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 27, 2014


When you think of real tools, what do you think of?  I bet you think of things like hammers and drills and other tools both power and non-power.  How about putty knives?  Recently I added various putty knives that were big, small, plastic and metal to the Hodgepodge and Doohickies that reside on the shelf next to the sensory table.

How did putty knives end up on the shelf of loose parts?  Serendipity.  They were handy because the previous week I had used the larger ones for cleaning wet finger paint off our art table.  Since I had Moon Sand in the sensory table, I knew cutting the packed Moon Sand would be intriguing for the children.  Even though the Moon Sand packs hard, it cuts easily and cleanly with a knife.

I was astonished at how well the children wielded the putty knives.  Take for instance the three-year-old in the video below.  At first she tries to scrape the sand with both hands high on the handle. When that doesn't work, she repositions both her hands with her right hand above the blade and her left hand lower on the handle to get more force so she can scrape the Moon Sand from the bottom of the table.  How did she know to do that?

Did you see that she then uses the blade of the putty knife to shovel some sand into a measuring cup?  That is not so simple because she first pulls the blade toward the edge of the table, turns the putty knife 90 degrees and shovels again using her other hand to make sure the sand stays on the blade of the knife.  With a full blade, she uses two hands to lift the heavy sand over the measuring cup to deposit a good portion of it into the measuring cup. Her reaction: "I got it!" 

The whole sequence reminded me of when I used the same knife to do some drywall work in the house.  The scraping, the piling on of Moon Sand and the transporting of it with the blade look all too familiar to me.  Again, how does a three-year-old figure this stuff out?

Here is another sequence by a child using the large plastic putty knife.  The child first cuts away the pile of sand from the edge of the table using a chopping and then a cutting motion.  She transfers the putty knife into her other hand and then grabs a small measuring cup to scoop up some sand.  The measuring cup is overflowing, but in one easy motion, she uses the knife to smooth and flatten the sand in the cup.

Did you see that she put her hand through the handle of the knife so she could flatten the sand in the cup with the hand that had been holding the knife?  And it was all done so effortlessly.  You would have guessed that this four-year-old works with putty knives all the time.

Here is a third sequence of a child using a small metal putty knife.  She has packed her plastic coffee can with sand.  As the video starts, she plunges the knife up to the handle into the sand. She then makes another plunging cut perpendicular to the first cut.  This second cut is positioned next to the first cut halfway between the two ends.  She makes a third cut perpendicular to the second cut at the opposite end of the second cut from the first cut.  (It's all perfectly clear, right?)

If you guessed she was making an "H" you would be correct.  She had been experimenting making letters in the sand on the top of the coffee.  Who knew a five-year-old could use a putty knife for a literacy activity.

I took almost 200 pictures and videos of children playing around this simple structure.  I often saw seven children around it, but it was not unusual to see nine children fully engaged.

To be fully engaged, they have to be able to author their own operations like the three girls you just saw in the videos.  The loose parts go a long way in helping them in this process.  The children's own experiences and skills also contribute to this process.  Still there has to be something inherent in the provocation for the children create meaningful scenarios.  It does not matter whether the apparatus is simple or complex.  My guess is that it may have more to do with the open-ended nature of the apparatus.  

Saturday, December 20, 2014


If you follow my blog, you know that some of the constructions get a little complex.  Take for instance one of the latest apparatuses: the Box Peak.

This construction creates lots of different spaces for the children to explore. There are up, down, in, out, on, under and through spaces. There are open and closed spaces.  There are flat and incline spaces.  Suffice it to say, there are many varied spaces.

Sometimes, though, it is good to keep it simple.  How simple?  Recently I set up a Large Platform over an extra sand table and set it next to the regular sand table.  That's it, an open table and an open platform.

I was lucky because I did not have to build the Large Platform.  It came from a discarded sand and water table that was about to be thrown out from the elementary program in our building. It looked like this.
The infant toddler teacher really liked the simplicity of the table, but it was too high.  I removed the bottom shelf and cut the legs to make it lower to the ground.  Here is what it looks like now.

I did not discard the shelf because it was beautiful and well constructed; I put it in storage for future use. That future use turned out to be the Large Platform for this setup.  (As it turns out, you can buy the shelf separately from School Specialty for about $80.)  

There is a big difference between this apparatus and the Box Peak.  First, there are not nearly as many spaces created by the Large Platform.  Second, its two primary spaces are completely open.  Third, there are basically only two levels.

Moon Sand was introduced for the first time this year. Commercial Moon Sand from a catalogue is expensive, but it is worth the expense. There are also recipes for making moon sand on the Web. I have not tried any of them because our Moon Sand has lasted several years and still retains its unique qualities

There was one problem with the initial setup.  The sides of the shelf were too low to contain the sand.

