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 29, 2012


Last week I explained my thinking for putting a Dome over the Horizontal Channel apparatus.

I know it is not really a dome; a dome is rounded on top.  It is a box with holes, but that does not do it justice.   It does not do it justice because the play it elicits from the children is exquisite, like the shape of a dome.  That is enough poetic license for now.  Sorry.

The truth is that the box over the horizontal channels changed the nature of play because it added intriguing spaces for exploration.  For children the equation works something like this: more intriguing spaces equals more exploration.

Let's look at some spaces the children discovered to explore and what those explorations looked like.

First, there are the openings created by the box over the channels.  In the picture below, the boy keeps running the palm of his hand under the edge of the box over and over again.  Why?  To see what it feels like, of course.

From feeling the edge of the box, this child starts to feel the corn by reaching under the the partition.  His hand is totally immersed in the corn.  Immersing his hand under the partition has to be a different sensation that simply immersing his hand in an open channel.  The feeling of immersing in this instance is totally cut off from his vision by the partition.  As you can see, this two-year-old finds this part of the box appealing and worthy of exploration.

Second, there are the windows.  One scenario is to work outside the window to get something through the window.  The child in pink is using a little plastic tube to transfer corn from her cup outside the window to the area inside the box.

A second scenario is to use the window to work inside the box.  The girl below is filling her truck with the corn.  To do that, her entire head, arms, and torso are in the box.

A third scenario is to use the window to work inside the box to get the corn out of the box through the vertical chute.  Watch as the boys below work at getting the corn down the chute.

Fourth, there is the bottom of the vertical chute.  If you drop the corn down the chute, you necessarily find where the corn ends up after being shepherded down the chute.

Firth, there is the top of the box.  Not only will the children play with the objects and material on the top, but they will use it to gain another perspective on what lies beneath.

 And sometimes there is a surprise: a friend looking back at you from inside the box.

And how about this: The girl below is trying to retrieve her bulldozer that dropped down the hole. She is reaching through the very same hole on the top of the box.  To do that, she is actually lying on top of the box.

I have always been amazed at how children explore spaces.  I enjoy documenting the how.  Why children explore spaces the way they do is often a mystery that eludes me.  That mystery keeps me intensely curious and spurs me to create new, intriguing spaces for them to explore in novel ways.

Thursday, December 20, 2012


Last week I wrote about the most recent version of a Horizontal Channels apparatus.  I left the channels up for a second week, but added a dome.  Well it is not exactly a dome.  It is a box over part of the channel apparatus, but I am taking a little poetic license.

I want to use this post to give you an idea of my thought processes in adding the dome.  First of all, when I made the Horizontal Channels, I did not measure correctly the width of apparatus, so instead of covering the whole table, I was left with a little ledge on each side of the table.

There was also a larger area in the back of the apparatus that was left uncovered because in setting up the ramp, the apparatus had to be pulled six inches further down the table leaving a bare space on the end opposite the ramp.

Those measuring mistakes gnawed at my brain.  I began to wonder if I could extend the channels. I could have added a separate channel on the back perpendicular to the others.  As I thought about it more, though, I realized the ledges could offer strong support for a box placed over the channels.   The question was: Do I cover all or some of the channels?  I decided I only wanted to cover part of the channels because I wanted to keep a certain amount of the lateral play that this apparatus seems to fostered.

The next question was: Can I find a big enough box to span the channels and cover the back ledge, but not the whole table?   My question was answered the next morning---literally.  When I came into work, I saw a very nice box that looked like the right size sitting in the front hallway of the school.  I asked the custodian why was there a box in the front hallway.  He told me he had set it aside for me.  The custodian really had no idea I was looking for a box with just the right dimensions for the dome.  He is in my room every day, though, so he knows I appreciate a sturdy box.  How is that for luck?

Once I had the box, a decision had to be made about where to position it over the channels. There was one overriding factor that determined the placement of the box.  I wanted to attach a vertical chute that would empty into a tub off the end of the table.  That meant the box had to stick out far enough over the table to accommodate the vertical chute and the tub into which it emptied .

