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, April 29, 2017

Too dangerous?

Last week, I presented at the HighScope International Conference in Detroit.  I am not HighScope trained, but I do know my work has been cited in their curriculum newsletter as a way to get teachers to think differently about the possibility for play and learning at the sensory table using constructions to foster children's thinking.

In one of my presentations, I was challenged by a participant as to the safety of letting the children climb onto the lip of the sensory table.  The teacher told me outright that what I allowed was too dangerous.  Here is the clip showing the children climbing on the lip of the table to pour pellets down a cardboard tube.

Going vertical from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

The reason this video was in the presentation in the first place was because I wanted to make an important point.  Vertical is one of the orientations in the right-hand column of this blog and is always one of the dimensions I think about when I build an apparatus.  Why?  Because children feel the need to go vertical in their operations.  I have learned through the years that children will always go as high as I build.  That means I build only as high as I am willing to let children go.  By extension, anyone building on the vertical should build only as high as they are willing to let the children go.

From the clip, you can guess my comfort level for children going vertical.  However, for me to get to that comfort level, a couple of things had to happen.  First, I had to make sure the construction was sturdy and stable.   That was not so easy with this vertical structure because I knew children would exert significant force in multiple directions on the top of the structure.  That required that I make sure the bottom was really secure.

To that end, even before I put the medium in the table, I taped the bottom of each large white tube to the bottom of the table itself.  I then taped a long cardboard tube across the top of each of the large white tubes.  Now, instead of being three separate tubes, they were now connected making them part of one structure.  For added stability, I taped the long cardboard tube to the lip of the table.  In addition, I taped three cross pieces to the lip of the table and taped each of the large white tubes to a cross piece.  I also embedded a clear plastic tube through two of the large white tubes fortifying the two tallest tubes into a unit.
I am not an architect or an engineer so I cannot tell you how all the elements make this apparatus sturdy and secure but it passed my stability test knowing that children would climb, push and pull on it.

The second thing that needed to happen was that I had to assess in real time the children's coordination, strength and balance as they went vertical on this apparatus.  The child on the left in the red shirt was comfortable from the beginning climbing up and down.  However, the child on the right was tentative from the beginning.  To begin with, even before I started video taping, I positioned myself next to her to see if she could climb both up and down without assistance.  When I was convinced she had the physical acumen to climb on her own, I could then step back and observe.  That did not mean I let my guard down because I knew this child was challenging herself at the edge of her comfort zone.

Below is a video clip of this same child on her way to mastery.  I had already been supervising her to make sure she was comfortable enough going both up and down.  She started out by telling me she could reach "way up there" if she stood on the lip of the table.  She climbed all the way up and poured her pellets down the long cardboard tube.  She then climbed down.

Verticle up and down from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

I could tell she was still working hard with balance and coordination to go up and especially to come down.  However, I also saw that as she climbed, she was in contact with the table and apparatus at three points almost all the time.  So for instance, when she stepped back down onto the stool, one hand held the cardboard tube, one hand was anchored on the lip of the table along with one foot. 
She had already figured out that three points of contact gave her the needed support to climb up and down.

I really appreciated being challenged by the participant at the conference.  From looking at the eyes in the crowd as I showed the video, I am sure others felt the same way.  For that reason, I thought it was important to hold that as a legitimate concern for the group.  It was a moment that offered an opportunity to examine our feelings, beliefs and values.  We are, after all, teachers in a classroom of young children making decisions all the time based on our feelings, beliefs and values.  If we do not examine them, we are not living up to our potential as teachers.  The last thing I want in a presentation is for someone to take what I have to say hook, line and sinker.  It is not meant to be prescriptive.  It is meant to be about possibilities.  But the possibilities begin with our own values.

To be perfectly clear, I am not advocating that teachers allow children to climb on the sensory table, especially if they are not comfortable with children climbing on the sensory table.  I rarely worked alone in my classroom.  At times, another teacher or aide had to supervise the sensory table.  I would always tell them that they had to make decisions based on their comfort level.  And, indeed, some of them would not let the children climb on the lip of the table.  I had no problem with that as long as they owned their decision.  Interestingly, the longer they worked with me and saw children challenging themselves physically without getting hurt, the more they would allow.

I never felt like our job was to inhibit what children could do in a space.  Instead, we were to create a supportive physical and psychological space in which the children could test their abilities.  Only through testing themselves, would they start to know what they are capable of doing.  In the process, children would gain the confidence to inhabit the edge of their comfort zone, the place where so much learning potential resides.    

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Rock art

If you have been reading my blog, you know that I like rocks.  Three weeks ago I wrote there is a primal connections between humans and rocks and, by offering children rocks to explore at the sensory table, some of those primal connections surface in children's play as they use them to make tools and make marks.  Two weeks ago, I wrote that if children are given the chance to manipulate rocks in the sensory table, their explorations turn out to lay the foundation for important math concepts.  Last week I wrote about how children use rocks at the sensory table for scientific inquiry.

This week I would like to write about how children create works of art from rocks.

