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Early childhood education has been my life for over 40 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, June 8, 2019

Big box and cardboard tube with opposing inclines

For 28 years, I built apparatus that fit in and around the sand and water table .  Children arrived in my classroom already with a set of competencies that could be expressed while playing with those structures.  I always wondered how those structures would shape children's play and exploration given their competencies.

As I have done over the past couple of posts, let me infuse my musings with a context.  The context I wish to use is an apparatus I built in 2012.  The apparatus was a long narrow box set on an incline.  Children poured wooden fuel pellets down the box through various holes I cut in the box.  The pellets exited the bottom of the box through a slit that directed them down and into the blue tub next to the sensory table.  Here is the original post: big box incline with added element.

The reason I cut multiple holes in the box was to give children multiple points of entry for their operations.  In addition, I partially embedded a cardboard tube in the top area of the box on an opposing incline.  Pellets poured down the tube exited into a small sensory table at the end of the cardboard tube.

Let me start with a couple of competencies that the children brought to the apparatus; scooping and pouring.  Those may sound simple but I wonder if they really are.  I do not know enough about motor development, balance and proprioception to understand how complex those operations really are.  However, given those competencies, how did the incline apparatus shape the children's play and exploration.

In the video below two children poured wood pellets down the box incline through the hole at the top end of the apparatus.  The child on the right poured first.  As he poured, he looked down at the bottom of the box incline because he expected the pellets to exit from there.  He did see some pellets fall out the bottom of the box, but most of his pellets went down the cardboard tube in the opposite direction.  When the child on the left poured his pellets into the box, he seemed to aim his pour so he could direct as many pellets as possible into the cardboard tube.  Both children poured pellets a second time.  The child on the left did a careful pour again making sure to get as many pellets as possible to fall into the cardboard tube.  The child on the right decided to pour pellets through the hole on the top of the apparatus.  He again looked to the bottom of the box for the pellets even though most of them went down the cardboard tube, not down the box.

Aiming for the tube from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

In a way, I think the apparatus gave a novel purpose to their scooping and pouring.  For the child on the left, it was to see how many pellets could he get to disappear down the cardboard tube.  Was he working on his aim or was he fascinated with how the pellets tumbled and disappeared down the tube?  For the child on the right, it was to see where the pellets he poured actually went.  Did he notice the disconnect between how many pellets he poured and how many dropped out of the box at the bottom?  

Another competency that the children brought to the apparatus was an insatiable curiosity of how it worked.  That was true for the two children in the first video and it was also true for the children in the following video.

Two children brought little cars from the block area to use with this apparatus.   One child made ambulance sounds as he positioned his little ambulance in the opening on the top end of the box.  Before letting it go, he moved his head to the hole on the side of the box so he could get a closer look at what happened to the ambulance when he let it go.  He let it go and watched it drop into the cardboard tube.  He knew immediately that it changed directions and went down the tube.  He even told a child at the end of the tube that he caught an ambulance, his ambulance.  A second child in red repeated this experiment but watched his actions through the opening in the top end of the box.  This child knew that his race car changed directions when it entered the tube because he, too, immediately looked to the bottom of the cardboard tube to see where it went.

You caught an ambulance from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

In this case, the apparatus offered the children a challenge: What happened to their cars when they fell into the tube?  That challenge fed their curiosity to figure out the trajectory of the cars they put in motion down the box.

Yet another competency the children brought to the apparatus was the ability to give the apparatus a novel purpose.  In the video below, the same two children who brought the cars to the sensory table were asked to collect the cars at cleanup time.  To collect the cars into the car container, they decided to place the car container at the bottom of the cardboard tube.  In that way, they were able to send all the cars down the tube right into the container. 

Fun way to cleanup the cars from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

I suppose they could have just collected the cars and put them in the container, but by using their ingenuity, they decided there was a more engaging way to collect the cars.  It may not have been the most efficient way to collect the cars because some cars bounced out of the container, but the apparatus afforded an opportunity for them to figure out an original way to collect the cars.  And as the child in the orange stated: "Who knew picking up the cars could be so much fun!"

Since each child is unique who enters our classroom, how do we come to know their competencies?  I contend we can only come to know their competencies in a context that allows them to express their competencies.  If that sounds circular, it probably is.  If we take the time to observe children's play and exploration---not for checklists---we can see that a context can nurture children's competencies and children's competencies can give shape to that very same context.  


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