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, February 25, 2017

Knob water ramp

One of the earliest apparatus I built was knob water ramp.  It was made with scrap wood from my basement.  The knobs were short dowel pieces made by cutting old broom handles I had been collecting.  I had two main reasons for making this apparatus: 1) I wanted to create the sound of water flowing over rocks, like a babbling brook;  2) I wanted to arrange the knobs so the children would see a dispersal pattern as the water flowed down the ramp. 

The idea came from a water fountain in the Twin Cities where I live.  The water bubbles up out of the top and tumbles over the bricks on its way down the sides of the fountain. 

The first ramp was too bulky, so I made a narrower one.  However, there was still one big issue with this apparatus: how to keep it securely taped down.  The knob ramp was made out of wood so it was heavy.  In the picture below, the tape was doing double duty.  It was holding the apparatus to the crate and the table all the while trying to keep it from slipping down.
I often ended up re-taping the apparatus daily because by the end of the day it had slipped down into the water, which is not good for wood.

One time during play the bottom of the tray actually came loose.  In essence, the ramp became a teeter-totter.  That gave the children more agency with moving the water on the ramp.  
However, I was not comfortable with the ramp rocking back and forth.  The picture below illustrates why.  The child's head on the right came awfully close to the corner of the ramp.
Credit does have go to both of these children because no one got bonked.  The child manipulating the ramp did it slowly and carefully and the child whose head is so close to the corner seemed to know the corner was near his head and simply avoided it.

When I made the second, narrower ramp, I kept the dowel pattern on the board again.  Did the children notice the dispersal pattern? 
Though it may look like the child pictured above was focusing on the dispersal pattern created by the dowels, I am not sure.  His pour was much too fast for him to see the pattern.  He surely heard the water splashing over the knobs and dropping into the water like a babbling brook.

Below is a video of a child pouring water down the ramp.  As the water flows over the knobs and off the ramp into the tub, there is a zen-like aural component created by the action of the water.

Pouring Water Down the Water Ramp from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

So I am not so sure about how much the children noticed the dispersal pattern.  That is not big deal because that was my agenda.  I do think there was also a certain attraction to the sound the water made rippling down the ramp.  Again, though, that was my agenda.  The driving force behind the children's play came from the children themselves because they have this natural compulsion to pour water down ramps.  (See Axiom #4 on the right column of this blog.)

One thing that I have learned over the years is that inclines connect children in play.  When someone pours at the top, there is often someone positioned at the bottom to receive the pour.  Below is an example of this.  One child poured water down the ramp.  The water slowly worked its way around the knobs to the bottom.  When the water reached the bottom of the ramp, the child kneeling next to the tub started rubbing the water on the board with her soapy hand.

Knob ramp play from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

How intentional was this play connection?  The child at the bottom clearly waited for the child on top to pour the water down the ramp.  The child on the top seemed more interested in pouring and watching the water flow down the ramp.  Maybe there are different degrees of play connections in any given play episode.  And maybe those different degrees of play connections help move the play along until the play morphs into something else or simply runs it course.

What do you think?

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Large wooden tray, a win-win

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the evolution of a wooden tray that created a second level of play for the children at the sensory table.   That was a narrow tray that spanned the width of the table and was taped to the lip of the table on each side.

On the left, the children piled their Moon Sand creations on the tray. On the right, the children collected swamp water in the tray.  Whether they were working with sand or water, the wooden tray invited the children to work on a second level above the bottom of the table.  (See axiom #3 on the right hand column of the blog.)

Five years ago, I built another wooden tray.  This one was the size of a table top.  In fact, when I set it up, I set it up on a table between two sensory tables.  The idea was to create a work space on a second level for the children that would allow for a lot of pouring and mixing without having to worry about spills.

The tray was made from a thin sheet of wood paneling that was attached to a rudimentary frame of 1” x 2” pine boards.  The whole apparatus was sanded smooth and covered in polyurethane so it could be used with water.  The tray was enclosed on three sides and open on a fourth side.  It was propped slightly on one end so any water that spilled drained down the tray into the blue table.

There was one more important addition to the tray: a plastic flap to direct the water coming off of the tray into the the table.  Without the flap, the water clung to the bottom of the apparatus and splashed on the floor.

One of the nice features of this apparatus was its size.  It could accommodate multiple children and their operations at the same time.  In the video below, the children were all cooking.  The first one says she was making soup.  The second says she was making something from three different pots that contained M&M's and chocolate.  The first child liked the sound of that so she switched to making chocolate, lots of chocolate.  After hearing this exchange between the other two, the third child declared she was making noodles.

