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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.

Thursday, September 29, 2011


Last week I wrote about connecting a big box to the sensory table.  With any apparatus, there is not just one configuration.  The main elements may be the same, but how it actually takes shape can vary quite a bit.  Here is BIG BOX II.

Like the previous big box apparatus, it is a big box with holes that is connected to the sensory table. One of the holes is a window facing the table and the other three holes are on the other three sides of the box.

Unlike the previous structure, this apparatus has a much larger window adjacent to the table.   In addition, this big box apparatus is partially embedded in the table.  If you look below you can see two of the legs of the sensory table resting inside the box so that the table itself is eight inches inside the box.  The box is duct taped to the embedded legs for stability.

In addition, tubes were set up to transfer the material from the table into the box.  There were two tubes: one was clear plastic and the other was a cardboard tube.  I cut out a small section of the clear plastic tube on one end so the children could more easily pour material into the tube.  I did several cut-aways on the cardboard tube so children could see the material slide down that cardboard tube.

The tubes are taped to a crate which is taped to a tray that spans the table.  The tubes are also taped to the lip of the sensory table to give them a second point of stability.  With this configuration there is a nice slant to the tubes, which facilitates the flow of material---in this case, pellets---down the tubes.

One of the things the tubes do in this apparatus is connect the two spaces.  That connection can be seen clearly in the picture below.  Two boys are pouring the pellets down the clear tube and the girl is catching the pellets in the box below.

There are different ways to put pellets down the tubes.  In the short video below, three different children use three different techniques.  The boy in the red scoops them directly from the table with a metal scoop. The girl in pink first filled her bucket and is scooping the pellets from her bucket which is resting on the crate.  And finally, the girl in the purple uses her hands to put pellets in her little plastic cup before pouring them down the tube.  How many more ways could there be?  Only the children know.

There is not just pouring; there is also catching.  Catching may seem simple and straight forward, but it is not.  First, you have to  wait for someone to pour the pellets.  Then it takes perception both to see and hear the pellets sliding down the tube.  And finally, it takes some coordination to position your container in the right spot to catch them.  And it takes a bit of wonder to appreciate it all.

With this particular apparatus, the children got to the point in their play where they wanted to fill up the tubes.  To do that, they had to block the tube in some way.  The child below, uses her hand.

Did you notice that the girl is basically in the box?  Only her legs below her knees and her feet are outside the box.

The pictured below shows a boy who completely crawled inside the box to do his blocking.  He used a little pail to block the pellets.  The picture shows him immediately after he pulled the pail away from the tube.  He is watching the pellets drain from the tube into the box.  The wonder of it all!

(I do believe that this operation makes a good corollary for Axiom 6 in the right hand column.  Namely: Whenever possible, the children will completely block the flow of medium.)

Blocking the tubes and filling the tubes is at least a two  person operation and often times it involves more than two.  How does it get decided who does the plugging and who does the filling? How does it get decided when the plug is pulled so the pellets drain?

In the video below, the children say the tube is full.  The girl holding the tube counts before she releases the pellets.  Watch and listen.

Did you hear how high she counted?  She counted to eight.  Why eight?  Right before she releases, her brother says something and grabs the tube as if to tell her enough counting already. Right after he puts his hand on the tube, she releases the pellets.  Was she reading her brother's cues or did she decide on her own to stop at eight?  Did you note the reaction when the pellets were released?  It was a collective: "Wo-o-o!"

In the next video, two boys communicate when the tube is full.  One of the boys foreshadows that it is almost full by simply saying that it is almost full.  A couple of more scoops and it is full.  The full tube is signaled by a exclamations and those exclamations are the signal to let 'r rip.

Pretty impressive teamwork.  Did you notice where the boy in the red shirt got his pellets?  He did not get them from the table.  Rather, he stepped down from a little stool, reached around the box and into one of the windows of the box, scooped pellets from the box, jumped back up on the stool and poured them into the tube.  Does he realize that the pellets are going right back into the box from whence they just came?  I don't know.  This boys operation to scoop and pour the pellets was first and foremost a physical pursuit; those big motions feel right for this age child.

In the last post I talked a lot about space and how it feels.  I want to leave you with three pictures of children relating to the space created by this apparatus.  Put yourselves in their shoes and try imagine how the space feels?  And what types of interactions does this space foster?

Did you notice that in and out got reversed?  At the beginning, the children were out of the box reaching in.  The last picture shows a child in the box reaching out.  Maybe we can call it thinking both inside and outside the box.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


A big box by itself always offers hours of fun for young children.  When I come across a big box, I like to bring it into school and attach it to the sensory table.  A few years ago, we bought a big TV.   It was not a flat screen, so it came in a big box.  So what did I do? I brought the box to school and attached it to the sensory table.

I attached it by cutting a rectangular flap on the side of the box adjacent to the table.  The top and two sides of the flap were completely cut through, but I only scored the bottom so I could fold it over and tape it to the lip of the table.  Since the lip was two inches wide, I actually scored it twice, once at the box and once where I wanted the flap to bend over the lip.

The reason it is taped is to keep it attached to the table so the children do not pull it away from the table. The hole is suppose to be a connection between the box and the table.

In addition, I cut big holes on three sides of the box not facing the table.

(If you look inside the box, you can see that all the loose flaps are taped down.  That gives the box a little extra strength and does not allow the medium to get under the inside flaps.

This apparatus creates two separate spaces.  The spaces are very different.  The space in and around the table itself is very open and bright.  The space created by the box is closed with less light.  They are, however, connected by a window that I thought would create action between the two spaces.

