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, March 31, 2012


This posting is an extension of this post that featured a simple apparatus with gems, sticks and stones.  Here is the apparatus.

Here are the loose elements offered with the apparatus

I was struck by a couple play scenarios that emerged around this apparatus that question my role as a teacher.  In the first scenario, there is one main player.   He has filled the five-gallon pail with the gems, sticks, and rocks.  He says it is very heavy, so I ask him to show me.  He finishes emptying another cup of rocks and then demonstrates how heavy the bucket is.

At first he hams it up by demonstrating how heavy it with highly exaggerated motions.  He pretends to pull really hard on the handle.  As he pulls, he lets his hand slip off the handle and jumps backward and falls onto the ground.  He does it again.  I then challenge him on his effort by telling him he did not really try to lift the bucket.  He took up the challenge and strained to lift the bucket.  This effort had the same result with his hand coming off the handle and him falling backwards onto the ground.  At the end, his sister comes into the picture and lifts up the handle of the bucket as if to try to lift it.   The boy comes back to get his cup and sees his sister lifting up the handle.  He grabs the handle, too, and gives it a good pull.

Shortly after this, I again record him putting more rocks into the bucket.  As he is pouring the rocks he states: "Nobody can ever lift it up." 

Was that his original intention or did he justify his actions because I challenged him?   I know he was hamming it up when he first demonstrated how heavy the bucket was, so the act of questioning and video taping changed his behavour.  But did my attempt to find reason in his assertion nudge him into an attempt to justify what he was doing?  Did I subtley insert my agenda into his play agenda?  As a teacher, do I always have to ask those questions that focus the child's attention onto learning something or explaining something?  What would happen if I just stepped back to observe and enjoy the children's play and asked no questions.

That is actually what happens in another play scenario that emerged with this set up.  The class began with a child having a separation issue.  Because the child needed my immediate and complete attention, I was no where near the sensory table.  When the child was settled, but still needed comforting, I noticed something was going on at the sensory table across the room.  At that point,  I began to video tape from a distance.  Watch and see if you can figure out what is going on.

What you saw was 7 children ages 3 to 5 huddled around one end of the table.  You can't see what they are doing and neither could I.  What struck me was the focus on a common goal and the cooperation between all the children.  At that point it did not matter what they were doing.  What mattered was how they came to be engaged in this all-engrossing activity.  Some of what it took was having the opportunity to negotiate and decide on a common goal and on roles of the individuals to reach that goal without an adult presence or intervention.

These two scenarios got me thinking: Is it heresy for me to question my role as "teacher" to feel the need to always come up with activities that teach something and to always ask questions that direct children's focus so they are learning something?  Can I actually allow children in the classroom their own space and time for their own agenda?

Saturday, March 24, 2012


In this blog, many times there is an apparatus that takes center stage.  For this post, the apparatus is as simple as it gets.  What gets center stage in this post are the loose elements that are provided with the apparatus.  First the apparatus.  It is a wooden tray that connects two different sensory tables.

The tables are filled with a fine, white sand.

Loose elements were provided in four bins on a table near the sensory tables.  The containers held grey rocks, sticks, and gems.

Before you see what happens, you have to understand what is the first and primary operation the children have to complete: transporting all the loose elements into the sensory tables.  And the most attractive of those loose elements are the gems.

It is a guarantee, though, that before long, everything is in the table.

Once everything is in the table, then the children get down to the job of exploring and manipulating the loose elements.  So what does that look like?

A solitary gem balanced on the head of a bolt.

Gems---plus one rock---arranged on an up-turned pot.

A "house" made by balancing sticks, gems, and rocks on top of an over-turned pail.

A rock and gem forest

Besides the transportation and arrangements of the loose elements, there are a myriad of other operations the children execute.  Some of those operations are common and look similar no matter which child effects them.  

One such operation is collecting gems.  The child in the picture below prefers clear ones.

And there are common operations that can be actualized quite differently.  One of those is burying the gems.  Though most children will simply pour sand over the rocks to bury them quickly, watch how the child in the video below buries the gems one-by-one with delicate precision.

And then there is the not-so-common operation carried out by one child.  The child in the video below took a liking to one particular rock with a small hole.  In the video, she shows how each of her fingers can fit in the hole.  Watch.

What an excellent way to discover the distinctive feature of this small rock.

What she does next with the rock is simply amazing.  She begins to use it as an implement to scoop and pour sand onto a dustpan.  Watch.

