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, May 20, 2017

Starting simple

I worked in the field of early childhood education for 38 years.  Over 30 of those years were spent in the classroom with children.  When I began my career in a small, non-profit childcare center, I did not have a sensory table in my classroom.  It took 10 years of teaching before I got a sensory table.  At that point, I was hired by a public school district to be an infant/toddler teacher in a family education program.  When I began to set up my new classroom, I found I had inherited a sensory table from the previous teacher.  I actually inherited two sensory tables from her, one for sand and one for water.  Both of them were very small.

As I started working with the sensory tables, I found them quite boring.   That was especially true of the sand table.  The setup was very basic: sand, shovels, scoops and pails.  The children quickly tired of the setup and so did I.  One of the first things I did to make the sensory table a little more interesting was to add an element or two to foster a little more play and exploration.  One of the early additions was a cardboard box taped inside the table with an attached plastic chute.
This is a digital picture of a photo from over 25 years ago.  I was already taking pictures back then, but because I was using rolls of film and because I was new at documenting, my pictures are not so plentiful and not so informative.

I said the table was small.  It was a metal table that stood 10 inches off the ground and was a square that measured 2' x 2'.  I did have a mat underneath that expanded the total sensory area to 4' x 4'.  Needless to say, even the expansion did not create a big area.

One of the important elements of this setup is the five-gallon pail next to the table.  If you look at the axioms in the right-hand column of this blog, the very first axiom states that children need to transport the sand out the table.  The pail gives them the option to do it constructively.  And, as many of you know from firsthand experience, without the bucket, the sand gets dumped on the floor.

My documentation on this apparatus is sparse.  I usually like to go into some depth about how the children explored an apparatus.  I cannot do that with this apparatus.  All I can do is speculate.

I am struck by the simplicity of this setup: a cardboard box with a plastic chute inside the table.  Though it was a simple setup, it created several spaces within the table that were intriguing invitations for the children's operations.

In the picture below, there are four main spaces in which the children can operate.  There is the pail and the the box.  Both of these spaces can be considered spaces to fill and empty.  There is the chute which allows the children to set the sand in motion.  In addition, the chute creates a space underneath.  If the children want to get sand by scooping underneath the chute, they have to figure out how to do that without bumping into the chute and without spilling.  And there is the sand table itself.   Interestingly, the cardboard box divides the sand table into different areas: there are areas on each side of the cardboard box and one in front of the box.  The box is both a barrier and guide for the children to operate in that space.  For instance, if a child wants to scoop sand with the white measuring cup, she has to move the cup laterally as defined by the edge of the cardboard box and the edge of the sand table.

When I started building apparatus, I had a birth-to-five classroom.   In the pictures I have of this apparatus, there are three children of different ages (4, 3, and 1) all playing at the table at the same time.  Not bad for a simple apparatus.

I started transforming my sensory table by building simple apparatus.  If you are tempted to build, I would urge you to start with simple constructions, too.  Though the structure might be simple, the children create their own complexity through play and exploration.  Just imagine what the play would be like for these children in this tiny table without the box and chute.  


Saturday, May 13, 2017

A little self promotion

Last year I was approached by Sally Haughey at Fairy Dust Teaching to be one of the presenters for the 2016 Fairy Dust Virtual Summer Conference.  The conference was a success so she is organizing another online conference for this summer.  I was again asked to be a presenter at this summer's conference.

Last year, I presented on expanding play and learning at the sand and water table by creating easy-to-build constructions from cheap, often recycled, materials using simple tools.  The constructions invited children into new spaces that were intriguing and that fostered self-directed exploration.  What I did not realize until late in the fall is that my presentation garnered the most comments: 508.  I was surprised at the number of comments; how positive they were; and that they came from all over the world.  I should have replied to the comments but, through my own fault, I did not know how to access them until connecting with Sally late in the fall.  By then it was too late to respond.  To give you an idea of what people said, I have included several of the comments at the end of this post.

This year, I will again be presenting on play and learning at the sand and water table.  However, this will be a new presentation that I developed recently.  The title of the new presentation is: Dialogue with Water: Children's scientific inquiry at the water table.  In the original presentation, children played and explored mostly with dry medium such as sand and feed corn.  In this new presentation, the children play with water in its various states.  The main emphasis of this new presentation is to show that children, given the time and materials, author their own experiments that illustrate how capable they are of complex scientific thinking.  So far only groups in Juneau, Detroit and Guelph have seen this presentation.

I am amazed at the group of speakers Sally has lined up for the conference: Teacher Tom from Seattle, Rae Pica, Sandra Duncan, Debi Keyte-Hartland, and Dr. Diane Kashin and Cindy Green to name just a few.  For more information about the conference, here is the link: 2017 Fairy Dust Virtual Summer Conference.

Here are some of the comments from my last year's presentation:

Wow! So many great, yet completely do-able ideas.  I can't wait to try some of these.  I think I'll be playing right along with children.

The objects that Tom used allowed children time for trial and error while learning through play.  As we know children are curious about how the world works and Tom reminds us to give children time, space and instruments to explore and learn.

It is amazing to see how each apparatus provided so many opportunities for complex thinking an creative exploration.  

Thank you!  Your insight into the joy of learning is contagious!  Letting the children get so invested in their play is a beautiful sight.

Wow!  So many ideas to encourage motor development, problem solving, social communication, and science.