Below is a picture of the vertical chute seen from the inside of the box.
(By the way, the vertical chute was another offering from a coworker earlier in the month.  I had been saving it for just the right apparatus ;-)

Once the position of the box was established, I had to decide on the placement and size of the holes.  The holes on three sides were easy.  I wanted the holes to be big enough so the children could reach inside, not just with their hands, but also with their body.  I also wanted the holes to act like windows so children could interact through them.

The hole on the top of the box was also an easy decision.  I knew I needed one on top because children will work on all levels of any apparatus (Axiom # 3 on the right-hand column of the blog). Without a hole, corn would collect on top and then be brushed off onto the floor.  Providing a hole on the top created an outlet for the need to work with corn on the highest level. In the picture below, the child is watching his own action of pouring corn through the hole on top.

But I did not want the top hole to be too big because the top itself offers another valuable space for children's play.

The hardest decision for me was the shape of the holes in front.  I could have done one big hole like I did with the other three sides, but for stability I wanted some of the holes resting on the channels.  I decided to cut a big hole over the large channel.  I decided to cut the holes over the narrow channels the height of the channels themselves.  That gave the dome stability and also created obstacles for moving the corn or vehicles through the narrow channels under the dome.

So there you have it.  First, there was a mistake in measuring the original apparatus so it did not completely cover the table.  Second, there was the mulling over ideas for covering the exposed space which led to the idea of placing a box over the exposed space and part of the apparatus itself.  Third, there was the custodian setting aside and offering me just the right box without knowing I needed it.  Fourth, there was the decision to add a vertical chute to the dome which in turn determined where to place the dome over the table and apparatus.  Fifth, there were multiple decisions made about the size and placement of holes.  Viola!  The Horizontal Channels with a Dome was born.

As you can see, there was some intentionality in building this apparatus.  You should also see that there is a fair amount of serendipity.  Often times, I may have a general idea of what I want to build, but in the building of the apparatus, things necessarily change.  The idea only takes final form in the act of building.  If I find myself trying to figure out every detail before I start to build, I become paralyzed and unable to start a project.  It takes a certain amount of momentum to finish any project so this is my mantra: the only way to get momentum is to start.

Saturday, December 15, 2012


When I look back at the blog, I see I have written four separate posts on Horizontal Channels. The first post explains how to make the apparatus.  The second post featured many different types of operations children create at this apparatus.  The third  post highlighted how play can be infectious around this apparatus.  The fourth post talked about the type of spatial literacy children experience while playing in and around this apparatus.

This fall I made another version of this apparatus.  The box I used was not big enough to cover the top of the table so I had to add an additional channel.  To connect the extra channel, I duct taped it to the original and made a cutout so the corn could be pushed into the main section and down the ramp.  I kept the end of the extra channel for strength and to create an additional obstacle for the children to work around as they moved the corn.  I also made the ramp larger. Because of that, I could not use the usual tub at the end of the ramp because the sides were too high.  I settled on an actual box.
There is another difference from past versions: the channel sizes vary from skinny to wide. What that meant was that only the narrow vehicles fit in the narrow channels.

The narrower channels, though, opened up new possibilities for play.  The narrow channels became a platform above the channels on which to operate.  And the children certainly took advantage of that.

I mentioned that the ramp was larger for this version of the channel apparatus.  The corn and pellets have always made plenty of noise going down the ramp, but the large ramp amplifies the sound.  Watch and listen!

The Sound of Corn from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

The longer ramp also seemed to encourage more exploration from the bottom box.  Of course, this box does not have very high sides, so it is easy to step into.

The child on the left is feeling the corn as another child is pouring it down the ramp.  The child on the right has taken up residence in the box driving the dump truck up and down the ramp.

Getting back to the channels, one of the operations the children usually create is to bury objects. In the picture below, the children have buried the green front loader---you can just see the top.
It is possible to bury objects because the walls of the channels hold in at least two sides of the medium.  In the case of the green front loader, it is three sides because the children have utilized the end of the channel.