Children always scraped the sand to the sides and would pack it up against the edges.  That meant a lot of the precious sand fell on the floor.

There was an easy solution to this problem.  I took packing corners someone had given me that came from an appliance box and taped them to the three edges of the platform where spillage was an issue.

This added enough height to the edges so spillage was reduced.  Here is an important bit of wisdom that comes directly from axiom #1 on the right-hand column of this blog: Children will always spill.  Heck, we spill all the time as adults.  You cannot prevent spillage but you can minimize it by design.

In a previous post, I wrote that the complexity of an construction can add to the capacity---number of children and operations---at an apparatus.  As it turns out, simplicity can also add to the capacity.
It was not unusual to find seven children around the table at one time.  Even when there were nine(pictured above), it still looks like there is room for more.

So how can simplicity also add to the capacity?  In this case, it must be the additional level. What can be so attractive about an additional level?  It may be its shape and its height.  The level is wide enough for multiple children to work on at the same time.  The height is such that the children do not have to constantly bend over to carry out their operations.   It may be similar to working on a counter top or workbench like we do as adults all the time.

So does the capacity of this simple construction also pertain to the number and variety of operations?  Stay tuned.

Saturday, December 13, 2014


Last week this blog featured a Box Peak apparatus that I had built in early November.  Colleagues and parents commented on the architectural nature of the construction.
The children, of course, did not comment on the nature of the apparatus, but they sure did play on, in and around the whole structure.

The second week I added some new elements, a channel and tubes, and a new loose part, a homemade plunger.

The channel that was added had two holes on the top into which the children could pour sand. The lower of the two holes also gave the children a peek at the sand flowing down the closed chute. The hole on the end of the channel directed the sand into the hole at the bottom of the apparatus. If you look closely, you see that the sand coming out of the channel is split in two, but is transformed into one stream coming out of the hole emptying into the tub.

There were two types of tubes added to the apparatus.  The first was a cardboard tube.  The purpose of this tube was to direct sand through the hole on the other side of the box.  Watch how this works; you will have to wait to the end of the video to see the child pour the sand---the red, hot lava---down the tube.  The video begins with the child saying:"Hot lava for sale.  Who wants hot lava?  Red, hot lava with a lot of candy in it.  And a lot of healthy things.  There are healthy things in here."  All the while she is scooping sand from the bucket and putting it in her measuring cup.  Every time she puts some sand in her measuring cup, she uses the scoop to smooth off the top.  When she is satisfied with her exact measurement, she stands up and pours the sand down the tube.  It rushes down the tube and out of the box---you might even say like hot lava.

Red hot lava for sale from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Did you notice all the areas of development that were touched upon in this 30 second video.  Here are a few I noticed: motor skills(both fine and large motor), language, role play, math(measuring the red hot lava), science(pouring the sand down the tube), cooperation(the other child is also in on the role play) and imagination.  Not bad for 30 seconds of play.

The second tube was a plastic tube that was embedded horizontally in the Box Peak.  The tube was set fairly high in the apparatus so the children could still reach under the apparatus to get at the sand.

The main reason for this tube was to encourage play with a new loose part: a sand plunger.  The sand plunger is a jar lid screwed onto the end of a sawed-off piece of broom handle.

The lid was the perfect size to fit into the tube.  That way the children could use the plunger to push the sand from one end of the tube out the other.  Or a child could just push the plunger through the tube without moving any sand.
The child at the top of the picture has just pushed his plunger all the way through the tube.  At the same time, he has pushed the other plunger out of the tube.

Of  course, the children found their own uses for the plungers that had nothing to do with the tube. Below, the children are using the plungers like shovels as they try to move the sand at the bottom of the box to the hole.

I can always enumerate the features of an apparatus.  I can explain how the different elements fit together.  I can illustrate how children use loose parts.  What I cannot do is begin to explain how the children come up with ideas like "red, hot lava" or appropriate a loose part to be a shovel.  It all happens in a context---physical, social, emotional, intellectual---that is greater than the sum of the parts.

Saturday, December 6, 2014


Did you ever have the experience in which you had an idea, but when you actually got around to implementing it, it turned out to be completely different than what you had envisioned?  I had this long, narrow box that I wanted to set up with a horizontal orientation.  It was to look something like this:
The box was bigger than this, so I envisioned using two sand tables.  I also wanted to put movable channel boxes inside the stationary channels.

What I quickly realized was that the box, if set on the horizontal, would be too long for my sensory table area.  What to do?  The idea struck to create an apparatus with two large incline planes with a peak in the middle.  To do that, I scored the box in the middle.  (Score the box means to cut the box, but not all the way through.  Once the box is scored, it can be easily bent at the cut without the box coming apart.) To be able to bend the boxes down the middle, I had to cut the edges through, which left a triangle shaped space that was subsequently covered by a cardboard patch.
To give this structure stability, I had to embed a tower box into the middle of the two inclines.  To embed the tower, I cut a slit the size of the tower box.  I wanted the height of the tower box to be the same height as the peak.  Here are a couple more views that give a better idea how the tower box is embedded and taped to the original box.

