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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, October 10, 2015


This summer I did a couple of workshops in Madison, Wisconsin.  In one of the sessions, I asked a group of participants to brainstorm ideas for building an apparatus using multiple planter trays.  I gave them three trays and a set of documentation describing some of the things I had already built using multiple trays.  They saw examples like the following.

(If you want to see examples and explanations of multiple tray constructions, here is a good place to start: Planter Trays Sensory Table Staple.)

The workshop participants took the documentation and ran with it.  All my examples had a dry medium---wood pellets or feed corn---with the multiple trays.  One of their ideas was to change the medium to water and put the trays on a slant.  Their suggestion was like that proverbial light bulb going on in my head.  Why had I only used dry ingredients with multiple trays?  I know one of the reasons was that I could not get past the idea that the trays would fill up with water and be too heavy.

I took their suggestion and set up a multiple tray apparatus to be used with water.  As it turned out, it looked very similar to my previous multiple tray apparatus. The big difference was that there were holes in the trays so water would flow out without filling up the trays.
The two bottom trays formed the base of the apparatus.  One hole was punched in the bottom of each of those trays so water emptied directly into the water table.  The second level was created using two trays, each taped to one lip of the base and each end of the table.  Because the lips of the trays were higher than the ends of the table, the trays slanted slightly toward the ends of the table.  Notice the end of the trays on the second level extended beyond the table itself.  Two holes were punched in the bottom so when water was poured into the trays of the second level, it dropped through the holes into the tubs next to the table.  The third level was one tray taped onto the two trays of the second level.  There were two holes punched in each end of this tray so when water was poured into the top tray, it emptied into the trays on the second level.  In the picture below you can see how this worked.  When the boys poured water into the top tray, water flowed out in two streams into the tray on the second level.  The water continued to flow down that tray and out two holes into the tub next to the table.

There ended up to be a lot of focused activity around these streams of water from the bottom of the trays on each level  And those activities ran the gamut from simply catching the water coming from the bottom of the trays...

...to trying to pour and catch at the same time.
This child was pouring water from a clear bottle into the tray.  At the same time, he placed the baster over one of the holes in the bottom of the tray to catch the water he was pouring.  That was a highly complex maneuver that only a child could think up.

I added dish soap to the water in hopes of creating bubbles.  To my surprise, copious amounts of suds formed in the trays and in the tubs as the water dropped from one level to the next.  

Suds are an interesting substance.  They have substance, but they have very little weight.  They also stick to everything, so they do not pour.  If they get on the hands, it is not so easy to get them off.  But leave it to the children to figure out how to get suds off their hands.  One child had so much fun getting suds off his hands, he kept repeating the operation over and over again.   Watch.

As you can tell from the video, the child was in control of his actions.  He knew the suds were getting all over the floor.  At this point, as the teacher, I had to make a decision.  Considering the floor was getting wet, do I stop the play because someone might slip or do I let the child continue?  When I heard his laughter and heard him say it looks like it's snowing, it was an easy decision: The play was too valuable to stop.

There was another reason I decided to let the child continue with his play: it provided an opportunity for the child to clean up when he was done. 
With a simple request and the right tool---a handy towel---the child was more than willing to clean up his "snow."  

I need to send a big thank you to the folks in Madison for changing my idea of what kind of play and exploration emerges just by changing the medium.  It seems inspiration is a two-way street that emanates in the free exchange of ideas.  

That said, if you are going to the NAEYC national conference in Orlalndo in November, I am presenting on sand and water tables.  The session is on Thursday morning from 8:00-9:30, so we will see who are the early birds.   Any readers of the blog who want to chat, I would love to find a time to meet and exchange ideas.  Please feel free to contact me through my email: tpbedard@msn.com


  1. Wow! And to just think that while cleaning out my basement, I was going to throw away 4 long planters like these. Now, I can dust them off and create a version of what I have seen here. My hubby said in the past that I have become a "junk" hoarder, but when he saw the creations I make with my stockpile of "junk" he is amazed and doesn't comment much anymore :-) Thanks for sharing this meaningful waterplay activity

    1. Thanks, Faye. I am glad the post inspired you. I often keep things for years before I figure out what to do with them. People no longer give me grief for storing things. If fact, they now give me more stuff that I have to store. If you get a chance, I would love to see what you create. Tom