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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, August 3, 2013


Last week I wrote Ruminations on a Tray.  It was an introduction to a simple construction of a wooden tray that spanned the width of the sand and water table.  I built it to prevent water dripping down smocks into shoes because when children are first learning to pour they either miss or overfill their containers which they usually hold against their chest.  I thought if I could provide a play zone that allowed the children to pour hands-free there would be no more wet shoes.

Believe it or not, there are still plenty of wet shoes because many children still choose to hold the cups against their chest as they pour. 

So what do wet shoes have to do with spatial literacy?  Not much to tell the truth, but by building an apparatus to prevent wet shoes, I began to see children navigate through the spaces created by the apparatus with focus and facility.  In fact, the levels seem to serve as an invitation for them to create transfers of stuff between multiple levels.  

The more I observed children, the more they demonstrated what master investigators of space they are  as they experience the different spaces created by the different levels.  There are at least three different ways children explore space with levels.

First, they can experience the same vertical space on different levels at the same time.  In the picture below, the girl in the stripes is working in the same space as the child in the blue, just up a level or two. Another way to say that is they are working on the same vertical plane.
If you look closely at the hood of the boy in blue, you can see there may be a disadvantage to experiencing the same vertical space on a lower level.  

Second, they can experience the same horizontal space on the same level at the same time.  The two girls below are working on the opposite sides of the same tray.  That is to say, they are operating in the same horizontal space or same horizontal plane.
These two children are both burying their hands and arms in the corn.  At this point, neither has recognized what the other is doing.  All of a sudden their hands touch under the corn.  They both look up and across at each other immediately understanding what just happened.  It was one of those priceless moments that brought a smile to each of their faces.  

Third, the children can actually play on the same level in the same space at the same time.  The picture below shows three children scooping corn from the top tray.   However, the children do not operate on that top level exclusively.  Rather, they take the corn from the top and then transport it to a different level on which they are doing their own thing.  Think of the top tray as a common well from which each is drawing corn.   
Can you imagine the amount of accommodation and negotiation---verbal and non-verbal---that the children exercise when working along side each other like this?   Since they are in the same space, they are practically on top of each other.  I especially appreciate the where-with-all of the girl, who happens to be the littlest and who has to stand on a stool to reach over and through the boys to get her corn. 

Is all this work with levels the children's natural inclination to develop some spatial literacy?  They are certainly learning about how their body works in complex spaces with levels, but are they also laying the groundwork for important spacial knowledge needed to navigate their future world? Such things as location, distance to objects and people, relationships within spaces, ???  I like to believe there is much more going on than just messing around.  Your thoughts?


  1. I like your premise, Tom, that there is more going on than messing about. I am reminded of two five year olds in my class last year who were digging deep horizontal tunnels in the sand, apparently with common but parallel plans. Suddenly, they realized that their hands were on a course to meet, unseen. With a new shared purpose and energy, they dug till they touched. Not wanting to break the magic, they lay there in the sand, hands touching, and yelled for everyone to see what they had discovered. Touching tunnels became an element in the children's alphabet of sand play then. From there, the tunnels evolved to above and below ground systems for water flow. Within the bounds of messing about emerge questions (spoken or silent), from those questions come investigation, invention, and inquiry. Cheers! Pam Oken-Wright

  2. Pam, that is a great story. I especially like the sentence: "Touching tunnels became an element in the children's alphabet of sand play then." Very well said. If we as teachers are always trying to teach, if we are always having the children work on our agenda, school is no longer a place for children. Leaving room for the children's agenda results in episodes of self-directed, self-regulated explorations like the one you just related that lay the foundation for future learning.