This apparatus was set up in my classroom over three years ago.  I thought the window would connect play, but as I look over my documentation, I do not have any pictures of the window as a catalyst for play between the two spaces.  Neither do I have a recollection of much exploration through the window.  As you can see in the picture below, two children are playing in the two different spaces totally oblivious to each other.

Maybe the window was too small or maybe the spaces were insular enough that there was litlle play between them.  I have attached other big boxes to the sensory table and cut a larger hole between the box and the table that has resulted in much more interaction between the two spaces.

Both spaces for this apparatus, though, were attractive for the the children.

Some played in the table.

Some played in the box.

Because I used farm animals and animal bedding, much of the play was similar.  There was a lot of scooping of bedding into the containers,  putting the animals in the containers, and feeding the animals.

At the table:

And in the box:

Though the play was similar, I think the experience of space was different.  Children get a different sense of space when they are standing at the table than when they are kneeling on the floor and putting their hands, arms, head, and torso into the box.   What I am saying is that an apparatus like this is teaching children about space because they experience space with their bodies.  And learning about space is fundamental to later academics subjects such as geometry.

Speaking of space, you cannot forget about the space on top of the box.  In the picture below, one of the children is working on the top of the box.

This picture actually shows all the different levels and spaces being used at one time in and around the table and apparatus: two girls are sweeping the floor (lowest level, flat/open space); two boys are in the box (a little higher lever, three-dimensional/closed space); one girl is playing in the table (the next highest level, three-dimensional/open space); and one boy is sweeping the top of the box(highest level, flat/open space).

Children naturally explore levels and spaces.  The more you provide, the more they will explore and discover.  That sounds a lot like Axioms 2 and 3 in the left hand column of the blog.

Just a quick note for those of you who follow my blog in Wisconsin and will be attending the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association conference October  20 - 22 in Appleton.  I will be presenting at the conference on Saturday afternoon on apparatus to build in and around the sensory table.  If you get a chance, stop by to say hello.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Baby Washing

I have been in the field of early childhood long enough to know that washing baby dolls is nothing new in an early childhood classroom.  For the longest time, I resisted doing it in my classroom because I could not envision an apparatus to go with the activity.  Then it dawned on me: add a clothesline, a clothesline over the table.

By adding a clothesline, the children could do more than wash babies; they could also wash clothes.  When they washed the clothes, they could use clothespins to work on the pincher grip needed for writing and other fine motor tasks.  When they pinned the wet clothes on the clothesline, the water from the wet clothes would drip back into the table.  In addition, it created another level of play above the table and I am all about levels.

This turned out to be a very simple apparatus.  I found four pieces of wood lying around in the basement.  I cut them with a hand saw for matching lengths.  I drilled a hole on one end of each and taped them to the sensory table.  I taped them in two places, one on a bottom bar and one on the lip of the table.  Taping in the two places made the poles more secure.  I then strung a clothesline between them and tied them off.

Besides the clothesline, I also set up a little table next to the sensory table as a place to dress and undress the babies and to dry the babies.  It also held some of the things the children could use for washing babies such as soap, towels, and washcloths.

I was very pleased because it actually turned out to be an activity that attracted both boys and girls.

As I watched the children wash the babies and the clothes, I couldn't help but notice how their heads kept brushing against the wet clothes on the line.   You can see it in the picture above where the girl on the right is bending over the table and her head is brushing against the wet clothes on the line. That is an additional sensory experience that anyone who has hung clothes on a line can relate to.

As you see in the previous photos, the children wash the babies. Sponges and washcloths are provided for washing and little containers for rinsing.   Larger towels are there for drying.

This little guy has the drying part down.

Besides the washing and drying of babies, there is a lot of washing of clothes.

Figuring out how the clothespin works is a little harder.  This boy wants to hang up a shirt, but cannot figure out how to open the clothespin to get it off the line.  He stops trying, drops the shirt in the water, and begins playing in the soapy water.

But he didn't really give up.  He tries again to make the clothespin work.  Watch closely to see how he does it.

Did you see he used his mouth to make the clothespin work?  He continued to mouth the clothespin and even bit down on it and got his figure caught for a brief second.  He mouthed a silent "Ow!"  But did you also see that at the end, he was able to take a clothespin off with his hand?  That is a nice little bit of progress in a very short time.

Lately when I have been reviewing pictures and videos for posts, I have noticed that some of the activities that the children create are tangental to the apparatus itself.  They have more to do with the materials provided than the apparatus.  The video below is a case in point.

The sponges were provided to wash the babies.  This child concocted this activity to line up the three sponges in a neat row with the sides touching.  That lining up of the square sponges has to be a basic geometric operation.  He then stacks them together with a folding motion.  It wasn't just laying them one atop the other, but he almost shuffles them like a three-card deck of cards. There is a certain novelty and beauty about how he does it.  So why did he line them up and stack them?  It was done in the vein of discovering the properties of the materials.   The child is thinking and acting with his motor actions.  Once he has figured  out what he thinks is interesting about the materials, he wants to show someone.  He asks me to watch and shows me how he can shuffle and then squeeze them all out at once and how much water comes out.

That sounds like a seventh axiom to go in the panel on the right.  Children will always devise new and novel activities with the materials presented that are tangental to the apparatus itself.

I will be taking a couple of weeks off from blogging.  School is starting up again and we are in a new space so there will be some long hours trying to organize the space.  I will post again mid-September.