About Me

My photo
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.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


I would like to explain the picture I chose for my profile.  The picture does not speak directly to sand and water tables, but rather my view of children.  That in turn, influences my practice which includes building apparatus for the sensory table.

This picture was taken in 2008 in a park in Los Banos, Peru.  Los Banos is famous in Peru for the thermal baths used by the Incas and is next to the city of Cajamarca in the Northern Highlands of Peru.  My daughter was living and working there at the time, so I went to visit her.  My daughter worked for DiscoverHope, a non-profit organization that gives mircroloans to women.  This particular day I had gone along with my daughter as she met with some of the women.  As she was talking with one of the women in the park, I noticed the woman's two children playing.  Before long, they were bringing me flowers.

What story does this picture tell?

It began when the children noticed that I was watching them.  Children are always looking to make connections and form relationships.  They reciprocated immediately.  It was then my turn to reciprocate.  (By the way, often times it works in reverse: a child will initiate and I will reciprocate.)   Notice two things in the picture.  First, I am down on their level.  To truly understand a child's perspective, you have to be able to get down on her level.  A colleague once related a story of a little girl who kept telling the teacher to look at the bunny in the snow.  The teacher could not see it no matter how hard she looked.  The child was insistent and finally the teacher got down on the child's level.  It was only then she saw what the child saw: the snow had drifted into the shape of a rabbit.   Second, we are focused on each other.  Our actions are our shared language even without words.  This is doubly true in this instance because my Spanish was only a few words more than their English, which was nonexistent.  There was no script to our interactions, so we made it up as we went along.   We were living in the moment: both sides initiating and responding; both sides reading each other's cues.

When I build an apparatus for the sensory table, I am using it as a provocation to begin a mutual dialogue with the children.  For any given apparatus, there are no scripted directions to follow.  Children bring their own set of abilities, interests and ideas to the table---literally. When those things are noticed and recognized in the context of our interaction, we build a respectful relationship in which we are learning from and teaching each other.

One last point about what the picture says to me.  The act of giving flowers is an excellent metaphor for the beauty all children have to offer if we are primed to notice their cues, prepared to receive them, and ready to reciprocate in kind.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


Experimenting with things frozen in ice highlights the unique characteristics of ice. First of all, there is the elemental change of state the children experience as ice turns to water.  Ice is also solid and hard while water is fluid.  That sounds a lot like science education.

Another interesting characteristic is that ice takes the form of the container in which it is frozen.  As a consequence, when the girl on the right pulls the ice out of the cup, it is the exact shape of the cup.  If she wants to put it right back in the cup, she can with ease.  Putting the ice in the container in which it was frozen now becomes a 3-D puzzle.

And some of those shapes can be very interesting, such as the little ice cylinder the child is pushing into and taking out of the plastic tube on the right.

Yet another unique characteristic is that it is cold.  Children find out how cold it is and their tolerance for cold in different ways.  They will usually use there hands, but some find other ways to experience the cold.

Gregory decided to feel it against his face.  "Yes, it's cold." he said.  In addition, he also found out how smooth it was on his face.

Of course, many children will taste it, too.  It is a sensory table after all.

Speaking of smooth, Hannah found a superball that had been frozen in ice and decided to use it to make an ice ball smooth.  I am not sure how she held the ice so long, but she was intent on making sure it was smooth.  You can see the pride she feels about her accomplishment of making the ice ball so smooth.

Tysen was the child who extracted the ball from the ice in the first place.  In the process, he discovered a couple of things:  1) The ball fits perfectly into the spot from which it was extracted and 2) the ball rolls nicely in that spot.  Look how carefully he replaces the ball and then rolls it in its form-fitting space.  What does he think about his discovery?  Will he be able to more quickly grasp the purpose and motion of ball bearings in some later encounter with them?    

There is no limit to what can be frozen in ice.  Jamison looks pretty intrigued with the string frozen in ice.

Another challenge is presented when things are frozen in bottles.  

As you can see, these two are up to the challenge.  And for them it is a two-person job.  Who jabs when?  Can we jab together?  The beauty of this shared activity is the social interaction that includes language and an exchange of ideas for getting things out of the bottle.

To illustrate what this activity meant to one child, let me tell you a little story from three years ago.  A five-year-old was spending a lot of time trying to get a small dinosaur out of the ice.  After much work and persistence he got it out. He held up the dinosaur much like the boy below is holding up the chickens.  

The boy who extracted the dinosaur could not contain his sense of accomplishment. As he held up the dinosaur, he said:  "I've always wanted to be a paleontologist." He raised his dinosaur above his head and exclaimed: "And now I AM a paleontologist!"

That's one dream that came true in an early childhood classroom.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


It Minnesota it is cold in the winter.  Things can get frozen in ice easily.  That may be where the idea came from to freeze things in ice and then see if the children would try to get them out.  Well, they do and they do so with very little prompting. This is one activity that works well with a tray.

Children are able to place  a chunk of ice with something frozen in it on the tray above the table so they can work on it more easily.

Of course that is only one level.  There is also a second level: the bottom of the table itself.

So what will the children use to try to extract the things frozen in ice?  In the top picture, the child is using tongs.  In the picture on the left, each of the three children is using something different: a hand, a spoon and a table knife.  Why do I allow children to use the table knives?  I think the children have the ability to regulate themselves to use the knives in a way that they do not hurt themselves.  If I thought I had a child who could not handle a knife, I would do the teacher thing and monitor the child closely and guide the child's explorations so he and the others were safe.  I have been doing this activity for more than fifteen years and I have not had a child who has needed overly intrusive supervision.  Some monitoring is required at the beginning no matter who is at the table, but with minimal direction the children quickly get to work.