I have said before that this apparatus really encourages a specific type of spatial exploration.  The flat horizontal channels encourage a straight, lateral motion.  Watch how well that is illustrated by the clip below.  The child "surfs" with his truck from one end of the channel to the other all the way to the bottom of the box.

Surfing the Channel from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

When it comes to cardboard, there may be a general blueprint in my head for an apparatus, but I will rarely make the exact same apparatus a second time.  That is partly because cardboard boxes are so varied in size and shape.  If I were to search for boxes with exact dimensions from a previous version, I could spend too much time searching which takes away time for building. Besides, children are masters at exploring spaces.  Children are masters at making the spaces their own. The more varied those spaces, the more play and exploration.

Saturday, December 8, 2012


Here is a picture of the wire shelves next to the sensory table in my classroom.  What do you see?  There is a hodgepodge of pots, pans, and bowls, and a large assortment of doohickies.  

There is not one item on those shelves that was bought from an early childhood catalogue.  Many of them were bought in the kitchen department of a store; many others---especially the pots, pans, and bowls were bought at Goodwill.  It is a mixture of plastic and metal with one fiberglass bowl and one ceramic covered bowl.  The beauty of this collection is that there is a variety of weight, size, and different-sized openings.  I believe those factors lead to more experimentation and exploration.

It is impossible to show all the exploration, but here is a taste of just some of what happens with hodgepodge and doohickies.

Filling a syringe just to watch the level continually go down because there is a hole in the bottom. This is an operation that gets repeated over and over again.

Using a baster to fill the ice cube tray

Filling a bowl with a scoop with a hole in the bottom. (This is a scoop from a baby formula can.) There are a couple of things to notice about this video.  First, the girl has a little trouble taking a measure of how much water to pour from the bottle so the scoop does not overflow.  Second, when she figures that out, she is focused on keeping the scoop full without making it overflow.  (I see a future scientist taking careful measure with a finely calibrated instrument.)

Filling the jello mold with a funnel and a small measuring cup.

Filling a red bulb with a funnel.  The child has to keep her hand on the bottom so the water does not flow out.

Of course after you fill it, you can use it to fill another cup.

Or see what it feels like when you dribble the water down your arm.

The next little video shows this child experimenting with an upside-down funnel in a container.  I looked at this video several times before I understood what was going on.  The child begins by plunging the upside-down funnel in the bowl.  There is some resistance as the funnel pops out of the water.  About halfway through the video, she sticks her index finger over the hole of the funnel.  That traps the air in so as she pulls up the funnel, she also pulls up water making that operation harder.  When she goes to put the funnel back in the water, her finger is still over the hole.  That causes the air to displace the water so she has to press down harder on the funnel to put it under the water.  At the same time, the funnel wants to  slide sideways to let air out and water in.  That's a nice little bit of experimenting for a two-year-old.  Watch.

Upside-down Funnel from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Remember the syringe in the first picture?  In the last video, the child has figured out how to use it to fill the ice cube tray from the butterfly bowl.  It is unique but methodical.  Watch.

Filling the Ice Cube Tray with a Syringe from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

I acknowledge that the pots and pans and bowls and implements available for the children at my sensory table will win no awards for beauty.  If awards were given out for fostering creativity, though, hodgepodge and doohickies take the prize.

Saturday, December 1, 2012


Last week I wrote about Aksel's Tray.  It is a wide tray with three low sides and one open side.  It is set on a table at a slight incline so when the children pour and stir with water, any spillage drips into the adjacent water table and not onto the floor.

There were two design flaws.  One I imagined and the other I did not see coming.

The first design flaw was imagined and a non-starter.  I wanted tray to cover the whole table, but when I set it up with the open end over the blue water table, the other end did not cover the other side of the table.  When I saw that, I was worried that the children would use that little ledge and subsequently spill copious amounts of water that would go under the tray and onto the floor.  That did not happen.

The second design flaw I did not see coming and it was major because it did lead to a lot of water on the floor.  Watch the short video below to see what happened.  Pay attention to left side of the tray over the blue table to see where the water drips after it flows out the open end of the tray. You will see the water curl under the tray and drip onto the lip of the blue table.  Where does the water go then?

