About Me

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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.

Monday, April 15, 2024

Wood Pellets

Because I am often asked what materials I use in my sand and water table, I am writing a series of posts about those materials.  I started to introduce some of those materials in posts about two of my favorite materials: sticks and rocks.  I also wrote about a couple of the most elemental materials I use in the table, namely, water and sand.  (By the way, water comes in different states and there are several different types of sand.)  In February, I wrote a post on feed corn.

In this post, I write about wood pellets.  Wood pellets are made of compressed saw dust and are burned in pellet stoves to heat a house.  They are also used for grilling.  There are softwood pellets and hardwood pellets.  I generally used pellets made from pine saw dust.

Before I write about the pellets, there is a story behind how I discovered them.  One year I had a child in my classroom who had so many allergies to food that the parent was introducing one food at a time to see if the child could tolerate it.  I had been using feed corn because I really liked its unique properties for children's play and exploration.  Even though feed corn is ostensibly for animals, it was close enough to food that I removed it as a medium from my sensory table.  Thus began a quest to find a medium with similar properties.  I found what I was looking for in a big box hardware store in the form of wood pellets.

So what are some of the unique properties of wood pellets as a medium that are similar to feed corn?  First, the wood pellets come in small, light bits much like feed corn.  Those properties invite children to collect the wood pellets and corn kernels to fill their containers 

My point is well made with two pictures from my archives.  In the picture above a child fills multiple containers with pellets.  In the picture below, two children fill whatever container they find with a mix of pellets and feed corn.  

Like the kernels in feed corn, pellets require the children to use their pincer grip to handle the individual pieces. 

The child above has found a hole in a small stand next to the sensory table.  Using her developing small motor skills, she proceeds to drop individual pellets into the hole. 

Another similarity with feed corn is how the wood pellets flow down an incline tube. Water and sand flow in a continuous stream, but with the pellets there is a discernible dispersion pattern as they drop out of the tube.

This is a setup in which a big box is partially embedded in the sensory table.  Children at the top of the tube pour pellets down and the child in the box plugs the lower end with a small plastic pail. When the tube is full, the child in the box pulls the plug and the pellets come gushing out.

Much like the feed corn, the pellets seem to invite and even encourage children to totally immerse their hands and arms as they explore the medium.

In one cubicle, the child in orange has buried his hands and arms in the mass of wood pellets.  He is helped by the child in the stripes who gathers more pellets from another cubicle to add to the mass of pellets and further bury the other child's hands and arms.  The middle cubicle is already empty so you know this is a joint endeavor that is taking time and persistence.

Yet another property that wood pellets have in common with the feed corn is the popping sound they make when they are poured into a tub

This child carefully pours pellets into the tub next to the sensory table.   The sound of the pellets popping as they hit the bottom of the tub is an integral part of her endeavor.

There are at least two properties that differentiate wood pellets from feed corn.  One is the smell.  Wood pellets smell like wood and feed corn smells like, well, corn.  This is the sensory table and smell is part of the experience.

Another difference between the wood pellets and the feed corn is the shape.  The feed corn has flat sides; the wood pellets are little round cylinders.

Because the pellets are round they roll and can make quite a mess. However, said mess is a great opportunity for children---given the right tools---to help take care of the room with real work.

When that family left the program, I brought back the feed corn.  However, I do owe a debt of gratitude to the mom and child who set me on my quest to find a substitute for feed corn.  And because of that, I gained a new medium with unique properties that I could rotate from time to time into the sensory table.

Saturday, February 10, 2024


Because I am often asked what materials I use in my sand and water table, I am writing a series of posts about those materials.  I started to introduce some of those materials in posts about two of my favorite materials: sticks and rocks.  Last October, I wrote about one of the most elemental materials I use in the table, namely, water.  And last month, I wrote about another elemental material, namely, sand.

In this post, I write about corn, specifically feed corn.  Many years ago, I found myself in the feed section of a big hardware store.  I eyed a 50lb bag of feed corn and decided to try it in the sensory table.

