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.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


I work for a public school district in Minnesota.  As part of the district, we are required to pursue some of our staff development in a "professional learning community."  Last year, I worked with four colleagues in a learning community we called: Nurturing Relationships.  Our stated goal was to increase the incidents of sensitive and responsive play between children in the classroom.

If you were to ask any of us if we thought we reached our goal, we would say yes.  But we would also add that we do not know if our efforts to increase sensitive and responsive play were the reason we reached our goal.  Maybe sensitive and responsive play was always there and we just started to pay attention and name it as such.  We did conclude that there was a big shift in our own observations and dialogue; instead of focusing on children's problem behaviors, we focused on the positive interactions between children.  In doing so, we intervened less and began to show a trust in the children to demonstrate their innate competence and kindness.  Because we were looking for those positive interactions, we also began to notice more subtle gestures of sensitive and responsive play that could be easily overlooked.  Since we were a group that consisted of infant/toddler teachers, a preschool teacher, and a parent educator, our observations and documentations applied to infants through adults.

That whole gestalt of looking for the positive has carried over into this school year.  If fact, a day does not go by without pointing out several positive interactions that happened between the children.  Let me share four with you that happened in the last month.  Please note that since this blog emphasizes sensory table play, the examples are from that area of the classroom.  Be assured that these interactions occur in all areas of the room.

In the first interaction, one boy is asking for help to get the centipede out of the swamp.  He asks for help from his friend who is busy doing his own thing in another part of the table..  His friend stops what he is doing to come over to get the centipede out of the swamp for him.  After reaching into the swamp to retrieve the centipede, he says:"here you go."  The helper then immediately returns to what he was doing.   Watch.

Why would another child stop what he is doing to fulfill another child's request for help?  We now see this as the norm rather than the exception in the classroom.

In the second interaction, one boy has been trying to get a black spoon out of the tub.  The older boy next to him says: "I'll help you."  As the older boys pulls out the spoon and hands it to the other child, he says: "Here you go."  The younger boy looks up at him and says: "Thank you." The older boy then says: "You're welcome."  Watch.

The little guy looking up into the older boy's eyes and saying "thank you" is so affable that the older boy mirrors the younger boy's manner in his "your welcome."  This is as real and sincere as it gets between a two-year-old and a three-year-old.

In the third interaction, the children were collecting water beads.  One girl, the girl in pink, found a big yellow water bead and shows it for all to see.  The second girl, the girl in red, asked if she could have it.  The girl in pink did not want to give up her yellow bead.  It was so big and so beautiful.  She did not simply say no to the other's request.  Instead, she said that she would look for another big yellow bead for the girl in red.  She did add, though, that if she could not find another big yellow bead, she would give her the bead.  Shortly, she did happen to find another big yellow bead.  The picture below shows her giving the other girl the second one she just found.

With a request like the one made by the girl in red, I can well imagine someone telling her to find one herself.  Instead, the girl in the pink generously offers to find her a bead, and if she can't, then she can have her original find.  Would she have given up her precious water bead?  Knowing the child and the tone of the exchange, I do believe so.

The fourth interaction comes from last week's post.  In that post, I used a video to highlight a particular operation of a child transfering pellets.  This week I would like to use that same video to point out one of those subtle gestures of kindness and appreciation that are so often overlooked. In the video, the little boy is working on transferring pellets to a container.  A couple of seconds into the video, his sister gives him another bowl.  He immediately switches the target of his actions to the new bowl that his sister has given him.  After getting a few pellets in the bowl, he looks over to his sister and smiles.  Watch and see if you think he is showing his appreciation to his sister for her favor.

From our learning community, we had another conclusion worth mentioning: the acts of kindness and generosity were generative.

Happy New Year,  Tom

Saturday, December 10, 2011


The following apparatus takes advantage of axiom #5 on the right: Children are compelled by nature to put things in holes.  This apparatus is basically a piece of plywood with holes that creates a cover over the sensory table with space underneath.

I took a piece of 3/8 inch plywood and cut it so it would fit two inches deep into the top of the table leaving seven inches of space between the piece of plywood and the bottom of the sensory table. In my sensory table, the sides slant in slightly so the apparatus fits snuggly into the table.  For extra support, I used strips of wood as braces so it would not bow in the middle and added legs for extra stability.

