About Me

My photo
Early childhood education has been my life for over 40 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, July 13, 2013


Three years ago, I started blogging about the apparatus I build for the sand and water table in my preschool classroom.  In this post, I would like to reflect back on why I started building in the first place.  To do that, I need to go back to the very first apparatus I used at the sensory table. Interestingly enough, it was not an actual building project.  Rather, my first apparatus was a donation from a parent.  Twenty five years ago a mom brought in a big green bucket.  
She worked at a fast food restaurant and the bucket was from a container for hamburger dill pickle slices---five gallons worth!  I accepted her offer, but because I had a small classroom, I did not know where to put it.  For the time being, I decided to put it in the corner near the sand table to hold sand toys.

If you have been around children long enough you can easily imagine the first thing the children did was to dump all the sand toys from the bucket into the sand table.  That did not surprise me. What happened next, did.  Children started to transfer the sand from the table into the bucket and vice versa.  When I stopped to think about what the children were doing, I remembered all the times I had to say: “Don’t dump the sand on the floor!”  My blood pressure would go up and so would my voice. With the bucket in place, though, I changed my message and tone from a negative to a positive by telling the children to “Put it in the bucket.”  When I did that, I got another surprise: they willingly obliged.

With the bucket ensconced next to the table, besides giving me an opportunity be more positive with my request to the children, I realized the children were telling me that they had this inner drive to transport stuff.  Where does that drive come from?  It may harken back to the time when our very survival as a species depended on our ability to transport the necessities of life.  Even today, transporting can be considered a life skill. When an adult goes to the food mart, he begins a whole course of action predicated on transporting food from the store to home.  It begins with walking up and down the food aisles putting things in his basket or cart and ends with putting everything away once he brings it home. I urge you to reflect a bit on your own day; how much transporting of stuff do you do? Like I said, it is a life skill.

Something else happened with the bucket that transformed my practice in the classroom in a very profound way.  I no longer felt like I had to manage the children’s behavior.  I saw that when they had a constructive outlet to transport, they managed their own behavior quite nicely.  To prove my point, look at the picture below.  At the near end of the water table, the bucket has been replaced by a tub to catch the water draining from the pipe.  What you see around the table are nine children, should-to-shoulder, fully engaged in some form of constructive transporting.

There was a cascading effect to this transformation.  Since I no longer needed to micromanage the children's behavior, I was able to observe more.   And the more I observed, the more I saw the children managing their own actions.  That does not mean there are no conflicts, but it does mean that given the chance (adult nonintervention) and the provisions (ways to constructively transport), the children negotiate with each other their needs and wants with minimum strife and a surprising amount of cooperation and accommodation.

Since I see transporting as an overarching operation that drives children's actions, everything I have built since and continue to build to this day allows the children to constructively transport the stuff in and out of the sand and water table.

By the way, I still honor that lowly bucket by having one at the ready next to the table at all times.

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. Tom - Love love this post! Wonderful to discover the first "aha!" from educators. What a process for you and the children engaged in transport work with buckets and contraptions. I also appreciate how it changed your relationship with the children and allowed for the ability to observe more. I am continually inspired by your innovations for sand and water play. I wish I could attend your workshops in Kansas City - hope you will post a reflective blog afterwards! cheers, Jeanne (Zella Said Purple)

    1. Thanks Jeanne. I had some emergency surgery this past weekend, so I had to cancel Kansas City. I will be at National in Washington DC if you are there. I am actually going to do a few more reflective posts why I build and what the children have taught me as the dialogue with the apparatus. Responses like yours encourage me all the more.

  2. I love your blog! You inspired me to try a pvc pipe river for the 4-5 yo's. They love it!!! Something so simple! yet so open ended. The little kids love it just as much! Thanks! Keep up the GREAT work!

    1. Thanks Pauline. PVC river, oh how I would love to see that.