Children are experts at exploring the materials in the sensory table.  Below, the child's exploration adds a little bit of knowledge about what is corn: how does it smell; how does it feel as she immerses her arms in the corn.


The corn in the sensory table is made up of many individual kernels.  Leave it to a child to find a hole in which to drop individual kernels.

Not only is this child exploring if the individual kernels fit in the small hole, he is also honing his fine motor skills by using a pincer grip to handle the individual kernels.
Below, the children experience how the corn exits the cardboard chute.  The child trying to catch the corn with the pink cup begins to understand that the corn does not exit the chute in a stream much like water or sand, but disperses helter-skelter.
It makes it a little harder to fill his cup, but or so much more fun.  And speaking of fun, how great it must feel to enjoy a "corn rain."
In their operations, the children are able to make a lot of good noise.  In the short video below, the children are creating a total aural experience as they all dump the corn down the big wardrobe box incline
Sometimes, I like to add actual corn cobs to the corn in the sensory table.  It may be hard to see, but below the child is using the handle of a small measuring cup to dislodge individual kernels of the corn.
Not only is she honing her fine motor skills, she problem solves to create a tool to help her extract the kernels from the cob.

Last year I wrote about strategies I used to make changes in the sensory table.  One strategy was to change the material in the table.  Below the children are using a dump truck to deposit a material into a hole.  The child on the left is dumping sand and the child on the right is dumping corn. 
Even though the children are doing the same exact operation, they are learning about the properties of each material.  That includes things like the difference in sound, weight and smell.  It is not that the children set out to find the differences.  Rather, their actions with the different materials add to an embedded knowledge about those differences.  

 Up next: wood pellets.





Sunday, January 14, 2024


Because I am often asked what materials I use in my sand and water table, I am writing a series of posts about those materials.  I started to introduce some of those materials in my recent posts about two of my favorite materials: sticks and rocks.  Last October, I wrote about one of the most elemental materials I use in the table, namely, water.

In this post, I will write about another elemental material, namely, sand.  Like water, sand can take different forms. 

First of all, there is generic play sand.  I always get my sand from a big box hardware store in bags that is labeled "play sand."

Never underestimate the power of plain old sand to foster all types of play from scooping, pouring, filling and dumping.  The one aspect of generic sand that I do not appreciate is that it tends to be dusty, especially when children pour it even from a small height.  To counteract the dust, I use a spray bottle to slightly spray the sand with water.  When I change the material in the table, I always make sure the sand is completely dry when I store it in a bucket because wet sand gets musty.

I appreciate different kinds of sands so I was excited one when one year I found a white play sand.  The beauty of this sand is that it is dustless so I do not have to spray it with water.  An added plus with this sand is that it was very fine and soft.
Children in the picture above are pouring sand over a pegboard platform.   Even though the sand is dropping a couple of levels, there is no dust.
Another feature that enhances the children's play with the sand is that it is so white.  In the picture below, one child pretends it is snow and explains to the other child how a blizzard buried all the vehicles.  (You have to understand that I write this blog from Minnesota where we can have snow on the ground for up to six months.)

One year, I found a beige sand that has many of the same properties as the white sand.  It is very fine, dustless and quite soft to the touch.

There are other fine sands at hardware stores that are often used for sandblasting, but avoid them because they have what are called free silicates.  Free silicates are bad for the lungs.  In fact, avoid any sand that contains them.

Another type of sand that is in my inventory is Moon Sand.  Moon Sand is not a sand that is pourable. Instead it is moldable, which is great for making things like cakes. 