As you can see, ten holes are cut in the plywood.  With holes in the plywood, children have to reach down into the holes to gather the pellets.  The idea is to create a second level of play at the table and to present a spacial challenge for the children and their operations.  Their normal scooping motion doesn't work so well because they have to reach down into the holes to get the pellets and then navigate their way out without spilling.

Another nice feature of this apparatus is that the cover and holes serve an additional function. The cover is also a place on which to set containers so the children can fill them without having to hold them.

And the holes are also places to hold containers.  Some of the pots and pans fit nicely into the holes and others are propped by their handles.

Here is a video of a child using the apparatus.  There are lots of good things happening in the video, but watch near the end how he changes the tempo of his actions so he more carefully pulls the pellets out of the hole so he is able to keep the pellets on his spoon before depositing them in a bowl.

What determines from which hole a child takes pellets or into which hole he pours?  Watch.

Is there a rhyme or reason why a child chooses one hole over another?  This video shows that some of it is trial and error.  The measuring cup did not fit into the smallest hole so the child had to scoop from a hole into which the measuring cup fit.  Other than that, does a child just use the holes that are close?  No, because many times children will stretch across the table to scoop from another hole. 

Even though I ask the question, it is less important to me than observing and recording the myriad of operations the children concoct.  When you watch the next video, see how many different operations you can see from this one child in less than a minute.

He begins by pulling his pot of pellets out of a hole.  He does a swirling motion and watches and listens as the pellets tumble in his pot.  With a little shake and then a bigger shake he empties his pot.  Did you catch his little smile at the end of this first set of operations?  He then reaches in a hole to get pellets with his scoop.  As he does that, the hand with the pot swings in behind him and down for balance.  As he carefully pulls out the pellets, he swings his scooping hand over to the pot hand in a fluid motion and pours the pellets into the pot.  He got them all in the pot and the pot wasn't even over the table in case some missed.  As soon as he completes the transfer of pellets, he immediately empties the pot over the table.  Did you catch his little smile again?  Now he takes his pot and puts it in a hole to collect some pellets with the pot.  As soon as he pulls out the pot, he dumps them right back into the same hole.  He then leans in and gathers pellets with his scoop again.  As he does that, he lays the pot on the cover apparatus and holds his left hand up for balance.  Even his fingers in his left hand seem to be helping him balance.  He very carefully pulls out the pellets making sure not to drop any. He pours them all in the pot.  He grabs the pot by the handle again and uses a back-handed flip motion to empty the pot in the table yet again.  All that in 40 seconds, a very fluid 40 seconds.

One just has to marvel at a child's ability to effortlessly experiment with fine and large motor operations in space and time with any given material and apparatus. 

Saturday, December 3, 2011


Every year I like to set up a "Swamp" in the sensory table.  The swamp from last year is here.  It featured a tray with the leaves, sticks, stones, and water.  This year instead of a tray, I opted to use larger branches and a stump because I wanted natural elements to provide the additional level of play that the tray offered last year.

I also added plenty of bugs, frogs and snakes.

Near the sensory table, I set up two other small tables with items to be used in the swamp.  One table had more bugs, rocks, and sticks for the children to expand and add variety to the swamp. The other table had pots, pans, bowls, spoons, and tongs in case there was an interest in making a swamp brew.

I did keep this apparatus up for two weeks.  For the second week, though, I expanded the swamp to include another small sensory table, a large log that formed a bridge between the two tables, and more, longer sticks.

What do children do when presented with such a set up?  With a little provocation and a little encouragement, one child decided to make a little house for a bug.  He gathered extra sticks to make a roof over a bug and then added wet leaves and grass from the swamp to make a covering for the roof.

Can you see the bug's legs under the covering?

One group decided to collect the bugs in the pail next to the table.  That sounds simple enough, but watch as one of the boys picks up a lady bug with his tongs.

At first he is able to pick it up, but another boy wants to get the lady bug, too, without realizing the first boy has it in his tongs.  The second boy accidentally knocks it off the first boy's tongs.  That does not deter the first boy and he grabs the lady bug again.  At this point the second boy realizes that the first boy has the lady bug, so he defers to him and begins he search anew for another bug.  As the first boy transfers the lady bug, he almost looses it but makes a last second adjustment so he can drop it in the bucket.  The enthusiasm is palpable.  It may as well be boys collecting real bugs in a real swamp.

