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.