Watching the Water Flow from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Did you see the water curl under the tray and drip onto the lip of the blue table?  The boy with the glasses followed the water as it curled under the tray and started to catch it with his little plastic scoop.

It is hard to see, but here is a closeup of the water curling under the tray.  (By the way, that is caused by the surface tension of the water.)

At first, I tried to put a pot under the tray, but the pot filled up quickly and was not steady.  I also put a large green bucket under the table, but since water has a mind of its own, more water went on the floor than in the bucket.

I tried turning the whole table around so the water coming off the tray would fall into the clear sensory table.  That did not work any better.

The solution was a splash guard.  I took the tray home after the first day and found a piece of black plastic that I attached with screws and caulk to the bottom of the tray.

When I set up the tray with the splash guard, the water dripped into the water table as originally planned.

The result was a tray on which the children could operate without me, as teacher, micro-managing their operations to make sure there was no flood.  That is important because children are learning what it means to fill a container.  As a teacher I could tell them the container is full, but when they fill a container so it overflows, they begin to create that knowledge themselves.

There is one final point to this post.   There will always be design flaws.  I will not let that stop me from building apparatus.  It certainly doesn't stop the children from exploring the apparatus and exposing the flaws.  In other words, as I build, the children teach me.

Sunday, November 25, 2012


Aksel's Tray is a large flat tray made from wood that sits on top of a table.  The tray is closed on three sides but open on one end.  The tray is slightly propped opposite the open end so when there is some spillage, the water empties into the blue water table.

Here is the setup before the tray is added.  The table connects the two sensory tables.  Notice the white wooden tray that spans the blue table.  That was the first tray I used with the sensory table over twenty years ago.  You might say that Aksel's Tray is a version of that tray.

The purpose of this new tray is to provide a larger, flat surface for the children to work on.  (The old tray can serve the same purpose, but is more constricting.)  With a wider surface, a child can comfortably work with several pots and pans at the same time.

So why is it called Aksel's tray?  First you need to know that the table on which the tray sits is usually in the sensory area and is usually used to hold implements and utensils.  With the last apparatus, the table was clear of things, so Aksel commandeered it for his own purposes.

For Aksel, that meant mixing.  As Aksel mixed, he appropriated more pots and and bowls.

The more pots and bowls he used, the more water he used.  The more water he used, the more he spilled.  The more he spilled, the wetter the table got.  The wetter the table got, the more water went on the floor.  Aksel was so focused on his mixing, that I did not want to interrupt his enterprise.  As a consequence, the water actually began to puddle on the floor like never before.  I always have towels when there is water play at the table, but I could not keep up with this guy's industriousness.  It was then the light came on: Aksel was telling me that he---and the others---needed a wide surface to work on almost like a counter in a kitchen.   I thought if I could make a tray with a slight incline with three sides closed and one side open it would empty into the sensory table and the children could mix to their heart's content.  Thus was born Aksel's Tray.

Watch how the tray works in the video below.  This video shows three children mixing on the tray. The first child says she she is making soup.  The second says she is making chocolate.  In one container are M&M's and in the other two are chocolate chips.  The first child changes her mind and says she is making a lot of chocolate.  The third child takes a few seconds before declaring she is making noodles.   

Did you notice how wet the tray was?  And did you watch to the end when the third child poured water into her full container at the end of the video?

Did the tray work?  You are the judge.  

Axiom #7 on the right-hand column of this blog states that children will always create their own play that is tangental to the apparatus.  Aksel's Tray is a good example of how rich that play is if we pay attention and take it as a cue for further activities or apparatus.  Thanks Aksel.

Saturday, November 17, 2012


First of all, I want to thank all those who attended my presentation on sensory tables at the NAEYC annual conference in Atlanta last weekend. There has been an noticeable uptick in the number of hits to this blog, so I want to thank you.  If you ever have any questions or comments, I invite you to either comment on the post or send me an email.  

After the Tubes and Funnels apparatus and after the Channel Board apparatus, I decided to combine the two apparatus into one big apparatus.
With this new combination, children still have to figure out where the water goes when they pour it in one of the funnels.  If you look at the channel board, you can see that two of the tubes empty onto the channel board.  That is trickier that it may seem because for water to flow out of the two tubes, the water first has to flow down and then back up before it can flow out of these long tubes.