The tower box was not simply a support, though.  A hole was cut in the top and in each side on the bottom for the children to use when pouring and retrieving the sand. (Think about how this child is experiencing space both above and below the apparatus.)
I had one big surprise with this apparatus.  Since the large incline planes basically covered the whole table, I thought there would be a lot of spillage on the floor as the children moved the sand from the table to the structure.  That did not happen.  Instead, the children seemed to transport more carefully so there was less sand on the floor than usual.

There was one more surprise with this apparatus: Getting the sand through the bottom of the box became a two-stage process.  Someone would pour the sand down the incline and it would collect at the bottom of the box.  Another child would then shepherd the sand through the hole into the tub.

I started out with a box I thought would make a great horizontal structure.  I ended up building something totally different.  I know as I play with creating the spaces, the children play in and apprize those spaces in some surprising ways.  For instance, look at the picture below.  The child is playing outside the structure, but she is still playing in a space created by the structure.
This child is using a stool as a table next to the table and the structure.   She is in an in-between space created by the wall behind her and the structure in front of her.  She works from her knees because that in-between space is low; the table is low and so is the overhanging structure.  To scoop sand she has to reach under the structure and pull the sand out.  It is almost like the space helps her focus on her task at hand.  Without the structure, her spatial experience would be totally different.  



Tuesday, December 2, 2014


I change the setup at the sensory table every week.  You may ask: How do I do that?  Often times, it is a matter of extending or modifying the existing apparatus.  A case in point is the Big Boxes around the Table.
In the picture above, there are three big boxes arranged around the table.  In a way, the table is an enclosed space on three sides.  Children can be inside the boxes or outside the boxes transporting the pellets both inside and outside the sensory table.

As you can see, even though the sensory table is "fenced" in by big boxes on three sides, the table itself is open.

Let's add three new components into the structure: a reservoir box that spans the width of the table; a box embedded on an incline into the reservoir box; and a cardboard tube embedded in the reservoir box on one end and taped to the lip of the table on the other end.  

I call it a reservoir box, because this box basically collects pellets that are transported into it via one of the three windows---two on the end and one on the side---or via the embedded box on an incline or through the cardboard tube.  It holds the pellets because the window openings have edges.

The additions to the apparatus now divide the table itself, which used to be completely open, into three distinct areas.  
The first area (1) is defined by the big box on left and the reservoir box.  The second area (2) is the enclosed space of the reservoir box that children can access from multiple entry and exit points.  The third area (3) is defined by the reservoir box and the big box on the right.  Taken as a whole, this is now a very complex space that has separate work areas that are all connected.  

How would you expect the children to carry on in a space like this?  Let me highlight just two examples of how the children went about exploring this new configuration.

The smaller, more defined spaces seem to invite the children get into the table itself.
You count correctly if you see three children in the table and one in the box.  What about this new configuration prompted the children to crawl into the table?  Was it the small spaces that invited the children to use their whole bodies for exploring the spaces?

The second curious exploration to emerge from this setup has to do with the proximity of a window in the top of the box close to the window of the box that is embedded on an incline. Children took it upon themselves to gather pellets into containers from the table and then stand up through the hole in the top of the box to pour the container of pellets down the incline box.

Because the hole on the top of the box is relatively small this is not as easy as it seems.  A child cannot simply stand up and lift a container through the hole.  Often times the child will push the container through the hole with his head already through making that a very tight operation.  

You must see how this works in real time.  Below is a video of a child with his head through the top of the box pouring pellets from containers into the window right next to his head.  You will see that his whole operation takes careful execution and balance in a very tight space.   There is a little bonus with this video because there is a child behind him on the outside of the box who is scooping pellets from her measuring cup and dumping them down the window right next to his head.  They reference each other and still carry out their own operations almost as if their operations are finely choreographed.  

There were many children who tried to pop their heads through the top of the box and empty containers or scoops into the that adjoining window.  Before the three additional elements were added, the holes on the top of the box were rarely used.  What about this configuration prompted the children to use the holes and use them in this way?  Does it have something to do with the size of the holes that helps create a unique challenge?  Does it have something to do with the positioning of the holes relative to each other that also helps create a unique challenge?  

My take away is this: Extending and  modifying an apparatus at the sensory table necessarily prompts the children to extend and modify their play to fit the new conditions.  (Sounds like a life skill to me.)