She has just made the rock a tool, an operation that harkens back to the dawn of man.  Amazing!

With such a simple apparatus and these loose elements, how can the children be so creative? Look no further than The Theory of Loose Parts by Simon Nicholson (1972).  He says: "In any environment, both the degree of invention and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it."  In this case, the environment is small, the sensory table, but still fraught with possibilities when infused with "loose parts."

Saturday, March 17, 2012


My last post brought to the fore a question I often ask myself: Is that allowed?  To be honest, it is also a question my colleagues often ask me. When I look over pictures and videos taken over the last year, I see many instances where the question is front and center.

Is it OK to use a knife?
It is if he needs it to leverage the ice out of the container.  That even includes how he might use it when creating a new and novel ways to achieve his goal.

Is it OK to use an over-the-head, roundhouse swing of the hammer?
It is if he needs to use some serious force to break the ice.  Of course, sometimes a gentle tap is enough, but how else will he learn the difference?

Is it OK to put a clothespin in your mouth?
It is if that is his way to learn the mechanical principles of the clothespin.  (After the child in the video used his mouth to work the clothespin, he was able to transfer that mechanical knowledge to his hands.)

Is it OK to put sand on the floor?
It is if that is the by-product of filling your containers.  How else will he know what is full and what is not?  Besides, he has the broom and dust pan ready to sweep up when he is done.  

Is it OK to put sand on a table?
It is if his intention is to sweep it back into the sensory table.  (This boy dumped the white sand onto the table with the dust pan.  Instead of jumping in and saying no, don't put it on the table, I asked him what he was doing.  He did not say a thing, but proceeded to use the broom to sweep the sand into the little sensory table.  That was his intention all along.)

Is it OK to squirt water out of the sensory table onto the floor?
It is if they are experimenting with hydraulics, water pressure, and pumps.  The only way to stop this activity would be to take away the pumps(basters).  That was not going to happen because there was too much learning underway.  Besides, who can resist those smiles?

Is it OK to climb into the hopper tub at the end of the sensory table?
It is if he needs to explore a novel perspective on how the funnel works.  Though funnels were used on top of the tube, this fellow climbed into the tub and held the funnel to the bottom of the tube.  As he regulates the flow of sand, he queries: "What's happening?"

Is it OK to climb up on the lip of the sensory table?
It is if she has to reach up high enough to pour the pellets down the box incline.  Also, it is if she wants to increase her stretching and balancing skills.

Is it OK to climb into the apparatus?
It is if he wants to get as close to the action as possible.

Is it OK to climb on the apparatus?
That is a little more dicey.  I stayed close on this one.  I am glad I let the girl explore the apparatus with her whole body.  To understand why, reference this previous post.  By the way, I was also glad nobody else copied her.

Is that allowed?  I find myself asking that all the time.  I could set rules at the outset, but the truth is I do not know how the children will interface with any given apparatus.  And besides, I am rule adverse.  Rules tend to limit interaction and exploration.  By allowing more interaction and exploration, the children are discovering for themselves what is allowed.  As a consequence, I intervene less.  As a consequence, they develop more self-control.

Does that mean anything goes?  No.  So much of what is allowed  depends on the focus of the child.  If the focus is locked-in on the activity, I hold that sacred.  That is the wellspring of learning.  

Saturday, March 10, 2012


In February of last year, I wrote two posts about Things Frozen in Ice here and here.  I thought I would change it up this year.  Instead of just using a wooden tray, I wanted to connect two tables with plastic chutes.  My thinking was that the children would experiment with the ice sliding down the chutes. Here is what the apparatus looked like.

There was no sliding the ice down the chutes to speak of.  When a child would free a marble or a ball from the ice, she would roll it down the chute, but rarely the ice.  Otherwise the chutes were just used to hold the things the children extracted from the ice.  Thinking back on it, if I really wanted children to use the chutes for the ice, I should have given them more of a slant.

Since I can't talk about ice sliding down the chutes, let me talk about the use of knives to get things out of ice.  The knife is a good implement for attempting to pry the ice out of the containers.
Notice how this child has set the container with ice on the ground and hovers over it.  Whether he knows it or not, that gives him much more leverage to wedge and pry.  If he doesn't know it cognitively, he is learning it motorically.

Knives are also good for chopping.  The child in the video below chops the ice with an overhand motion of the knife.  She is able to rest the container on a section of the table that is raised and to steady the container with her left hand.  Watch how she chops, checks her progress, and then gets her knife stuck in the ice.  Can you guess what will happen?

