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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, September 14, 2013


This summer when I was looking at pictures I have taken over the years, I found a picture of an apparatus I have not made for at least five years.  It is a combination of planter trays and a cardboard tube.
In the picture above, the trays are stacked to form a multilevel tray apparatus.  A short cardboard tube is attached to the apparatus.  The tube has a section cut out in the middle.

At the beginning of this school year, I decided to recreate this apparatus.  Now you need to understand when I recreate an apparatus, it is rarely the same as the original.  There must be a reason for that, but I am not sure what it is.  It may have to do with the parts I have on hand when I start to build.  This year's version does not have the multilevel trays and the cardboard tube is a lot longer and has more and varied holes.
This is the time of year planter trays go on sale.  I threw out my old white ones and bought new brown ones.  They are sturdy and support the longer tube well.  The longer tube reaches beyond the regular blue sensory table, so a smaller, clear table was set up next to the blue table.

Watching the children operate on this apparatus, I was struck by how many points of entry there are and how the children find them all.  There are the ends.

There are the holes.

There are the open sections.
There is something amazing about this picture.  How many spoons and scoops do you see just on this end of the table?  I see six in this small section of the table. 

Not only do the children use all the points of entry, but they are always creating and recreating operations to explore the apparatus.  They do such things as scooping the pellets from a tube into a pail.
This child was not successful at first.  He kept at it and was able to get the pail under the end of the tube, the spoon upside down to scoop the pellets, and finally pull the pellets to the end of the tube so they dropped into the pail.

One child wanted to sweep out the tube with a little broom.
You can see the child referencing his actions by looking at the broom in the open section of the tube.  He can't see his hand but he knows his hand is controlling the broom.

How about a child who hooks a little ladle in a hole of a tube and then fills the hanging ladle?

Earlier in the post I speculated as to why an apparatus changes when a recreate it.  As I said before, it may have to do with the parts I have on hand when I start to build.  I am now wondering why and how children create and recreate operations at the table with the different apparatus. Well, it may have to do with the provisions on hand when they begin to explore.  Actually, it is probably the agency the children bring to both the apparatus and the provisions.   That agency flourishes when both the apparatus and the provisions are open-ended.


  1. What a delightfully inviting construction! Would love to get in there and play myself:)) It is so fascinating to observe, as Vygotsky talks about "the zone of proximal development" wherein children on the cusp of honing a new skill, will be pushed to the next level by playing alongside and watching a peer who has gotten that skill, and then that child is able to, as well. All the learning that takes place without an adult uttering a word.

    1. Thanks Eileen. I have often thought that there is a lot of peer-to-peer learning. I never dismiss the role of the observing child. The child who is observing is learning by watching, but she is also supporting the person doing the action---kind of like an audience cheering the actor on.

    2. Good point, Tom, about the child who is doing the action. We all get revved up when we have a supportive, interested audience.

  2. Also, love the boy's face with the broom, just delightful.
    Eileen (I posted above comment as well)

  3. Very interesting! What sort of pellets are those? They look somewhat like a type of cat litter I have seen before (and wouldn't do for my son as he might attempt to play in the litter box after seeing it in a sensory box!)

    1. I always have a little fun with the pellets by asking the parents who come into the room what do they think is in the sensory table. Most of them think it is some kind of pet food, like rabbit food. It is neither pet food or litter. They are called fuel pellets because they can be burned in a pellet stove to heat a house. They are made from compressed sawdust. I especially like the sound and the smell of this medium for the sensory table.

    2. Hi Tom, thanks a million for posting this activity - I'm so going to make a version for our class room, if I may?

    3. Of course you can build it. Let me know if you have any questions.