wish I could figure out how to combine the two. (Currently, my sensory table is filled with salt and cardboard tubes held together with duct tape. Definitely not beautiful!)

    1. Thanks Jen. I know Reggio. I have presented for a local Reggio group (http://www.mnreggio.org/) and if you check out their website, my blog is listed as an additional resource under Teachers as Researchers. I also spent some time observing in Hungarian preschools back in the 70s. I think Europeans have a different sense of aesthetics than Americans. I saw it in Hungary and I see it in the Reggio stuff I see. Truth be told, I do think there is one beautiful apparatus I made. I made it out of wood and finished it nicely. It is Aksel's Tray and you would find it here: http://tomsensori.blogspot.com/2012/11/aksels-tray.html

    2. Tom,

      I am interested in the differences between the European version of classroom aesthetics and the American version. Unfortunately, most American classrooms tend to lean towards manufactured posters and bulletin boards.

      One thing that has impressed and intrigued me about your photos is that you seem to be comfortable with messes on the floor. As much as I encourage my students to get messy (and to make messes), I am met with resistance from parents and administration. How do you deal with people who come into your classroom and see corn or sand (or whatever!) all over the floor?

    3. Hi Jen. Let me see if I can explain the difference in aesthetic sense this way. My wife is from Hungary. When she sets the table for any meal the settings have to look nice. There always has to be a tablecloth and flowers on the table. That was true even in the Hungarian preschool. The table for meals was always set so nicely with tablecloths and the plates and silverware in their places and often a centerpiece of flowers or something else of beauty. It goes further than that, though. In the US we use art materials in an experiential mode. In Hungary and I think in Reggio, the materials are tools the children learn to use to represent their ideas. As a consequence, their art shows it. I am just making a stab in the dark with this.

      Yes, I always have messes. (Actually, that might be a theme for a future blogpost. Thanks.) The messes are an opportunity for the children to learn to clean up. There are always little brooms for the dry stuff like sand and corn. There are always old towels for the wet stuff. I take a lot of pictures and videos of the children to share with the parents. When they see what the children are doing, they don't mind the mess. I don't worry about administration as much as I worry about the custodian. We have a good relationship and he knows at the end of the day, the mess is cleaned up. He tolerates me, let's say.

  3. What you cant do once you start doing. It seems impossible but you have proved me wrong. Excellent post, very motivating. And awesome pictures.