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, June 24, 2017

More thinking

Last week I wrote that the sensory table is a rich space for thinking for both me and the children.  I used examples of my thinking and children's thinking around an apparatus that I made from of a large box that I installed over the sensory table in such a way as to form two wide inclines.  I installed a box tower in the middle to support the inclines and make them stable.

I had a hard time writing that post because I tried to capture the thinking process in expansive terms to make it seem rich.  However, in writing the post, I made it sound like there was a linear progression between my thinking and the children's thinking.  That was not the case because our thinking processes were more like a dance in which the steps were not coordinated but still connected. The connection points were junctures in which all of us, both individually and collectively, made decisions about what our next non-choreographed steps would be.  At each juncture, there were multiple possibilities. To try to make it sound like one thing led to another did not do justice to our thinking.

I would like to try again to illustrate that the sensory table is a rich thinking space, but this time in a less linear way.  The thinking revolves around a tool I made for another apparatus.  It is a homemade plunger that I made by screwing a cap from a jar onto an end of a dowel.  (Dowels are expensive, so I re-purposed a shovel handle.)

Since I wanted to offer the plungers to the children for play with this apparatus, I needed to create an invitation as part of the apparatus.  To that end, I embedded two horizontal tubes: a cardboard tube and a white PVC pipe.  This was one of those juncture points for me.  What tubes do I use?  How long should they be?   Where should I position them in the apparatus?  Each decision would have changed the decisions the children could have and would have made.  Since I wanted the children to explore the apparatus with the plungers, one decision was dictated to me; namely, the diameter of the tubes had to match or be slightly greater than the diameter of the plungers.  That way the children could push the sand through the tubes with the homemade plungers, which they did.

The new invitation now created a juncture point for the children: what would they do with the plungers besides using them to push sand through the tubes?

Here are a couple of things two children came up with while working on opposite sides of the PVC pipe.  The child with the red hair inserted his plunger into the pipe.  The child in the stripes was about to insert his plunger into the hole when he saw a plunger coming from the other side.  The child in the stripes reached up and grabbed the end of the plunger.  He pulled it out of the other child's hand and right out of the pipe.

Where did the plunger go? from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

The child with the red hair was quite baffled because he did not know what happened to his plunger.  He looked inside the pipe to see if it was there.  It was gone!  What was he going to do now?  He looked for his plunger on the other side of the table.  He found it almost immediately because the child in the stripes had already dropped it back into the table.  After retrieving his plunger, the redhead went back up on the stool to re-insert the plunger in the pipe.  This time he held it tight and slid it back and forth inside the pipe.  

Making noise with the homemade plunger from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Did he slide the plunger back and forth in the pipe because he thought it might disappear again?  I do not know, but he did seem to be pleased with the new noise (music?) he was making with his actions.  And that was reason enough to continue doing it.

At this point, I need to shift the focus to another feature of the apparatus.  I attached a long cardboard tube to the box tower.  That decision created another juncture point for me.  How long should the tube be?  How and where do I tape it down?  I made the decision to only attach the top of the cardboard tube and not the bottom.  I thought by attaching it only to the box tower on the top, the children would have license to direct the sand within the apparatus.

This invitation was juncture for the children.  My imagination is not good enough to guess all the possible operations the children could have come up with, but here are a couple of real ones.  The children found a cardboard chute that fit inside the cardboard tube.  They used it to fill a green plastic coffee can a child positioned over the bottom of the tube.

A chute in the tube filling the can from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

An interesting thing happened when the child tried to remove the coffee can from the tube.  Because he had to lift the tube up to remove the can from the bottom of the tube, he spilled sand onto the bottom of the apparatus.  The very act of spilling created another juncture point for two children who were standing around with the homemade plungers.  These two children saw this as an opportunity to jump into action.  They used the plungers to shovel the sand into the hole at the bottom of the apparatus.