One of the children decided to make "swamp salad."  Watch as she works with the tongs.

At the beginning of the clip, she dropped the leaves as she was transferring them from the table to the pot.  That does not seem to bother her one bit; it is part of learning how to use tongs.  It is similar to trying to balance the gourds in the pot while trying to make your next move.  In both cases, the learning happens by trial-and-error.    The children take it for granted and do not get upset.  We can learn a lot from watching children play.

Here is a provocation I set up for one of the classes.

Where did this provocation lead?  Take a look.

It led to "building bridges".

Where did the "building bridges" lead?  It led to a falling bug game, a game these two created on their own.  Watch to see how it is played.  (If the video looks a bit staged, I came in when the game was well underway so I asked them to explain it to me.)

When you engage all the senses, creativity flourishes like bugs in a swamp.  Sorry, I could not resist.

Friday, November 25, 2011


Please allow me to digress from the usual post featuring an apparatus at the sensory table. Rather, I would like to show you a 7-second video that highlights axiom # 7 on the right: Children will always find activities that are tangental to the apparatus itself.  Not only does it highlight the axiom, but leads to an unexpected revelation.  As you watch the video, ask yourself: What is the child doing?  And ask yourself: "Why is he doing what he is doing?  Here goes.

First of all, you need to know that I do not generally let children take pellets from the sensory table and put them on the floor.  Children naturally spill and often feel a need to transport the medium from one place to another.  That is a huge reason why I build apparatuses in the first place.  That is also the reason I always have a bucket next to the table so I can encourage the children who need to transport to "put it in the bucket."

So why did I just watch this two-year-old make a pile of pellets on the floor?  The reason is simple---and not so simple.  The main reason I let this child put the pellets on the floor is because he seemed so intentional.  That is the simple part.  The not so simple part has to do with making a split-second decision to not stop it, but to see where it leads.  That is the part that is not so simple because knowing when to curtail a behavior is both child and context specific.

What was this boy doing?  To tell you the truth, I did not really know.  As he walks away, he places the cup on the floor and, after he turns, he tosses the scoop down on the floor.  What did he do next?  He went to get a small dust pan with a broom that is always kept at the sensory table for sweeping up messes.  When I saw him get the broom and dust pan, I got the big broom to help him get pellets into his dust pan.  He did not take the broom out of the dust pan, but tried to scoop up pellets from the floor with the broom still snapped into the dust pan.  As you can imagine, that did not work well.  That was true even though I helped him with the big broom.  I then gave him the big dust pan and we were able to sweep up more pellets, but as he would attempt to empty the dust pan into the table, only a few pellets would make it into the table.

So why was he piling pellets on the floor?  I did not fully understand why until I showed his mother the video.  She knew right away what he was doing even though the video was only 7 seconds long.  And she knew immediately what he would do next: go get a dust pan to pick up the pile.  She said that ever since she can remember, her boy has wanted to clean up messes.  Only then did all his actions and the total scenario make sense to me.  I now have a deeper understanding and appreciation of this child in my classroom. 

If I had tried to stop him as soon as I saw him piling pellets, I would have missed the opportunity for such a valuable insight.  I was surprised at myself for allowing the child to pile pellets.  I was even more surprised when I realised how intentional his actions were.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Last week I wrote about building an apparatus I called Vertical Boxes.

One of the beauties of this apparatus is the number of spaces it creates for the children to explore and create large and small motor operations within those spaces.  In other words, it creates a spacial palette for motor and cognitive operations.

The first space to consider is the sensory table itself.  With this apparatus, the table is a large, open space.  Watch how seven toddlers use this space.

That was seven toddlers standing side-by-side busy scooping and pouring with no conflict.  Near the end of the video, you can see one child pour pellets into the big hole.  She seems pleased with her actions and swings the bowl and the cup as she lets out some happy sounds.  She then moves around to the other side of the box to reach into the hole to retrieve an object.  Remember, that is seven toddlers content to stand shoulder-to-shoulder exploring the medium in the space and accommodating to each other's presence in that space.