When her knife gets stuck, she tries to pull it out.  As she pulls, she also starts to pry the ice with the knife.  All of a sudden, out pops the ice!  She declares: "Got it!"  Though she is surprised with the outcome, she also communicates pride in her effort with a hint of a smile as she gets back to her work.  Her stare into the camera after extracting the ice is priceless; it is also a request for my acknowledgment of a job well done.  I sure hope I smiled back at her.

The child in the video below has a more precise way of chopping the ice with the knife.  He is more precise because he uses a hammer to hit the knife.  That allows him to direct the knife exactly where he wants to chip the ice.  Watch as he is tries to remove the ice that is frozen inside a dinosaur cookie cutter.

The first two times he starts pounding the knife with the hammer, he takes a quick read to make sure the hammer hits the knife.  20 seconds into the video, though, he no longer needs to check the contact point of the hammer on the knife.  He is able to switch his entire focus onto where he wants the point of the knife to chip the ice.  That is impressive because if you watch, the knife is always moving as part of the hammering process.

There are definitely degrees to chopping.  The child in the next video invests more of his whole body into dislodging the ice from a truck with the knife.  He begins with vigorous overhand chops to the ice with the knife.  He then tries to use the knife as a small pry bar to dislodge the ice.  He finally goes back to the vigorous overhand chopping.   Watch.

He uses his left hand to steady the truck.  His left hand ends up to be very close to the chopping. At the same time, you can see him adjusting that left hand to make sure it out of the way of the chopping.  That is a nice example of strength and coordination.

A couple parents commented on the use of knives.  One said that they don't allow the use of knives at home.  She had no trouble, though, in letting her child use the knife in this set up.  When another parent saw the knives, she wondered out loud if that was safe.  She did notice and remark at the care and precision that the children were using with the knives and was satisfied.

The question: "Is it safe?" and this whole post will serve as a segue to my nest post:  "Is That Allowed?" Ask yourself the same question as you work with your children for the next week---and stay tuned.

Saturday, March 3, 2012


At the end of the last post, I mentioned that the Trays in a Box apparatus became a large muscle apparatus for my youngest group.   Here is the apparatus.

In many ways, a child uses his whole body to explore and operate on the apparatus in the sensory table.  Below is a nice example of this.  The child starts at one end of the table and walks around almost the entire table to empty a cup with corn into the clear tube.  

Did you see from the very beginning that he is quite intentional---as if he had a plan---about walking around the table to empty one of the cups?  Does he need to walk around the table? Yes, because a child likes to use his whole body through space when he transports.  No, because as you saw, once he was at the tube, he found a pot within arms reach that he could empty into the tube.   Yes and no: How is that for a difinitive answer?

That was a fairly blase´ example of full-body exploration; I see children moving around the table to complete their operations all the time.  Here is an example of more adventuresome exploration.  In the video below, the child climbs up onto the lip of the table to deposit corn through a hole in the top of the box.  Watch.

For him, the act of putting corn in a hole at the top of the box is secondary to the physical challenge of stepping up from the stool onto the lip of the table.  If you watch closely, you will see he is a little unsure of himself as the apparatus shakes a bit as the child next to him climbs down. Also, he quickly comes down after grabbing a handful of corn from a tray and dropping it in the hole in the top of the box.  Though he may have been a little unsure of himself, he was still proud that he executed his full-body exploration.  He clearly announces his physical accomplishment when he says: " I'm standing way up here."

Another example of full-body exploration happened in the tub next to the table.  The tub was inviting enough to entice two children to climb right in.  Watch.

I did not see how it started; I only entered the area with the camera when they were well under way. In the tub, they noticed they could make noise by stomping the corn---and children do like to make noise.  They may also have enjoyed the feeling on their feet of the corn moving in and around their feet as they stomped down into it.  Their exuberance is palpable.  By the way, this started a cascade of children in and out of the tub for the rest of the period.

Finally, look at the pictures below that document one child's effort to explore the whole apparatus with her body.

Standing on the lip of the table.

Climbing onto the tray embedded in the box.  Now that's adventuresome!

From the table to the tub.

In the tub.

Climbing back out via the table.

Just in case you were wondering, the photos are in sequence.

There is a price to pay for so much exploration.

It would seem the operations of children transporting (Axiom #1 in the right hand column) encompass more than transferring the medium in, out of, through, and around the table.  They also include children transporting their bodies in, out of, through, and around the table.