Saturday, November 22, 2014


Over the course of three weeks, I set up a box structure in the large muscle area of my classroom.  There were five boxes that had multiple openings into and out of the structure.  There were windows on the top and side so the children could check on the action outside of the boxes. Within the structures, there were more openings so the children could move between the boxes. All the boxes were taped together to make one large structure.  I called it the Big Box Fort.

After three weeks, I took the three largest boxes and moved them to the sensory table. I purposefully decided to attach the boxes around the outside of the table because I had never done that before.  I also wanted to create interesting spaces that would invite children to play at the table both inside and outside of the boxes.
In trying to decide where to position the boxes, I had fun placing the boxes at different locations and orientations around the table.  Finally,  I set boxes 1 and 3 on the vertical and box 2 on the horizontal.  Box 3 stands alone at one end of the table.  Box 1 is also on one end.  Box 3 is attached to one side in such a way that it overlaps box 1.  Where boxes 1 and 3 overlap, they are connected by an opening.

That allows the children to work in separate boxes or to move between the boxes in their play.
With any number of ways to arrange the boxes, why did I end up with this arrangement?  The one thing I knew I wanted was to connect at least two of the boxes so the children could move between boxes without having to come out of the structure.  After that, it was the interaction between myself and the boxes on that given day.  I am sure on another day, it would have come out differently.  Isn't that what play is all about?   

I cut holes in the sides of the boxes using the height of the table for the bottom cut.  That allowed me to tape the boxes securely to the lip of the table.

Just think for a second what kind of spaces are created by this structure.  First, there is the open space on the side of the table where there are no boxes.

There is another open space, the open space between boxes.

There are, of course, the spaces inside the boxes.

There is also a sort of hybrid space that is both inside and outside.
By far, this was the most popular type of play within this apparatus.  Children would enter the boxes and then lean out to play in the table.

I expected children to pour the pellets into the boxes.  Very rarely did they do that.  When they did, I had a bucket handy and was able to tell them to Put it in the Bucket.

Axiom #1 on the right-hand column of this blog states that children need to transport what is in the table out of the table.   
As you can see, this child has gathered a bunch of containers and placed them on the floor of the horizontal box.  She is busy filling those containers with the pellets and the sticks that she is transporting from the sensory table into the box.  (Many of her containers are overflowing, but the box does a nice job of containment.)  All-in-all, she is both focused and highly industrious.
A structure like this opens up many opportunities to play with different ways and means of transporting.  And if the children are able to constructively transport, the operations they formulate are productive and astounding.

Saturday, November 15, 2014


I write almost exclusively about play around the sand and water table.  Last week, though, I wrote about a structure I set up in the large muscle area of my classroom.  I called it the Big Box Fort.
This was an installation that started off as three boxes but over the course of three weeks expanded to include five boxes and a periscope.  

There was one particular play scenario associated with this structure that totally surprised me. One child took to crashing into the outside of Box 1 and said she was a tornado.  

We live in the Midwest part of the United States and every year in the summer we hear about tornados.  Tornado season, though, is over for us, so where does this scenario come from?  It seems to come out of the blue, but if you work around children, you know they are always trying to make sense of their world.  I asked her dad if he had any idea where her idea came from.  He said he did not have a clue.

From the video, we do know that the child has an idea about what a tornado does: it crashes into structures and tries to knock them down.  For her it is truly a full body experiment to crash against the wall of the box.  For her it is about the power of her body against the box.  But why does she become a tornado?

What is also surprising is that the children in the box pick up on the tornado scenario. Heads pop up yelling "tornado!" and "get out, it's a tornado!"  And everyone knows to get into the boxes when the tornado is coming.  That even includes the girl who is the tornado.  She, too, reassumes her role as a person and scurries into the box to seek shelter from the tornado. (Did you notice, this is an all-girl, big-body play scenario?)

Surely there is a lot of drama as the children play "tornado."  There is a lot of yelling and acting scared and hiding from the danger.  Those are all elements that seem to make the play infectious. But why a tornado?   

If it had something to do with the structure itself, I do not know.  However, the tornado play continued the following week when the box structure was no longer in the large muscle area. Instead, the children---some of the same children and some new players---made up a new script for the tornado game.  Interestingly enough, the girl who personified the original tornado was not part of this reconfigured group. This reconfigured group of children which now included both girls and boys decided to build a wall to keep out the tornado.  They built the wall in the window with the window blocks.
This was all very serious work.  One of the children even states that we have to get the wall built before the tornado destroys the whole world.  

Just this morning at a conference I was attending in New York, I heard Lella Gandini say: "Nothing is banal to the eyes of a child."  Surely this was important for this group of children.  But why did this play scenario about a tornado stick?  How did the play transform from someone embodying the tornado to a generalized, amorphous threat?  And will it continue to have a life in the classroom? 

Why the tornado?