How did we get back to the plungers?  In other words, how did the plungers go from being a tool to push sand through the tubes; to an obstruction to be removed from the pipe; to an instrument for making noise; and finally, to a shovel of sorts?  There is certainly no way to draw a straight line connecting those transformations.  Rather, it happened in the context in which I was able to realize my thoughts in my head and with my hands and the children were able to realize their thoughts through individual and group actions in real time.   What makes this a rich space for thinking is the multitude of possibilities for individual and collective agency that constantly emerge with each new action/thought.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

A rich space for thinking

In 2014, I built an apparatus I called the Box Peak.   I removed one side of a big narrow box and set it up over the sensory table in such a way as to create two large, open inclines. 
To make the whole structure stable, I embedded a box tower that supported the middle of the structure.   
I built it so children could experience pouring sand down a wide incline.  I had done other big inclines, but not this wide and not this open.  I cut a hole in the bottom of each incline for the sand to exit through the bottom of the apparatus and drop into tubs resting on the floor underneath the holes.  However, the holes I fashioned were much smaller than the width of the incline adding an additional challenge for the children to direct the sand into the holes.  

The reason I want to revisit this apparatus is because I want to demonstrate how the sensory table is a thinking space for both me and the children.   I have already offered my initial thoughts on the apparatus.  After watching the children engage with the space and materials, I decided to change the apparatus.  On one side of the apparatus, I installed a cardboard box that formed a chute for directing the sand into the hole at the bottom.
I cut two holes in the top of the chute, but purposefully kept its closed nature in contrast to the openness of the large box incline.   The closed nature of the chute also added an extra challenge for the children to track the sand traveling through the chute.  I also wanted to provided a second path for the children to pour the sand through the hole at the bottom of the apparatus.  The child in the video below illustrates the two paths quite nicely.

Putting sand in the hole two different ways from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

She seemed very methodical in her operations.  She filled the pink cup two times.  The first time she poured the sand directly into the hole at the bottom of the apparatus.  The second time she poured the sand indirectly into the hole at the bottom of the apparatus because the sand had to first travel down and out the chute.

Next, I added a horizontal chute onto the top of the apparatus.  Much like the inclined chute, I cut holes on the top at the two ends.  One hole emptied into the box tower and the other one emptied into the top of the inclined chute.
My idea was to have the children figure out the path of the sand from the top of the apparatus to the bottom of the apparatus, again adding an extra challenge for the children to track the sand going through two chutes.

Once they had figured out the path of the sand, they came up with their own self-appointed task: to modify the path of the sand.  One child found a clear plastic tube and inserted it through the hole in the bottom of the apparatus up into the inclined chute. 

When they were satisfied that the tube captured the sand coming down the chute and directed it through the hole at the bottom of the apparatus, it was time for another change in their thinking.  What would happen if the tube rested in the sand at the bottom of the tub next to the sand table?

That led to a more articulated joint endeavor: filling the tube with sand through their modified path.   
Using that one loose part and the affordances of the set up, the children changed the apparatus to fit their own evolving ideas.

My thinking begins with an idea of something I would like to build.  Once the apparatus is built, I turn it over to the children for their thinking.  Their thinking is doing; it is playing with ideas that surface in their actions.  Once I observe how the children think in this space, then I come up with new ideas that I try to realize.  Then it is the children's turn again, and so the thinking continues.  There is not script.  Ideas bounce around that emerge from our actions with others and with the materials and the setup.   In other words, this is a rich space for thinking for me and the children.

Friday, June 9, 2017

My first box tower

I have been looking over old pictures that I took at the sensory table.  I found a set that documents the first box tower I ever installed in the sand table.  The photos are at least 28 years old.  For this first box tower, I used an empty box that had held a thousand drinking cups.  The box is a good size to begin with, but appears huge in the 2' x 2' yellow sand table.   To make the box tower stable, I taped the bottom of the box to the bottom of the table.  I also taped the box to the side of the table near the bottom using strips of duct tape pulling the box horizontally to the table. 
I embedded a large diameter PVC pipe through the apparatus.  I also embedded plastic containers---I think they were Cool Whip containers---into the sides.  However, those containers did not traverse the width of the box.  Instead, they acted as shelves into which the children could transport the sand or hold other, smaller containers.  Below is a picture from the other side of the box tower.  In that side, I embedded a larger container, a plastic ice cream bucket. 

When I looked at these pictures, I wondered why I set up the box tower with the box upside down.  All I can think of is that it was not one of the features of the box I was paying attention to.  I guess I passed up a literacy opportunity on that one.
The picture below shows a toddler putting sand in the ice cream bucket that is embedded in the box.  Since there is sand in all the containers, it looks like the children have used all the embedded containers for their sand operations.