What that means for the children operating on the combined apparatus is that the water does not flow out of the tubes with much force.  You can see the anemic flow of water out of the sprinkler head in the picture below.

So how do children figure out which funnels empty out of which tubes?  They investigate.  That is illustrated nicely in the video below.  Watch as the boy first pours water into the black funnel.  He looks through the crate to see where the water goes.  He figures out pretty quickly that the funnel is connected to the black tube.  He then follows the tube down and then up.  He declares: "It went in here."  He follows the tube to the end and then uses his hand to trace the tube's path from crate to the board.  He asks: "Oh, what is this?"  I am not sure why he asks the question because he seems to know that the water flows through the tube.  Maybe he is just saying what he is thinking because he then states: "It [the water] went down this one." He again scoops up some water to pour in the funnels.  He starts with one funnel and actually looks at the channel board to see where the water will go.  After referencing the channel board, he decides to pour the water into the funnel in front of the black funnel.  He immediately turns and sees that the water come out of the sprinkler head.  He chuckles and says that it is funny.   Watch him figure out the apparatus.

Where does the water go? from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

When the children begin to figure out how the apparatus works, they come up with their own operations.  Watch as this girl demonstrates how to make water come out of both tubes at the same time.  She has figured out that if she pours water into two particular funnels at the same time, the water comes out onto the channel board at the same time.  Watch.

I made them come out at the same time! from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

I think her little chuckle indicates the sense of agency she has in having figured this operation out.

I kept the loose parts from the previous post.  That led to a whole host of other operations and experimentation.  I was especially struck by two three-year-olds that figured out how to propel little orange bottles down the clear tube by first setting the bottle in the tube and then pouring water down the tube.  Watch.

What is so striking about this video is that they have figured out how water carries objects down a incline.  They did this on their own.  Not only that, they take turns effortlessly and with social grace.  That is a nice melding of science and social learning.

Sunday, October 28, 2012


I wrote about the Channel Board last week.  I wrote about how it was made and how the children used it.

I am often asked: Do you let the children build or help build an apparatus?  My answer no, not at this point.  Every time I am asked, though, I have to think about it again.  There are two main reasons why I do not engage the children in the building of the apparatus.  One reason is that I see over 100 children a week.  I see them over eight classes that only meet once a week for a two hours.  It is hard to create continuity between the classes; no two children are in the same class.  I see what I build for the sensory table as an installation that has to be strong and secure for all the children to use during the course of a week.  The second reason is selfish: I believe everyone needs a creative outlet and building apparatus for the sensory table is mine.

That said, I think that young children do need avenues to create and put things together.  To that end, I added loose parts to the Channel Board this year.  First of all, there was the crate that was not secure, but just sitting in the table.  I thought children might take it out, but no, it became a space on which to operate and an area of focused play.  Below you can see a child using the crate.  He has set a funnel in the hole and is pouring water in the hole.

On the shelves next to the sensory table, there was a clear tube for which the children found many uses.
The boy on the left is using it in conjunction with the Channel Board. He has laid it in one of the channels and is pouring water in the tube for his friend to catch.  The girl on the right has set the tube in the ever-present 5-gallon pail and is pouring water from the table into it.

There were also pieces of flexible tubing on the shelves that the children found and used.

On the left, boy is trying to pour the water down the clear tubing from his plastic measuring cup.  That takes some precise pouring.  Before long, he finds that a funnel fits nicely into the tubing (the picture on the right) and makes the job of pouring easier.

He does not stop there.  He finds another bigger funnel and fits into the black funnel for more pouring fun.

The process of using the loose parts really got interesting when the children started combining them.  The child pictured below is holding the flexible tubing in the mouth of the clear plastic tube to transport water from the table into the pail.

And even more intriguing was one group started to put the tubing inside the larger clear tube.  That led to some original pouring operations.

Wait!  Did I just make a case for the children building at the sensory table?  Maybe I will have to include more loose parts from now on.