This session made me wanna use the tables right away.  Play is children's language.  I am really impressed with the videos.  I realised that in Turkey we don't give much emphasis on sand and water tables.  I can clearly see how they foster creativity.  Lots of "sound of pure joy!" 

Many thanks for all the suggestions for expanding the life of the sensory table! Your apparatus were so imaginative and creative, they provided the children with opportunities for much deeper learning experiences.

This was really inspiring on so many levels Tom!  I truly respect your dedication for your work and how you were able to very creatively reinvent the sand and water table.

I'm truly inspired by Tom's deep understanding of engaging students through sensory play.  It is very helpful how he breaks down the various elements and orientations making it simple to see how children interact with the tables-great!!

When I first saw the title of this workshop I thought, "more cutsie pinterest ideas of things to put into the sensory table"boy was I surprised...Thank you for helping me see sensory learning in a whole new way.

Working in a Reggio centre in an affluent suburb, we are so focused on aesthetics of our provocations and experiences.  This video brought me back to the basics that if the experience is meaningful, interesting and FUN to children, they don't care if it looks like a pretty doll house or a cardboard covered in duct tape.

And finally, to sum it up:

So many wonderful ideas and implementations!  I love that these ideas have all evolved out of a magical mixture of the following (in no particular order): 
1. Tom's profound respect for and trust of children and their natural disposition to explore, play, create, and build meaning.
2. Tom's ability to observe children and discern their motivations and needs, instead of being derailed or limited by his interests and needs.  He cannot know how the children will interact with his creations, but he is willing to relinquish control to let the children show him the way (or rather "the ways" plural)
3. Tom's own natural inclination to create and innovate - what better model could there be for his students.
4. Tom's knowledge of his students and his ability to adapt his decision-making process in each moment to his understanding of the individuals involved.  Bravissimo!  A pure pleasure to witness Tom's ideas in action.  Illuminating!

If my attempt at self-promotion sounds the least bit enticing, I urge you to check out the 2017 Fairy Dust Virtual Summer Conference.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Workshop in Guelph

Over the past couple of years, I have corresponded with Aaron Senitt, a kindergarten teacher in Guelph, Canada, about building and creating spaces and what that means for children in the classroom.  Our correspondence led to a reflective post in 2015 on how children use and inhabit spaces.  Over the past couple of years, I have also followed the work of Melissa Mazar, another person from Guelph.  Melissa created a drop-in space for families called the Children's Art Factory.  What first got my attention from Melissa's work were her pictures of her sensory table setups.  

Fast forward to 2017.  When I found out that a couple of my presentation proposals were accepted at the HighScope International Conference in Detroit, I looked at the map and saw that Guelph was a little over three hours from Detroit.  I contacted Aaron to ask him about the possibility to do a presentation in Guelph.  It turned out that Aaron and Melissa were good friends and they were delighted with my offer to come to Guelph.  So after finishing the conference in Detroit, I headed to Guelph to do my first workshop in Canada.

I quickly realized that this was going to be a good workshop because the participants started to arrive carrying loads of different materials and every manner of tool to build with.  When participants bring stuff to the workshop that means they have already started to think about building and are primed and ready to go.

After a 45-minute presentation highlighting elements and dimensions to incorporate when building that are important to children in their explorations, the real work---and fun---started.  The first task, of course, was to brainstorm what to build and where to start.
This is such an important first step because it models many of the skills we ask of the children.  We want children to be able express their ideas clearly.  We want children to be able to negotiate with others around their ideas.  We want children to accommodate and cooperate with others in the building process. 

That does not mean the ideas need to be fully formed to begin building.  Many times participants start with an element they know they want to use in their construction and immediately go about creating it.


One group knew they wanted to use a cardboard tube cut in half.  They immediately cut the tube using a sawzall, a tool one of them had brought.  The person cutting said it cut like butter.  Then they taped the two halves together to finish the element.




Now that this one element was completed, they again had to brainstorm, negotiate, accommodate and cooperate to complete the next step in the building process.
This process never ends.  There is nothing wrong with that.  In fact, it is an extremely good practice because when people build an apparatus for the sensory table---especially if it is a little more complicated---things do not always go as planned.  There may be some frustrations, but because this is a creative process, the fun is in the building.

Near the end the workshop, I asked the participants to do a debrief.  I asked them to talk to the group about their constructions.  I especially asked them to talk about the features they chose to include in their structures.  I also asked them to talk about the process with an emphasis on difficulties they encountered and how they worked around or through them.

As part of the workshop, I always have documentation on the walls showing things that I have built over the years.  I display the documentation for participants to look at when they arrive and to reference when they start building.  Indeed, this group looked at the documentation before the workshop, but they were so busy creating their own apparatus that they never used my documentation as a reference.  Each one of their constructions was unique.  Here are a couple I thought found especially intriguing.


Thank you to the educators from Guelph and its surrounds for playing with your hearts, minds and hands.  Thank you Aaron and Melissa for making it possible to visit your fair city; for the warm welcome; and for the long conversations about our craft.  I came away inspired and thinking, even though I no longer have my own classroom, I must start building again.

I urge you to check out Melissa's Facebook page ( Children's Art Factory ) because she is doing some very extraordinary things with sensory tables and art for the children in Guelph.  Her drop-in is so successful, she will be moving to a larger space this summer.