Here is the same child putting sand in the PVC pipe with his green spoon.  He has transported his sand from the table, to the ice cream bucket and then to the PVC pipe.  

The picture below is of very poor quality, but informative.  It shows the child bending down so he can look through the PVC pipe.  In other words, he uses the hole through the box created by the PVC pipe to change his perspective of this micro-world. 

An integral part of this setup is the five-gallon bucket next to the table.  The bucket offers the children another invitation to transport the sand at this apparatus.   Since children always want to take the sand out of the table, the bucket gives them a constructive outlet for them to do that.  In other words, the placement of the bucket next to the table means less sand on the floor---and that's a good thing.

Just a side note:  I will be one of the presenters for the Fairy Dust 2017 Virtual Summer Conference.  The conference begins on July 10th and runs for five days.  With the virtual conference, however, you will be able to access the conference any time you want and as many times as you want.  The line up for the conference includes two Teacher Tom's: Teacher Tom from Seattle and myself, tomsensori Teacher Tom.  That means you get two Teacher Tom's for the price of one. 

If you are at all interested, you can save $100 on registration by signing up for early bird registration by tomorrow July 10th.  Again, you can check it out here:  Fairy Dust 2017 Virtual Summer Conference.

One final side note:  I just learned that I will be giving a version of this presentation in November in Atlanta as one of the featured presentations at the NAEYC annual conference.

Saturday, June 3, 2017


For me, funnels are indispensable at the sensory table.  They are items that work with both wet and dry medium.  I installed them as an integral part of the apparatus and I provided them as loose parts for the children's operations.

Here are two examples of funnels I used as part of an apparatus.  For the first example, I taped clear plastic tubes to the bottom of the funnels and then I threaded the tubes through the crate so water poured into the tubes exited at different points around the table.  In addition, I taped the funnels to the crate so the children could not manipulate the funnels.  I wanted a stable apparatus in which the children could track the water flowing through the clear tubes.

For the second example, I taped funnels to connectors that emptied into a large PVC pipe.  The pipe was set on a slight incline so when the children poured water into the funnels, the water exited on the end over the grey storage bin.  Again, I wanted a stable apparatus, one that used funnels to capture all the water the children poured from their different size containers.

Sometimes I set up funnels in such a way that they were an integral part of the apparatus but did not get tape down.  
Without the funnels, it would be more difficult to get the water into these pool noodles without a lot of spillage.   For some reason, the children rarely pulled out the funnels.  But they could if they wanted to.
Besides showing that a child could remove a funnel from the apparatus, this picture gives a hint at the variety of funnels I have found.  There are two funnels that came with hoses already connected to them; the black funnel is tall and narrow (I found it in an automotive store); and the red one comes from a surplus store and is the biggest one I have ever found.

Even if I made them an integral part of an apparatus, I always provided more funnels as loose parts.  On shelves next to the sensory table, the children always found funnels to be used with either wet(left) or dry(right) medium.

As loose parts, children used the funnels to find ways to put their own stamp on an apparatus.  For instance, the child pictured below used two funnels to change how sand flows through a vertical tube embedded in a box.   He placed a funnel on top to collect the sand going down the tube and he placed a second funnel in a bottle under the tube to gather the sand coming out and direct it straight into the bottle.  Ingenious!


Children often used the funnels for building or making novel creations.  On the left, the child has taken containers and funnels from the shelves to build a little tower inside the black funnel.  On the right, the child has created a new musical instrument using two funnels and a plastic syringe. 

In the video below, the child shows how playing with funnels can lend itself to a unique literacy experience, one that involves playing with words.  He stacked three funnels on top of a vertical tube and as he poured the sand in the top funnel, he created a little mantra of "funnel on top of funnel on top of funnel."

FUNNEL WORD FUN from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

One of the more interesting uses of a funnel as a loose part was a child using it upside down to transport water from one container to another.

Funnel as tool from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

In essence, she made the funnel into a new tool with a new purpose.

Believe me, I have just scratched the surface for how I use funnels and how the children use funnels.  The fun with funnels never ends and knows no bounds.