Notice that the two trays make it possible to display the cakes above the bottom of the sensory table.
Since Moon Sand sticks together and can form a solid shape or block, the children can use real tools to cut it.  Below, four children have filled the wooden tray completely with Moon Sand and are all using different size putty knives to cut and jab the block of Moon Sand.  Serious work requires serious tools.
I know there are recipes for making your own Moon Sand.  I have never tried to make it.  I always ordered a commercial version.  By the way, there are other kinds of specialty sand such as kinetic or slimy sand, but I never tried them.  They do look interesting.
I saved my favorite sand until last.  It is called Jurassic Sand.   It's color is striking while being dust free, dye free, chemical free and millions of years old to boot.  It is also expensive; I always joke with the parents that it is so expensive because it is "antique" sand. 
Over the years, I have kept adding to my stash of Jurassic Sand until I now have enough for two tables which is over two hundred dollars worth, but worth every penny.

Since it is Jurassic Sand, I often times I like to include little dinosaurs to enrich the children's play.

When people asked me if I ever mix sand and water my answer has always been: no!  That was true until the spring of 2016 right before I retired from the classroom.   The reason why I changed my mind was because of another feature of Jurassic Sand: it is washable.  If you want to read more about why and what happened when I mixed water with Jurassic Sand, you can find the answers in the following post entitled I dare you.

If you have been following this thread about what I put in the sensory table you may be getting the idea that I like materials from nature.  You would not be mistaken.  So what is up next?  Stay tuned!




Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Sensory materials for the sand and water table.

Because I am often asked what materials I used in my sand and water table, I will write a series of posts about those materials.  In a way, I have already started to introduce some of those materials in my most recent posts about two of my favorite materials: sticks and rocks.

Let me backtrack with a post about one of the most elemental materials for the sensory table, namely water.  However, when I think of water, I think about how varied that material can be.

First of all, there is just plain old water that one gets from the faucet.  It was never enough for me to just have water and cups and bottles for pouring and filling.  I always felt that children would tire of that setup rather quickly.  Instead, I would add a construction to the sensory table to invite children to explore the properties of water.  For instance, one of the most dynamic apparatus was a large PVC pipe with funnels that was oriented on a slant so when the children poured water into a funnel, the water would exit the end of the pipe into a tub next to the table.

That may sound simple, but there were some serious physics going on there.  Namely, the lateral force of water poured into the pipe through the funnel carried buoyant objects out the pipe.  Of course, the children did not have words for their physics experiments, but never the less, they were gaining important knowledge about the properties of water.  Back in 2011, I wrote a post about more ways children discovered some of the properties of water, specifically water pressure and hydraulics

To offer the children a little different experience with water, I sometimes used liquid water color to color the water.  This was especially useful for the children to tract the flow of water though clear plastic tubing.

I wrote a post back in 2015 about the different tracking strategies the children used to track the the water through the tubes here. And wouldn't you know it, there was even a little bit about hydraulics again.

To offer children yet a different experience with water, I often added a little dish soap to the water.  That made it possible for the children to create suds.  Below, when the child poured water into the tray, the water dropping through the holes in the tray agitated the soap and water to produce suds.

Suds was a fantastic material.  One of the properties that the children discovered was that suds adhered to a lot things, like the hands and face.

Suds mixed with paint offered a unique experience for the children to mix colors, paint objects---including themselves---and generally make a beautiful mess.  

I live in Minnesota.  That means water often took on a different state in the winter, namely snow.  A few times each winter I would bring the snow into the sensory table for the children to explore. Because the snow was inside, the children could experience the snow without heavy coats and mittens.  Instead, they got up close and personal by handling the snow with their bare hands.  

Snow was also a great medium on which to paint because it offered the children a bright white canvas.  (Notice how the simple tray spanning the width of the table held the children's painted snow creations above the table of snow and even showcased those very creations.)

There was one more state of water that the children got to experience at my sensory table, namely ice.  Again, this was usually a material that I set out in the winter.  The usual invitation to explore the ice took the form of freezing things in ice and offering tools to the children to extract those things frozen in ice.

Water in the water table was so much more for me than cups for pouring and filling bottles and and other containers.  It was observing the children experiencing the different states of water with many different setups.  Those setups exponentially increased children's exploration of water and its properties.

This post has only scratched the surface of the rich possibilities for children experimenting with water in different states and with different setups. 