(If you watch the video again, you can see her actions set off actions by the two children closest to her.  But that will have to be another post.)

On the apparatus itself, the first space to notice is the big hole on the side of the box facing the sensory table.  In the short video below the child is pouring pellets into the big hole.  If you watch carefully, though, you will see he is targeting his pour so the pellets go into a hole in a second box that is embedded in the big box.  Watch.

Some children start by just pouring the pellets in the hole.  As the children get to know the space, they become more intentional and start to direct where they want the pellets to go.

Another space on the apparatus is the space created by one hole in the side of the big box opposite the table.

And again, the space created by the other hole on that side of the box.

There is also the space created by the embedded box.

Did you notice that the space not only includes the holes of the box, but the top of the box, which provides another space on which to operate.  The boy has set the measuring cup on the top of the orange box and is about to take the pellets he has just scooped from the hole and pour them into the cup

And if you use both the holes at the same time, you have an operation through spaces that even draws the interest of a friend.

Did you see that the boy is putting his hand through the top hole, scooping pellets in his cup, and then reaching through the lower hole to pour the pellets into the bucket?  Why did he do that? Maybe he was just experimenting motorically or maybe he is has figured out that this operation is more efficient than pulling the cup back out the top hole.  It is certainly a more interesting operation.

Finally, there is also the space created by the smaller, vertical box on the side.

What must it feel like for a child to operate in a tall, vertical space? The video below shows a boy operating in that space.

As you saw, this boy is scooping pellets from the bottom of the big narrow box.  Note that the scoop is almost as wide as the box itself; that sets up an interesting challenge in itself.   He first has to reach into the box all the way to the bottom.  As he does this, he fits his head along with his shoulder so he can reach the pellets and see where he is scooping.  He has to carefully lift the scoop up without spilling.  That means he has to keep the scoop level.  As he gets the scoop up to the height of the window, he has to turn it slightly so the scoop fits through the window.  While he adjusts the scoop ever so slightly, he still has to keep from spilling the pellets as he pulls it through the window.  He has already learned to operate in that narrow, vertical space to complete his task.  That is some serious spacial literacy.

If you look at axiom #2 to the right and its corollary, you can see clearly with this apparatus that the multiple spaces lead to more exploration.  Those spaces do two things.  First, they present physical challenges for them to carry on their initial operations.  Second, those spaces also offer children a spacial palette on which to create and expand their initial operations in those same spaces.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Last year I worked with an infant/toddler teacher who brought in a box that had height and width, but not much depth.  As she was looking at placing it in her sensory table, we talked about orientations it could take.  As we talked, she kept trying the different orientations.  She settled on an orientation that was a vertical box next to the table.   Here is what it looked like.

This teacher put objects---juice lids, clothes pins and cardboard shapes---in the sensory table for the children to put in the holes on both sides of the box.  The objects would disappear and then come out the bottom on the side opposite the table.  It was great play and exploration with toddlers using their fine and large motor skills to put things in holes.   And there was always the wonderment of figuring out where those things went and the discovery of finding out they ended up at the bottom of the vertical box.  Basically, it was a relatively flat, vertical plane that the children could operate on different levels.

I liked the orientation so much that I told myself if a similar box appeared, I would set up something with the same orientation.  That box appeared a couple of weeks ago so I set it up on the side of the table.  I also decided to add two other boxes with a similar orientation to form an apparatus I call Vertical Boxes.

I took the first big box which was tall and wide but was not deep and set it next to the table.

I cut a big hole in the side facing the table and taped the flap to the lip of the table.

On the opposite side,  I embedded a second box.

Before I embedded the box, though, I cut a hole in the top that would be embedded in the bigger box so when children put the pellets into the big hole, some would go into the embedded box. After embedding, I cut two holes in the box, one on the side and one on the top.

I added a third box on one side of the table.  This one I did not embed.   Rather I cut a hole in the side on the bottom.  That left me a flap.  I then cut a matching hole in the big box and was able to tape the flap from the smaller box into the bigger box.

I then taped the smaller box to the bigger box on all sides.  So the box below is connected to the bigger box by the hole in the bottom of the smaller box matching a hole in the bigger box.  (If you can understand that, then you must be really good at putting things together from directions that come in packages.  If you did not understand, no problem,  just experiment with attaching boxing by embedding and not embedding.)