Cooking club from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Not only did this apparatus foster all kinds of social interaction, it also fostered specific kinds of motor skill development.  In the video below, the child was filling the ice cube tray with a plastic syringe.  To do that, he had to create a sequence of motor tasks to complete his self-appointed undertaking.    A couple of the larger motor tasks included getting the water in the syringe and directing the water into the individual compartments of the ice cube tray.

Filling the ice cube tray from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Believe it or not, this apparatus even fostered some unexpected scientific inquiry.  The child in the video below was using the funnel upside down like a plunger in the pot of water.  While plunging away, her finger found the hole in the spout of the funnel.  With her finger in the hole, she lifted the funnel.  Since she had created a vacuum by plugging the hole, she lifted water  out of the bowl with her funnel.  When the funnel was pulled completely out of the bowl, the water dropped back into the bowl.

Funnel suction from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

In all three of these videos of children using the large wooden tray, it did not matter if they spilled.  Here is one more series of pictures that makes the point definitively.  In the first picture, the child was pouring water from a metal cup to a little metal container.  He overfilled the metal container and water spilled out onto the tray.
Next, he lifted up the small metal container because he wanted to transfer the water into the big metal pot.  Because the little metal pot was so full, he spilled again.
As he went to pour the water from the little container into the large metal pot, he tipped the container toward himself and spilled a third time.

The child spilled three times in the matter of 5 seconds.  The beauty of the operation was that it did not matter how many times he spilled because the tray captured the water and returned it to the water table.  

With this large wooden tray, the children were given a license to spill.  Maybe one of the ways we learn not to spill is to be able to experience what causes spills.  It sure freed the children up to socialize, to master motor skills and to engage in scientific inquiry without having to worry about spilling.  By the way, the tray also freed me up from worrying about the spills that naturally happen as children transport.  That's a win-win.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Other box towers, other possibilities

Last week I wrote about a certain type of box tower and the possibility of unique types of play as the children explored the apparatus.  Let me expand on the idea of a box tower with different combination of vertical boxes that expand the possibilities even further.

The size and the shape of the box determines the potential tower configuration.   The cardboard box tower pictured below was a combination of two long, narrow boxes taped together on their vertical axes.  It just so happened that the combination of the two was the exact width of the table so it could be taped down to the lip of the table to make it secure.  Holes were cut in the sides and on hole was cut on top of only one of the boxes.  There was also a window cut between the boxes.  Access to that inside hole was more of a challenge because the children had to reach into one of the boxes to use it for their play.
My documentation on this apparatus is minimal, so you will have to use your imagination as to how the children used this for their own purposes.   

A box tower does not need to be made from multiple boxes. The box tower below was made from one computer box.  For this box tower, the holes on the sides were smaller, but the holes on the bottom were larger and opened out into the table.
When I cut the holes at the bottom, I made sure I ended up with a flap that I could tape down to the bottom of the table.  The flap is buried under the the corn but is outlined in the picture above.  I cut holes with flaps on the bottom on all four sides so it was taped down so securely that the children could not push it over.  With this tower, there was a lot more exploration on the top and the bottom of this box tower and much less with the smaller side holes.  Why?  Was it the dimensions of the box?  Was it the size or placement of the holes?

Here is another box tower made from one box.  That is not exactly correct because I did add a channel box horizontally through it. 
How a child combines any given provision with any given feature of the structure is always important for how play develops at any given moment.  A case in point is the two pictures below.  The pictures are grossly out of focus but hopefully you can see the child's genius anyway.  The child created a machine (her own words).  And what did her machine do?  It separated the smaller grains of sand from the larger ones.

The child found a sieve and placed it on top of the box over the hole.  She added sand and shook the sieve back and forth.  When she was done, she was pleased to display what her machine produced.

Here is a box tower made from six boxes, six liquor store boxes.  In a way it reminds me of a pyramid with steps on two sides.  However the steps all have holes.  The holes are formed by cardboard packing panels taped onto the top of the boxes.  Things dropped through the holes fall down to the bottom of the table.  
How did the children's exploration of this structure differ from that of the other boxes already mentioned?  Here are two ways.

On the left, the children inserted a loose cardboard tube and filled it.  They were experimenting with volume. On the right, the child referenced his own actions in the box through the hole above.  He was honing his proprioception.

Here is one last box tower.  This was made from six boxes that were larger and of different sizes.  There were actually two towers, one in each sensory table, that were connected by a horizontal element in the form of a box bridge. 
Since this box tower was more complex, the children's exploration of space was more varied and more complex.