Here are a couple of videos that show how the children use the knives to get things out of the ice.  They work hard and have to be persistent.  Those are good skills to work on.

These two children are chopping away on each side of the table with vigorous overhand strokes.  The goggles were added to the activity just last year and they are not a requirement for working at the table with this activity.

Unlike the first video, this video has three children and six sets of hands on one side---and there are a lot of different things happening in surprisingly fluid fashion. One of the boys has been trying to get the blue dinosaur out of the ice for several minutes.  He has managed to get it out of a bigger block of ice, but there is still some stuck between the legs.  He uses his hands to try to pry it out.  That is not working and it is cold so he picks up a knife and tries chipping the ice while holding it in with his hands.  In the meantime, the girl is chopping the ice off the little dogs in the tray in front of the boy in the middle.  That boy has been trying to get the dogs free of ice for awhile, too, but his hands are cold---they are red---so he is resting them on the sides of the trays.  The middle boy goes to pick up the dogs again even as the girl is still chopping.  As he picks them up, she steps back and waits for another opening.  Not a word is exchanged, but the girl has clearly gotten the message that he wants the dogs again.  The first boy has moved his dinosaur on to the tray and starts to chop it on the tray.  The girl see her chance and steps up to help him chop.  The boy in the middle puts down the dogs again---that's cold!  He again rests them on the sides of the tray. The girl now reaches over into the middle of the tray and gives the big block of ice some good jabs.  The first boy still hasn't freed the dinosaur, but he starts to inspect one of the dogs that is free of ice.  (Though you don't see it, he eventually frees the dinosaur.)  You can hear from the video that there is a whole other set of actions happening simultaneously on the other side of the table where one child talks about how the ice melts when the sun comes out.  Wow!  All that fluid action and all those hands around the chopping knives.  Can you believe it?  I guess it is a case of knowing the children and trusting their ability to handle the implement.

Here is one more technique for chopping the ice.  The child in this picture is using a clay hammer with the table knife.  That takes more eye-to-hand coordination.  It also takes longer.

Here is a word of caution.  Children like to drop/throw the ice chunks when they want to get things out of the ice more quickly because they realize chopping will take a long time.  When they start to do that, I always encourage them to drop/throw it in the large pail I always set next to the table.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


This past weekend, I gave a conference presentation on ways of expanding play and learning in and around the sensory table.  During the presentation, someone asked me how do I handle the situation when a child is hoarding the materials or objects in the sensory table.  My answer to the question was not very good.   In fact, I can't remember what I said.   I can only remember the question because I have been thinking about it ever since.

To be honest, the reason I first built the Cardboard Dividers over 20 years ago was to cut down on the conflicts between children over the materials.  Today, though, those dividers are not used to separate children from each other or to reduce conflicts.  Rather, they allow children to focus on what they are doing in a small, walled-off area and at the same time to make novel social connections between the small, walled-off areas.

Today, I expect conflicts in the classroom.  I do not shy away from them.  When they arise, I use them as opportunities for learning how to handle emotionally charged situations.  Take a look at this picture I took just two weeks ago in my classroom and then posted on my blog on Closed Cardboard Chutes.
Someone might think that Caleb is hoarding both the pellets and the containers. When I saw Caleb filling and arranging the containers, though, I thought he was engaged in some serious work that takes all kinds of skills such as persistence and balance.  Another, younger child came along and started to take one of Caleb's containers.  Caleb did not like it and he yelled out: "Hey!  don't take that."  Of course, that did not deter the other child.  Viola!  We have a conflict.

My first reaction was not to tell Caleb he had to share.  Nor was it to tell the other child to stop taking Caleb's containers.   Before I was to lend my weight to help resolve the conflict, I wanted to make sure that they each had a part in resolving said conflict.  I also wanted to protect Caleb's work because I was impressed by his industriousness.

The first thing I did was to tell the younger child to ask Caleb if he could play with him.  Since the younger child was not as verbal, I helped him ask Caleb, but Caleb was having none of it.   For me, that is ok.  The younger boy then took another one of Caleb's containers.  Again Caleb yelled at him to stop.  Then I told the other child to ask Caleb if he could have a container.  Again, since the younger child was not as verbal, I immediately turned to Caleb and told him the other child wanted a container and asked him if there was a container he could have.  Almost immediately, Caleb looked over his store of containers and actually handed one of them to the other child.   Viola! No conflict.

If I were to tell Caleb to share, he knows exactly what that means and it does not mean share.  Rather, it  means give it to the other child.  Through experience with adults telling him to share, the child knows the adult is now telling him to hand it over.  It is no wonder children put up a fuss when adults tell them to share.  Sharing is an action that comes from the inside, not an action that is forced from the outside.  When I pointed out that the other child would like one of his containers, Caleb now had a real choice.  Given the choice, he accommodated to the other child's wishes and willingly shared---in the true sense of the word.

Not all conflicts are so easily settled; some take much more work and negotiation. By going through the process of each child having a part in resolving the conflict, they begin to gain the necessary social and emotional tools to settle conflicts on their own.  Not a bad skill to have in life.