Next up: sand.




Tuesday, August 22, 2023


A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post singing the praises of offering rocks for children's play and exploration at the sensory table.  You can find the link here.  Now let me sing the praises of offering sticks for children's play and exploration at the sensory table.

For me, the term sticks was a very broad category.  It included such things as bark, driftwood and sticks of various sizes, shapes, lengths and texture.

This display was just one example of items the children could choose from for their play in the sensory table.   This was more than a science table display; it was an invitation for the children to interact with these natural elements in their never ending quest to create.
This child balanced sticks over a bowl and then poured sand through the creation. Was this child recreating a camp fire?

This child got real creative by inserting a crooked stick into the hole of a tree knot to create a microphone. 

This child found a good size piece of bark to fashion it into a ramp for testing how rocks slid down.  That might sound simple, but in essence the child created a tool for her exploration.

Once I knew the children in my room and trusted them to use sticks more constructively than not, I introduced long sticks that I had collected on one of river walks along the Mississippi River.

These children decided to build "bridges" across the width of the table.  They then created a game in which they would place a bug on one of the sticks and then shake the stick so the bug would drop into the table.  (Believe it or not, there was absolutely no sword fighting with these sticks!)


I did say I had a broad definition of sticks.  In fact some of the sticks I offered the children were branches.

This child decided to take out all the branches from the sensory table and stack them on the floor.  I really felt like he was "working."  In any case, it fulfilled a need to transport coupled with the physical challenge of moving large pieces of wood. 

Again, I pushed the bounds of what constituted a stick by putting a stump and a tree trunk in the sensory table for the children to explore.

Speaking of transporting and physical challenges that children create for themselves, this child decided to move the trunk of the tree to roll it onto the stump.

If you want to read more about how I introduced sticks in the classroom and how the children made sense of those natural elements, check out this post and this post.

I knew that sticks were important for children.  Any time I would take a walk with children or my grandchildren, they would inevitably pick up sticks.  Since they were important for children, I made a point of bringing them inside creating a context in which the children found constructive ways to use them.

Sunday, July 30, 2023


Rocks were one of my favorite things to put in the sensory table.  One reason was: I liked to bring natural elements into the classroom.  Another reason was: rocks in my collection came in all shapes, sizes and colors.  For example, some were porous; some were rough; some were smooth; some were heavy; some were surprisingly light; some were speckled; some had stripes. And another reason was: as a child, I just liked rocks. I would hunt for agates and, every chance I got, I would skip rocks across the water.  (I still like rocks and skip them any time I get a chance.)

Here was an example of a variety of rocks that I exhibited on a table next to the sensory table.  The rocks were there to explore and transport into the sensory table.

This set of rocks had many features to discover.  However, let me highlight just a couple.  There was a small gray rock that was smooth and had a round hole in it.  The fossil rock also had a hole, however the shape was of a telltale snail not smooth and round like the one in the small rock.  On the other hand, the volcanic rock had many holes and was quite rough.  Most of the rocks, like the petrified wood, did not have holes. 

By offering rocks in the sensory table, the underlying question was: What sense would the children make of them? Truth be told, there was no end to the sense the children made of the rocks as they explored their many features.

The rocks served as building material as one child stacked them in one corner of the sensory table.

That may sound simple, but because the rocks were smooth/slippery, different shapes and different sizes, that endeavor challenged his attempt to build higher and higher.

The little gray rock with the nice round hole became a scooping tool measuring just the right amount of sand onto the dustpan.

Another child created a bit of symmetry/art with the rocks by topping his birthday cake with rock  "candles."

One child discovered that by striking two rocks together, she could spice up her concoction with a little bit of cinnamon.  

Somehow she figured out that hitting the soft, reddish-brown rock against the harder rock resulted in tiny flecks that she saw as a special spice.

One child amazed himself by using one rock to draw lines on another rock.   (Do I dare venture a guess that this was how early humans began the transition to written language?)