I could highlight an activity like children coloring rocks with chalk.  However, I would rather empha-
size the rock art that emerges at the sand table which is more child-initiated and child-directed.

How does one define rock art at the sensory table?   Actually, how does one define art in general? Is it something beautiful to behold?  Is it something that is aesthetically pleasing?  Who gets to judge?

In her book Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia, Vea Vecchi lays the groundwork for understanding the concept we call art by writing about a sense of aesthetics or an aesthetic dimension.  Interestingly, when writing about aesthetics she emphasizes something other than beauty.  On page 5 she writes:
     "Undoubtedly it is difficult to say simply and clearly what is meant by an aesthetic 
      dimension.  Perhaps first and foremost it is a process of empathy relating the Self
      to things and things to each other.  It is like a slim thread or aspiration to quality
      that makes us choose one word over another, the same for color or shade, a certain
      piece of music, or mathematical formula or the taste of a food.  It is an attitude of
      care and attention for the things we do, a desire for meaning; it is curiosity and

When a child simply stacks different size rocks in the corner of the sand table, is that art?
How is he relating his Self to the rocks?  As his mini-project unfolds, what makes him choose one rock over another?  How is he making meaning with his actions?  Maybe he is just piling rocks one-by-one as he picks them out of the sand.

When children start to create patterns using the rocks, their actions become more intentional and seem more relational.  Often times, they will arrange the rocks so there is a good bit of symmetry.   In the example below a child chooses rocks to fit around the circle hole.  (All the rocks offered the children were gray and smooth so his only choice was size.)
Why does he make a circle?  Is it simply to outline the hole?  He eventually makes some meaning out of his arrangement: it becomes a pizza.

Here is another example of symmetry with rocks a child creates.  In this instance, she chooses different colored rocks, but she chooses rocks of the same size to encircle one, larger rock.
Much like the previous example, this child ends up making meaning by using the rocks to enhance her role-playing: cooking.  With both these examples, there is something pleasing in their symmetry, but is that enough to call it art?

When children start to combine other elements with rocks, their endeavors reach another level of complexity.  Below the children are essentially in the process of creating a prehistoric diorama with Jurassic Sand, rocks, sticks and small dinosaurs.
There seems to be a rough symmetry here or, because of the intentional spacing of objects, maybe more of an organic symmetry.  Most people would agree that this diorama-like arrangement looks a lot more like art with rocks.

When more natural elements are available, children's explorations become even more complex.  On the left is a typical arrangement I offer children.  The picture on the right shows a child exploring the setup, which has already gone through major changes by the children themselves.  

Below is the third picture in this sequence.  It shows the result of the child's explorations once she feels like she is done exploring.
The child combines multiple elements to make an integrated design.  She uses rocks, sticks, pine cones, shells, tree cookies, a stump and some bark to make her creation.   In essence, she creates a sculpture using all these natural elements.  Most people would agree that this is art.

Vea Vecchi makes clear in her book that there is another important process children summon in their artistic endeavors: they create a relationship with the objects they are working with---in this case rocks.  That relationship introduces them to the 'beat of life.'  "This 'beat of life' is what often solicits intuitions and connections between elements to generate new creative processes" (p. 8).

If art is something more than pretty, these children have it in spades.   They know rocks by handling them; by choosing which ones to work with.  They know what they can do with them by exploring  symmetry and by combining them with other elements.  In so doing, they are tapping into their own 'beat of life'---from which all art flows.

P.S.  I am a little out of my comfort zone with this post.  I am not sure I know as much as I purport to know about this.  I sure hope someone challenges me on this just to advance my own understanding on this topic.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Rock science

I have been writing about the importance of rocks at the sensory table.  Two weeks ago I wrote that there is a primal connection between humans and rocks and by providing rocks for children, some of those primal connections emerge like making tools and making marks.  Last week I wrote about how children use rocks to do foundational math.  Today I want to write about the importance of rocks in fostering scientific inquiry at the sand table.

Children use rocks to carry out self-directed experiments.  Even a toddler is able to create his own experiment.  In the video below, a one-and-a-half-year-old works very hard to see what happens when he drops a rock down a small cardboard tube.  First he has to pick up a rock he can't even see because the pegboard makes him turn his head in order to reach the rock.  After grabbing the rock, he steps up on a stool to better reach the cardboard tube.  Once there, he has to negotiate his turn with a much older child using the same tube.

Down the tube from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

I am struck by how intentional this child is.  He seems to know what he wants to do and figures out how to do it each step of the way.   Are his actions too simple to be called a scientific experiment? 

The experiment created by an older child using  a rock and the same cardboard tube becomes a little more complex.  This child seems to be asking the question: Can I figure out the trajectory of the rock coming out of the tube so it drops in the bowl?

Aiming the rock from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Again, I am struck by the intentionality of this child's actions.  She wants to get the rock in the bowl by using the tube.  Her first two attempts are not successful.  On her third attempt, she figures out exactly where to position the bowl so the rock hits the target.  When the rock falls in the bowl, she squeals with joy.

