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, March 28, 2015


Last April I received and email from a fellow teacher, Aaron Senitt, who teaches in a kindergarten in Guelph, Canada.  In the email, he attached one of the newsletters he sent home to parents in February 2014 he entitled "Creating Space."   He opens the newsletter writing about a Kindergarten Merzbau, "...a structure that has been growing in our classroom.  It began as a single sand table…"  That sure got my attention.

Since receiving that email, I have carried on a correspondence with Aaron.  One of the issues for me is: what exactly is a Merzbau?  How do I understand it?  Aaron has a background in arts education that he draws from.  He states in an article for Canadian Art Teacher, that Merzbau is a term created by a German artist named Kurt Schwitters that refers to "…a solid, organic, inhabitable form located within the house he lived in."1  Aaron points out that Schwitter's Merzbau was an open ended and "highly personal, sculptural space."2  One of the defining characteristics of the Merzbau was the connections it created between spaces within his house.

For Aaron, the Merzbau was a concrete construction around the sensory table that changed and grew and created new connections with space for everyone in his classroom.  It was also a metaphor for life in his classroom because connections continually change and grow along with relationships with others, the materials and space.

Because of our correspondence and his writing, I began to look at the constructions around my table differently.  Over 15 years ago, I remember attaching several large boxes together in a 6' x 12' area of my room over the course of a month.  Children could enter into or exit the structure through multiple doors and windows.  Back then I thought simply that this was fun for the kids. Aaron inspired me to look at the bigger constructions in a new way.  These constructions became solid, organic spaces that the children inhabit.  From his email, I resolved to build my own Merzbau this time with an eye towards seeing how the children inhabit the spaces created by the structure.

Last October, I recreated the structure from 15 years ago.   It was not exactly the same because the boxes were different sizes and different shapes.  I called it Big Box Fort.

From my observations, I started to see different types of interactions by the children depending on how the inhabitable space divided them or brought them together.  Whether those interactions took place outside, partially outside or inside.

I subsequently moved some of the big box structure over to the sensory table: Big Boxes Migrated to the Sensor Table.
Because the big boxes were now at the sensory table, they became more than places to socialize.  The structure now created spaces in which work was done.  The work was done inside the boxes, inside the table from inside the boxes and next to the boxes.  There was a lot of transporting between spaces both inside and outside.

Like any good Merzbau, it grew.  More boxes were added with different connections and orientations.

The new configuration created new spaces that separated play in some ways, but connected play in other ways.

In my latest attempt to create a Merzbau, I have combined 10 boxes over four weeks to form one apparatus.  Here is the progression.  The first week was a  Big Box Big Windows apparatus that was installed horizontally across the top of the sensory table.
This is two boxes because there is a box embedded horizontally in the top of the big box across the width of the box.

The second week I added two more boxes: a large box inserted in the window of the big box and a column box embedded vertically in the big white box.  These two boxes created an addition to the original structure.

The third week, I added three more boxes.  Two boxes were column boxes embedded vertically through the big box in two conners.  One column box was long and reached from above the big box to the floor.  If children poured pellets in it, the pellets emptied into a tub on the floor.  The second column box fit completely into the big box.  
The third box was embedded horizontally through the white box and could be accessed from either side of the apparatus.

With the addition of the column boxes, the nature of the play necessarily changed ever so slightly.  Without the column boxes in the corner, the child on the left could easily reach the pellets at the bottom of the table. The child on the right, however, had to prop himself in the window to reach around the column box to get to the pellets.

The fourth week, I added three more boxes for a grand total of ten boxes to complete this Merzbau.  Two of the boxes are flat boxes taped to the top of the two big boxes.  A third box stands vertically next to the big white box and through the bottom of the flat white box.

When you look at the overall footprint of this apparatus compared to when it was comprised of two or four boxes, it has not grown substantially.  Here in lies the difference from the previous big box structures at the table.  I added boxes on the inside and on the top so the structure grew inwards and upwards as opposed to the the other one that grew out and around.   Two different types of growth.  Sounds like another metaphor for a Merzbau and life in the classroom.

As a consequence, the children's operations become more constricted on the inside.

And at the same time, there are more levels to work on in a smaller, vertical space.

And an opportunity for the children to further challenge themselves vertically in their operations.

For me, then, a Merzbau is a construction that creates spaces that are solid, organic and inhabitable.  As children operate in those spaces, they form connections with their own capacities, with the materials and with others.  I especially like the concept of inhabit because without the children at the apparatus, there is no life in the constructions.  And children know how to inhabit the apparatus---literally.

1. Sennit, Aaron. Kindergarten Merzbau. Canadian Art Teacher.  13(1) 2014. P. 4.
2. Ibid.


  1. Do you have a blog post at all where you talk about the fillers you use in your table and how you store the ones you aren't using?

    1. Pippi, no I don't. I will think about it though.

    2. Thanks, Tom. What are the pellets you use?

    3. The pellets are fuel pellets used in fuel stoves to heat houses in our northern climate. They are made of compressed sawdust.

  2. This is wonderful evidence of our ongoing conversation about and through, materials and ideas; thanks again and again Tom. I have been wanting to add a comment regarding our classroom, with the emphasis on “our”. In Ontario the Full Day Kindergarten classroom (with 15 or more children) typically consists of a Teacher and an Early Childhood Educator; this is important because the support of the ECE makes the kind of work we do all the more possible. The emphasis that the ECE I work with brings to the developmental needs and experiences of the children helps keep me on solid ground.