I have only scratched the surface of how children came to understand rocks, but let me give you one last example of a child making sense with rocks.  This happened with a rock-query episode during which a child searched for rocks with specific attributes.  I wrote it down in real time on a large post-it easel pad sheet that I taped to the wall next to the sensory table.  S is the child and T is the teacher

The child began by looking for a "pretty big rock."  She found what she was looking for but then began a new search for a different kind of rock.  She again found what she was looking for: one that was "shiny, heavy and little.

I could point out that this was a spontaneous vocabulary exercise, but that was just a by-product of a natural conversation about finding the right kind of rock.  That was true of the other examples, also.  Children began to build their knowledge of rocks as a by-product of their experiences with the real rocks.

p.s. Some may be uncomfortable with rocks in their classroom.  There may be an underling fear that children will throw the rocks.  That may be a valid fear so it is important to know your children.  If I thought a child might throw a rock, I would do one of two things: closely supervise the child or remove the rocks.  However, that was so rare, I don't ever remember doing either of those interventions.

I believe that if children are given constructive ways to play with the materials in the sensory table, they will do so responsibly and in the process start to understand the materials and what they can do with them.

One child was very intentional fitting nine rocks into this jello mold. Wait! Are those square rocks in there?  Is there such a thing as a square rock?

Sunday, July 16, 2023

Strategy #3 for changing the sensory table.

Two weeks ago I began a series of posts about the three strategies I used to make changes more manageable in the sensory table so every week for the entire school year the children would experience something new there.  The strategies were: 1) to keep an apparatus for a second week but change the medium in the table; 2) to keep an apparatus for a second week but add on to the existing structure; 3) to keep an apparatus for a second week but change its orientation.  To read about the first strategy, here is the link  To read about the second strategy, here is the link.

This week's post is all about strategy #3.  As an example, I will start with an apparatus made from a big box used by moving companies to quickly pack up clothes hanging in a closet.  It is called a wardrobe box.  I set the box up on an incline by taping the box to a wedge contraption and the lip of the table on the low end of the box.  I cut multiple holes in the box so the children had multiple entry points for their play and exploration.  I cut a slit in the low end of the box so when the children poured the feed corn down the wardrobe box incline, the corn dropped into the tub at the end of the table.

Children made use of all the holes.

They even even explored the bottom slit through which the corn exited the big box apparatus.


This apparatus had two highlights that could have been overlooked.  The first was that the children pouring the corn down the box were connected in play with the children at the bottom of the box.  That was all the more unique because they could not see each other since there was no hole cut out at the bottom of the box except the narrow slit where the corn exited the box.  The second was that it was a total aural experience as the corn tumbled down the inclined box.  It took on greater significance when a child at the end of the box knew to listen to the sound of the tumbling corn so they could get ready to catch the corn as it spewed from the box.

I wanted to use the wardrobe box a second week, but with a simple change.  I removed the wedge contraption and laid the box horizontally across the width of the table.

I used planter trays to support the big box across the width of the table for extra stability.  Not so unexpectedly, the planter trays offered opportunities for children to scoop in a horizontal space.

There was a huge difference in the children's play from the previous week when the big box was set on an incline.  One of the biggest differences was the sound of the children's play.  On the incline, the sound of the corn tumbling down the box was amplified which made for pretty loud play.  With the box on the horizontal, however, play was significantly quieter.

Another difference was that on the horizontal, children explored the inside of the big box with there bodies more.  The horizontal orientation was at a level that seemed to invite the children in.

If you want to make your own comparison, you can find the original write up on the incline apparatus here and you can find the original post on the horizontal apparatus here.

Come to think of it, I did have a 4th strategy for making changes every week at the sensory table more manageable.  There were several apparatus made from wood or tubes or pipes that I would save and set up from year to year.  The examples I used for the three strategies were made out of cardboard.  When I was done with them, I would recycle them.  I knew there would always be a cardboard box when I needed to build a new apparatus. And besides, a new box would inevitably offer exciting possibilities for a completely new apparatus.