Some experiments children create do not have the intended result.  In the video below, two children try to plug a funnel with rocks.  After adding rocks to the funnel, the sand still flows through the bottom of the funnel.  One child brings more rocks so the funnel is completely full of rocks.  However, when he pours sand in the top of the funnel it still flows out the bottom to his consternation.

Plugging the funnel from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

When I asked him why the rocks do not plug the funnel, he said he does not know.  At this point, they no longer pursue this investigation, but move on to other explorations with the clear plastic tube and sand.  Scientists reach dead ends all the time, but like these two, continue to explore new veins of inquiry.

Some experiments have an unexpected outcome and a child is able to come up with an elegant theory as to why.  In the video below, the child plops two rocks on to a balanced structure of branches lying across the sensory table.  When he does that, he knocks off a stick that is keeping the whole thing in balance.  As a consequence, a rock at the end of one of the branches drops to the floor as the branch tips under the weight shift.  The child explains that the rock fell because the branch "jumped."  And that the branch "jumped" because the "weight was too heavy." 

The weight was too heavy from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

At the end, he gives marvelous demonstration of what happens when the weight shifts.  He pushes down on another stick to show how a weight exerted on one end makes the stick "jump."

One of the hallmarks of scientific inquiry is testing how different objects react using the same apparatus.  In the video below, the child has created a ramp out of a piece of tree bark.  He takes one rock from a nearby bucket and slides it down the ramp.  The rock hits a crack in the bark and starts to tumble until it lands in the sand at the bottom of the ramp.  He then takes a second rock which is a little bigger and slides it down the ramp.  This one also hits the crack, but does not tumble.  Instead, it continues sliding down the ramp to the end.

Sliding rocks from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

The child continues to slide rocks down the ramp.  What is he learning?  One of the things he learning is to hone his observation skills which is essential to good scientific inquiry.

Within the field of science, researchers try to replicate experiments of others to test an original hypothesis.  In the two videos below, the children play out that exact process.  In the first video, the child strikes two rocks together.  The result is a rock powder that drops into her bowl of sand.

Rock powder from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

This second video shows a child trying to replicate the very same experiment by striking two rocks together.

No rock powder from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

He does not get any powder.  The children now wonder why.   When there is not definitive answer, the inquiry continues.

Too often we think of science only in terms of content to be taught.  In an early childhood classroom it has to be lived.  Children have to be able to ask their own questions and search for their own answers.  In a way, it is pure scientific inquiry the purpose of which is simply to know what works and what doesn't work.  Content has its place, but may best be preceded by what David Hawkins calls "messing about." 

And when children mess about with rocks, that is rock hard science!

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Rock math

Last week I started to make a case for having rocks in the classroom for children to explore and use. There is a primal connection between humans and rocks and by providing rocks for children in the classroom, some of those primal connections emerge.  Last week I wrote about how children used rocks as tools and for making marks.

Another reason I provide rocks in the classroom is that they are so versatile.  The children find a myriad of ways to use them for their own purposes.  
Children simply line them up.  On the left, a child balanced the rocks on the lip of the table as if to outline the table.  On the right, the child lined the rocks along the line created by the transition between the carpet and the tile.  

Children use rocks to fill containers.  On the left, they filled a jello mold with rocks.  The children had to find the right sizes to fill the mold.  On the right, they filled up a cardboard tube to overflowing.

Children use rocks to fill big containers, too.  The children filled a five-gallon bucket with rocks and then tried to lift it.
On his tiptoes, the child strained to lift the bucket full of rocks.  He could not lift it; he could not even move it.  Interestingly, he did not stop there.  After trying to lift the bucket, he collected more rocks and put them in the bucket.  He said he wanted to make sure no one could ever lift it up.


Children try to fit rocks into holes.  On the left, the child wanted to see if the rock fit into the clear plastic tube.  On the right, the child wanted to see if a rock would fit through the hole in the top of the bottle. 

Children not only try to fit rocks into holes, they also experiment with what fits into holes in rocks.  One child tried to fit her fingers into a hole she found in a rock.  She first put her little finger into the hole in the rock and said: "Even the little finger fits."

Finger holes from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

She was able to fit all her fingers one-by-one into the hole in the rock.  Each time she put a finger into the hole, she declared: "Even this one [fits]." 

These may seem like simple operations to adults, but to children they are fundamental math exercises.  To create lines and angles with rocks is geometry.  To fill containers is to experience volume and, in the case of a big container, weight.   To test to see if a rock fits into a hole---or fingers fit into a hole in a rock---is an exercise in estimation and measurement.  

Though I am trying to make a case for bringing rocks into the classroom, children need an opportunity to explore rocks outside, too.  When we give children the time and the space to explore rocks---both inside and outside---their explorations look a lot like math.

I have purposely left out counting or numbers with rocks.  Yes, I am a heretic.  Too often we only think of math in terms of numeracy for young children.  Given the opportunity, children will find ways to use rocks that lay a concrete foundation for multiple and complex concepts in the area of math learning.

Dare I say it: rock math rocks!