I cut holes in the big box on the side opposite the table.

The holes do not match up to the big hole on the other side.  That allows a child on one side of the apparatus to pour into the hole on the table side without it spilling on the floor or interfering with the play of a child on the other side.  Watch it in action.

If those holes had matched up, there would be pellets spilling all over the floor on the opposite side of the table.

If you can visualize the spaces these two are operating in, you would know that their heads at one point in the video are only separated by about the six inches---the depth of the large vertical box. Though their heads are close, they are operating on two different levels.  The boy kneeling is basically operating on the floor.  The other boy is scooping from the table into the large hole of the box.  They might as well be playing totally separate spaces.  But wait. What you may not be able to visualize is that the boy scooping the pellets from the table and pouring them in the larger box is supplying the child who is kneeling with more pellets.  In other words, one child is operating on the pellets and wondering where are they going, while the other one is counting on a continual supply of pellets. So they are connected even though they do not know it.  It doesn't show in this video, but at times the children figured that out.  That, in turn, changes the nature of the play and the nature of the communication between children.  Pretty interesting, no?

After a couple of days of play with the apparatus, I had to add a box---not vertical---under one of the holes in the orange box.

This doesn't fit with the theme of vertical boxes, but it does catch the pellets that were spilling out of the hole on the side of that orange box.  Besides that, it also creates a place to put a bowl for the following activity. Watch and see what I mean.

As you see, We needed a little containment for "the bowl that wouldn't fill".

I originally took this video to document why I needed the new box.  As I continued to watch it, I could not help but wonder what was going on.  Did the child really know that the bowl was not full? Or was he telling me that he was not done filling the bowl?  Those are two very different operations, both of which are valid.  If he was filling the bowl, then he didn't understand the concept---or his understanding included the pile getting bigger as he added to the bowl.  If he was not done filling the bowl, then he is wrapped up in the actions of scooping and pouring.

I vote for the second reason because for a child thinking and doing are one and the same.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


In my very first post when I started this blog in July, 2010, I wrote about the space for the sensory table in my classroom.  I said the table was enclosed on three sides.   See below.

There is a cabinet on the right, a wall in the back, and a sink and counter on the left.  The reason the sensory table was enclosed was to help contain the mess that accompanies most play at the sensory table.

The space was not big; it was 8' X 6.5'.  Even though that was not big a big space, it still accommodated plenty of children.

In September, we moved into a new space.  The classroom is twice the size of the old one.   When I went to set up the sensory table in the new classroom, I did not take my own advice.  See below.

The space is larger; the mats under the table mark off an area of 12' x 6'.  If you notice, though, the space is not enclosed.  Only one side, the side facing the wall, is a closed side.  The right side is slightly enclosed, but not by much.  There is a cabinet, but it is a small barrier.

Here's what happens when the sensory table is not enclosed.

All the spaces around the table become part of the sensory play.  Children actually brought the pellets out onto the open linoleum floor and played with them there.

I am very tolerant of messes, but this was too much for even me.  As I looked around the room, I needed to find a more enclosed space for the sensory table.  I settled on a space on the opposite wall.

In the new space, the table is enclosed.  There is a counter on the right, a wall in back and cabinets on the left.  There is also a table in the foreground which also helps contain the play and exploration at the table.

Is there a difference?  As we say in Minnesota, "You betcha."

So why didn't I start out with this configuration?   I set up the room to be functional at the start of school year.  As the children interacted with the spaces, I watched and evaluated how the spaces were being used.   From my observations of how the children used the spaces, I made changes.  I have moved four of six main areas just after six weeks of school.  I am still not completely satisfied, but it will be an ongoing process of evaluating how the children use the spaces.  Since taking my own advice about enclosing the sensory table, though, I think I will keep the sand and water table in its current space.  After all, what good is my own advice if I don't even follow it?

Thursday, October 27, 2011


I have been asked how long I keep the same apparatus in the sensory table.  I usually keep it in the table one week.  Every once in awhile I keep the same apparatus in the table for two weeks, but the second week, I exchange the medium in the table to create a totally new and different experience.  One of the apparatus I keep for two weeks is the Water Ramp from last week's post.