The child on the left examined the space inside the small tower by bending under the bridge.  The child on the right put sand into the bridge, a much different experience than dropping it down a tower.

There is really no limit to what a person can build in terms of box towers.  But why build in the first place?  I would be disingenuous if I said I did not get a certain amount of satisfaction to see what I can come up with.  Everybody needs a creative outlet and this has been mine over the past 28 years.  I do have another motive which is just as important: I am extremely curious about how children explore and investigated spaces, both large and small.  By offering built spaces, I get a chance to satisfy that curiosity.  Given the time to explore and make it their own, the children manifest their own curiosity in ordinary and extraordinary ways.  In other words, my curiosity feeds their curiosity.  Since their curiosity is boundless, their is no limit for the play possibilities in and around these built structures.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Box tower potentialities

Any person who has ever seen children playing with boxes knows that boxes provide endless play potential for children.  In fact, it is one of the toys that has been inducted into The Strong National Museum of Play Toy Hall of Fame.  In their blurb about the cardboard box, they write: Over the years, children sensed the possibilities inherent in cardboard boxes, recycling them into innumerable playthings.  This was the first non-manufactured toy to be inducted and currently stands alone in that category with the stick.  I do hope to see the rock there soon.

What happens to the play potential of the box when I, as an adult, build an apparatus from a box or boxes?  Since children are not manipulating the box, do I restrict the play opportunities?  Or by building a structure, do I open up new possibility for play and exploration?

Here is an example of an apparatus built with boxes.  It is simply called a box tower because it is built up vertically.  In this case, the structure is comprised of three boxes stacked on top of one another and duct taped together.  The whole installation is then taped securely to the bottom of the table with duct tape so the children cannot move it.  In the picture below, I put sand in the table and little dinosaurs all around.

With the boxes stacked in a box tower, what new affordances are there for the children to discover as they work with the dinosaurs and the boxes.  First there are the holes.  In the video below, the children are dropping the dinosaurs into the holes.  The child in the circle dress drops hers through a middle hole while the child in the orange on the other side of the table drops her dinosaur through the top hole.

Dinosaur drop from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

I greatly appreciate the sound effects the children make.  Its as if they are imagining the sound the dinosaurs would make if they fell into a hole in a mountain.  So that is how dinosaurs went extinct!

In the picture below, the child is feeding the horses.  In this instance, the hole becomes the door between the stable and outside.

The boxes stacked in a tower create ledges and levels for the children to use in their operations. The child in the picture below is using the a ledge to hold the bowl on a level above the table to see how high she can stack the horse's food.
What happens when there are no animals? Without the dinosaurs or farm animals to animate, what is left for the children to do?  With scoops and containers they drop the sand into the holes cut in the box towers.  It is no longer a mountain or a stable, but the children use it as a machine to make stuff.  They feed the machine through the holes with their raw materials.

I was so fascinated by what the children came up with, I decided one day to record what they were making.  I hung a big sheet of paper on the wall next to the sensory table and wrote what the children said they were making.  Below is an example of what I recorded.  Remember, they are saying a different ingredient each time they scoop or pour sand through one of the holes.
This was a literacy experience, not just because I wrote it down and read it back to the children, but also because one child wrote his name next to his recipe and taped it to the big sheet.

The box tower apparatus is usually strong enough that when I take it out of the sensory table, I put it in the block area as another invitation to play and explore. 

Again, the children will appropriate the holes for their own purposes.  It might well become a garage inside which a child parks the cars or herself.  The ledge offers a opportunity to create a multilevel garage with boards as ramps to go up and down.

And when I say they appropriate it for their own purposes, I mean they find innumerable uses for the box tower.  On the left, the child uses the ledge as a perch to survey what is going on in the block area.  With his hand through the windows, it looks like a comfortable perch.  The child on the right has decided to explore the box tower with her whole body.  It is almost like she is wearing it.

My original question was: Do I restrict the play potential or do I create new possibilities for play by building a structure like the box tower?  I think I have made a case for a type of play that would not have happened without the box tower.   Is the structure, even though it is tied down, an open-ended loose part that children use with other loose parts that are not tied down to author their own play?   The box tower can surely be categorized as a loose part when it is detached from the sensory table.  However, the structure is still my creation which is different than giving children the loose boxes to play with.  The question then becomes: How would the play be different---or the same---if the children were given the boxes not taped together to form a structure as loose parts to be used in the table? 

What do you thing?