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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, April 29, 2017

Too dangerous?

Last week, I presented at the HighScope International Conference in Detroit.  I am not HighScope trained, but I do know my work has been cited in their curriculum newsletter as a way to get teachers to think differently about the possibility for play and learning at the sensory table using constructions to foster children's thinking.

In one of my presentations, I was challenged by a participant as to the safety of letting the children climb onto the lip of the sensory table.  The teacher told me outright that what I allowed was too dangerous.  Here is the clip showing the children climbing on the lip of the table to pour pellets down a cardboard tube.

Going vertical from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

The reason this video was in the presentation in the first place was because I wanted to make an important point.  Vertical is one of the orientations in the right-hand column of this blog and is always one of the dimensions I think about when I build an apparatus.  Why?  Because children feel the need to go vertical in their operations.  I have learned through the years that children will always go as high as I build.  That means I build only as high as I am willing to let children go.  By extension, anyone building on the vertical should build only as high as they are willing to let the children go.

From the clip, you can guess my comfort level for children going vertical.  However, for me to get to that comfort level, a couple of things had to happen.  First, I had to make sure the construction was sturdy and stable.   That was not so easy with this vertical structure because I knew children would exert significant force in multiple directions on the top of the structure.  That required that I make sure the bottom was really secure.

To that end, even before I put the medium in the table, I taped the bottom of each large white tube to the bottom of the table itself.  I then taped a long cardboard tube across the top of each of the large white tubes.  Now, instead of being three separate tubes, they were now connected making them part of one structure.  For added stability, I taped the long cardboard tube to the lip of the table.  In addition, I taped three cross pieces to the lip of the table and taped each of the large white tubes to a cross piece.  I also embedded a clear plastic tube through two of the large white tubes fortifying the two tallest tubes into a unit.
I am not an architect or an engineer so I cannot tell you how all the elements make this apparatus sturdy and secure but it passed my stability test knowing that children would climb, push and pull on it.

The second thing that needed to happen was that I had to assess in real time the children's coordination, strength and balance as they went vertical on this apparatus.  The child on the left in the red shirt was comfortable from the beginning climbing up and down.  However, the child on the right was tentative from the beginning.  To begin with, even before I started video taping, I positioned myself next to her to see if she could climb both up and down without assistance.  When I was convinced she had the physical acumen to climb on her own, I could then step back and observe.  That did not mean I let my guard down because I knew this child was challenging herself at the edge of her comfort zone.

Below is a video clip of this same child on her way to mastery.  I had already been supervising her to make sure she was comfortable enough going both up and down.  She started out by telling me she could reach "way up there" if she stood on the lip of the table.  She climbed all the way up and poured her pellets down the long cardboard tube.  She then climbed down.


Verticle up and down from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

I could tell she was still working hard with balance and coordination to go up and especially to come down.  However, I also saw that as she climbed, she was in contact with the table and apparatus at three points almost all the time.  So for instance, when she stepped back down onto the stool, one hand held the cardboard tube, one hand was anchored on the lip of the table along with one foot. 
 
She had already figured out that three points of contact gave her the needed support to climb up and down.

I really appreciated being challenged by the participant at the conference.  From looking at the eyes in the crowd as I showed the video, I am sure others felt the same way.  For that reason, I thought it was important to hold that as a legitimate concern for the group.  It was a moment that offered an opportunity to examine our feelings, beliefs and values.  We are, after all, teachers in a classroom of young children making decisions all the time based on our feelings, beliefs and values.  If we do not examine them, we are not living up to our potential as teachers.  The last thing I want in a presentation is for someone to take what I have to say hook, line and sinker.  It is not meant to be prescriptive.  It is meant to be about possibilities.  But the possibilities begin with our own values.

To be perfectly clear, I am not advocating that teachers allow children to climb on the sensory table, especially if they are not comfortable with children climbing on the sensory table.  I rarely worked alone in my classroom.  At times, another teacher or aide had to supervise the sensory table.  I would always tell them that they had to make decisions based on their comfort level.  And, indeed, some of them would not let the children climb on the lip of the table.  I had no problem with that as long as they owned their decision.  Interestingly, the longer they worked with me and saw children challenging themselves physically without getting hurt, the more they would allow.

I never felt like our job was to inhibit what children could do in a space.  Instead, we were to create a supportive physical and psychological space in which the children could test their abilities.  Only through testing themselves, would they start to know what they are capable of doing.  In the process, children would gain the confidence to inhabit the edge of their comfort zone, the place where so much learning potential resides.    

4 comments:

  1. I was at your workshop in Guelph, Ontario last weekend. When seeing this video of the girl climbing on the edge of the sensory bin I, admittedly, was uneasy.

    The idea of risky play is being challenged in every aspect of child care these days and I am a supporter of children taking risks. This was beyond my personal limit; until I returned home and was reflecting on the video and what you said and what I'd learned during my building.

    These apparatus are not built willy-nilly and the physical capabilities of the children are considered and honored for each build. The height of this particular apparatus was part of the design. I admire the sturdiness of each of your apparatus' and learned it's not as easy as taping some boxes together.

    I spent the entire week thinking about a water apparatus for my classroom and brainstorming with my co-Educator on what we can use from the materials already hiding in the storage room.

    I also love your shelf of Hodgepodge and Doohickies. Brilliant.

    One day I will make a pot of tea and binge read all of these blog entries. In the meantime, I'll draw inspiration from these posts and wish you were my dad so I could call you up to help me troubleshoot!

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    1. Thanks Michelle. The group of educators in Guelph was extremely affirming and got me thinking that I should start building again even though I no longer have a classroom. There were several ideas I never realized when I was working in the classroom and a new water one just popped into my head two days ago when I saw a picture of a 55-gallon plastic barrel.

      I will let you in on a little secret. Even though I said I was comfortable with the children going so vertical, I was never able to completely relax and was never too far away from the table when the children were climbing on it. I was willing to live with uncertainty so the children could test their potential.

      If you ever have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask.

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  2. Risk is a tricky space. Unfortunately, you have to be comfortable enough to allow children to take risk in order to see how good they really are at assessing their own abilities. Personally, I love everything about this video and these photos. It's our job as educators to challenge and extend children - whether vertically or intellectually - it's how we build independent problem-solvers.

    Sorry I missed you at the HighScope Conference. I saw you from afar, but never had a chance to catch up in person. I hope our paths cross again someday soon. Until then, I will continue to find inspiration in your blogs!

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    1. Thanks Holly. I actually saw you from a distance, too.

      I agree, risk is a tricky space and we all have our own tolerance to what we perceive as risky. I have a higher tolerance than most ec educators, but that still does not mean that I throw caution to the wind. In fact, I am cautious by nature and not a huge physical risk-taker myself. So for instance, with the child climbing the sensory table, I had to resist my temptation to say something like: Are you sure you want to do that? I have found by being quiet and watching the child closely, I gain a better understanding of where the child is at in terms of handling the risk. Does that make sense?

      The video is also a provocation for teachers to show what children are capable of. However, it is not meant to be a prescription for others should do. It is meant more for teachers to dig deep to understand what and why they believe what they do about risk.

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