The new medium is oobleck, a solution of cornstarch and water.

Can you see the difference?  It is the same apparatus, but oobleck fosters a much different experience.

When mixed together, the solution of cornstarch and water has unique properties.  If you squeeze it, it is like a solid.  If you let it go, it melts or pours like a liquid.  In scientific terminology it is called a non-Newtonian fluid that changes from a liquid to a solid state when stress is applied.  In other words, it has properties of both a solid and a liquid.  (3M has made a lot of money off a substance with such properties with their post-it notes and removable hooks.)  I have no recipe for the ratio of cornstarch to water; I mix until I get the consistency I want.  If there is too little water, the mixture is too hard.  If there is too much water, it is too runny.

One of the original ideas for building the water ramp with patterned dowels was to have children experience how water gets dispersed as it flows down a ramp with obstacles.  That worked, but by using the cornstarch solution, which flows more slowly, the dispersal pattern is easier for the children to see.

That is true even when it dries.

The substance can form a ball and stick together.

The substance can ooze.

You can catch with your hand when it drips.

With the right utensils, it feels more like cooking.

Here are two sequential videos that illustrate nicely the melding of an apparatus, the medium, and the children's imagination.  In the first one, two boys are collecting the oobleck in bowls.  The one kneeling is scraping from underneath the tray and the ramp.  That exemplifies nicely how a child can find spaces that are not readily apparent(See axiom #2 in the right hand column).  Also, notice where he has his bowl.  It is suspended between the table and the ramp so it is off the bottom of the table.  That frees up his hands and allows him to scoop the oobleck using one hand to scrape and one hand to counterbalance the force needed to scrape.  If you listen to him talk about putting the solution into "our bowls," notice how his voice matches the cadence of working with the obleck.  Slow and deliberate with a lot of effort.  The other child is moving around the table saying we are collecting all the "hot lava."  That is the clue to the purpose of their activity. He first scrapes on one end and then from under the ramp before dropping it in his bowl.   Watch and listen.

In the second video, the two boys have filled their bowls.  That was no easy task because it is hard to scrape the obleck.  You remember that it turns to a solid under stress: the scraping.  It took time and it took persistence.  As the video starts, they are poised to pour the "hot lava." One of the boys says: "Come on, let's do it." They pour the contents of the bowls down the ramp. After pouring, the other boy says: "Get shovels.  Catch it."  They proceed to  retrieve their shovels and try to catch the "hot lava" flowing down the ramp.  As they do that, they narrate what they are doing and what is happening.  Watch and listen.

With the ramp and the oobleck, these two boys have used their imagination to recreated lava flowing down the side of a mountain.  In other words, the three elements---apparatus, material and imagination---combine so these boys are foreshadowing the kind of modeling adult engineers and scientists do all the time in real life.  Now that is impressive work for two young engineers and scientists.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Water Ramp

Over twenty years ago, I made a water ramp for the sensory table.  It looked like this:

(Please excuse the poor quality of the picture.  It is a digital picture of an old picture.)

This is a 1" x  8" board with 1" x  4" boards attached to the sides to make the ramp.  The small pieces of dowels screwed into the ramp are pieces of old broom handles I cut to form obstacles for the water to flow over and around.  For a more recent version, I used a narrower 1" x 6" board and 2" x  4"s for the side. I still used pieces of old broom handles to make the obstacles.

I have set the water ramp at different inclines. The first picture shows a steep incline between two tubs.  The water rushes down this incline.  The second picture shows a more moderate incline.  This inlcine comes from taping the ramp to a tray that sets it above the lip of the table so the water flows more slowly down the ramp and into a tub at the end of the table..  Because I want the children to see how the water is diverted by the dowels, I have stuck with the more moderate incline over the past few years.

This apparatus was my attempt to duplicate a fountain in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota.  This is the fountain.

What was intriguing about this fountain was how the water flowed down.  It bubbled out of the top and dropped down the sides.  As you can see, the bricks are staggered and some stick out so when the water flows over them on the way down, it splashes and jumps as if  rollicking over rocks.  I wanted to create something similar for the children to experience.  Here it is in action.

