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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.

Sunday, December 15, 2013


Whenever I present to others on the work I do at the sensory table, I am always asked: "Do you let the children build?"  I got a version of that question recently from Serious About Play on Facebook.  The question was: " How do you inspire invention at your sand and water table?  I used to get defensive when I was asked these questions because I consider myself a play advocate who values the children constructing their own knowledge both physically and cognitively.

I will admit that when I first started writing this blog, it was mainly a platform for me to share the things I build at the sensory table.   However, the more I document and the more I write, the more important it is form me to also show how children explore the apparatus.

Let's take some concrete examples from the latest apparatus: Tall Cardboard Tubes and Rope

Let's start with the rope.  The child in the video wants to see how long the blue rope is.  To do that, he pulls the rope hand-over-hand until he reaches the cabinets.  At that point, he turns sideways which actually makes it more difficult for him to find the rope as he crosses his body with his arm and hand to grab the rope each time.  Finally, he reaches his self-selected goal and pulls the rope taut.

How long is the rope? from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

There is a simple beauty in that little bit of exploration.  And besides, he has created a way to take a measure of the rope.

The space was provisioned with carabiners, S-hooks and pails so the children could hook things onto the rope.  They certainly did that, but they did it in ways I did not expect.  In the video below, the child first scoops from a pail hanging from a S-hook and a carabiner.  Notice that he has to steady the pail in order to spoon the pellets.  He then decides to dump the pellets back into the table. He has to pull the whole pail back over the table. He uses both hands, but then he places his left arm under the pail and his right hand on the lip to tip the pail.   As he finishes emptying the bucket, he gently releases the bucket to swing back into place almost as if he is anticipating the subsequent motion.

Swinging pail from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

We have never had swinging pails in the classroom yet this child is quite adept at working with such a configuration.   Why is that?

I would say the tall vertical tubes were the focal point of most of the activity.  That included the bottom of the tube.  Watch the following video to see the child is using a stick to extract pellets from the bottom of the tube.  She uses her hand near the end but then goes back to using the stick.

Scraping pellets with a stick from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Not only is this child showing persistence in her actions, but she has also created her own tool to realize those actions.

Many children would pour pellets down the top of the tube.   In the picture below, the child is both pouring pellets into the top of the tube and he has stuck his hand in one of the holes to feel the pellets fall on his hand as they travel down the tube.
This child has created a new sensory experience for himself by completing a cycle of pouring pellets through the top hole of the tube and then sticking his hand in a hole lower on the tube so he can feel the falling pellets he has just poured.  

My biggest surprise was that the apparatus became a climber.  
That should not have surprised me, though.  This a vertical structure so why wouldn't the children explore it vertically?  Besides, if you are pouring pellets into the top of the tube, wouldn't you want to see where they go?   

I did make one request for this type of exploration: I asked the children not to step into the table itself.   In response to my request, one child created a path across one corner of the table using stools.  She steps on the stools on one side of the table and then onto the lip on that same side. She steps over the corner of the table onto the lip on the other side before stepping down onto the stools on that side.

The stools, of course, make it easier for her to step up on the lip of the table and subsequently pour pellets down the top of the tube.  Maybe the "stool pathway" is a natural extension of that exploration.

Did you see the boy step in the table?  After putting one foot in the table, he quickly readjusts his body and his foot so he is not stepping in the table..  As you saw, his purpose was to also cross the table and he figured out a way to do it by avoiding stepping outright into the table. He did not have to but he had internalized my request and figuratively and physically balanced his actions to comply and still complete his own undertaking: crossing over the table.

I am not as defensive as I used to be when people ask me if I let the children build.  As you can see, the apparatus I build are invitations to the children to explore.   Those invitations allow the children to bring all their capabilities and capacities to bear in order for them to make sense of the structure, the space, the provisions and each other.  And so often the understanding they author is astonishing. 

P.S.  I do have to say that children do build with many of the loose parts they discover at the sensory table.
OK, maybe I am still a little defensive.


1 comment:

  1. What a fantastic term 'play advocate' - keep on advocating. Love your blog can't believe I've only just stumbled across it.