In this clip the child pours the water down the ramp.  He pours it gently so there is a nice, gentle sound of water flowing down the water ramp almost like the water flowing down a little babbling brook. That is exactly the effect I was looking for.  You can also see how the water is diverted around the obstacles.

Of course, if you pour more water faster, then it splashes and jumps over the wooden pieces and creates a different sound that carries with it more energy.  Consequently, that energy transforms the play. That energy is transformed into force, a force that may even knock down a little duplo guy standing on the bottom rung of the ramp.

I really appreciate the experimenting that goes on at the sensory table.  Some of that experimentation comes from bringing things from other parts of the room to the table.  For instance, I do not know how the duplo figures got from the other end of the room to the sensory table.  Not only were they good figures to see if the force of the water could knock them over and down, but they were also good for other things such as figures floating down the ramp through the obstacles.

Think about what this child is doing.  He is guiding the figures in the cup down the ramp around the obstacles, like people in a boat down a river.  The cup is the right size so he can maneuver it nicely around the wooden dowels.  As he traverses the board---almost like a slalom---he is making sense of this physical world.

As adults, we can think or imagine in our mind how the cup would traverse the board.  We do not have to experience it.   A child has to physically do it. Their thinking and doing are one.  If you are ever wondering what they are thinking, just watch them.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


People have asked me how many children do I allow at the sensory table at a time.  My answer has always been that I do not regulate the number of children at the sensory table.  It is not uncommon for there to be anywhere from 1 to 8 children at the sensory table at a time.

1                                          2

    3                    4

5                                     6

                 7            8

How about 9?

So how many can fit around the table?  More than you think.  Parents are in the room with their children at the beginning of every class, so when there are adults, I have had as many as 11 people around the sensory table at one time.  That is 7 children and 4 adults in a 6'x8' space. That means they are literally shoulder-to-shoulder; personal space is not an option.

There are at least three reasons why I do not regulate the number of children at the sensory table. The first is that I believe that children have the capacity to self-regulate their behavior and to cooperate and make accommodations with others.  To do that, the children have to be able to negotiate both space and materials.  By reading children's cues, I am able to help them do that. For instance, it may be as simple as saying to a child that another child would like to play with him.  A simple overture like that often has astonishing results with the one child letting the other play. Sometimes more negotiation is necessary, but I am OK with that because I know if I can help them exploit opportunities for using those skills, they will use them on their own throughout the classroom and beyond.

Watch this video below and see if you can figure out how these two children can use the same cup at the same time for two different purposes.  Do their opposing actions lead to conflict? Watch.

To tell you the truth, I do not know how they did it.  I just know there is a whole lot of self-regulation and accommodation going on in this little space.  If there was some negotiation going on, I did not hear it.  For sure there was no cooperation because they were not doing the same thing.   Where did this play lead?  Well, cooperation, of course.

The second reason I do not regulate the number of children around the table is because, as they negotiate, accommodate, and cooperate in their play, they are exercising their ability to self-regulate their behavior.   As they do that, the types of play and exploration that emerge multiplies exponentially as more children join the space and the activity in that space.  Take a look at this video which actually comes from a previous post.

These boys are making a concoction.  Each is adding an ingredient.  One child has taken the lead and the others are following and even echoing the named ingredients. This is rich role play.  Role play by its very nature requires negotiation, cooperation, accommodation, and self-regulation.  If those things are not present, play breaks down.  If they are present, the play becomes infectious and more imaginative.

The third reason I do not regulate is onerous rather than positive.   To regulate, there has to be rules.  And with rules there has to be a way to manage those rules.  I do not want the role of police officer in the classroom and I am really adverse to children tattling about how another child is not following the rules.  Besides, if the first two reasons hold up, then there should be no reason for rules regulating numbers at the sensory table.

By the way, that is true for any space in my classroom.  My job is not to regulate spaces according to my agenda, but to provide guidance and opportunity for the children to develop their innate abilities to negotiate, cooperate, accommodate, and self-regulate.

Just a quick note for those of you who follow my blog in Wisconsin.  I will be presenting on sand and water tables next Saturday afternoon, October 22, at the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association in Appleton.  If you get a chance, check it out.  If you would like to meet to ask questions or exchange ideas, email me and we can figure out a time to meet during the conference.