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.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Literacy at the sensory table

I build apparatus at the sensory table to make the space more inviting and more intriguing for children's play and exploration.  I use various orientations and various elements in each of the constructions.  For instance, in the box tower pictured below, I oriented a tall box on a vertical plane rising up from the table.  Since the vertical tower was embedded in a wider, lower box for stability, I also created a horizontal surface around the tower on which the children could do their operations.  In addition, I cut holes on multiple levels so the children could put things in and pull things out of the holes.

In essence, I created a space that was open-ended and rich in possibilities.  For the children, there was no prescribed way to use the apparatus.  As a consequence, they were able to author their own scenarios about what this contraption could be.  And in that process, they were able to touch on all areas of development: physical (scooping and pouring); social (let's make a machine); cognitive (what fits in which hole?) and language and literacy.  In this post, I want to focus on this last area of development.

Here is a picture of that same tower apparatus from a different perspective.  This perspective shows the wall behind the installation.  One particular group decided that this construction was a machine for making food.  I was so fascinated by what they said they were making, I put two sheets of large paper on the wall to record what they said.

Here is a closeup of two of those recipes.  For one child, the tower was a "pancake factory" that made softer pancakes.  There seemed to be a lot of free association with this child's recipe.  The second child made a chocolate pie.  He, too, seemed to engage in a lot of free association.
The second child was especially proud of his recipe---I think he must have been watching the food channel---so he asked for a piece of paper and a marker.  He proceeded to write his name and then asked for tape so he could tape it next to his recipe.  This was his recipe and he wanted everyone to know that it was his recipe.

This was a rich literacy experience for a couple of reasons.  First and foremost, I wrote down exactly what the children said in real time.  Second, I asked the children if I could read the recipe back to them.  They always said yes and seemed quite pleased with their recipes, especially the silly parts.  By paying such close attention to the first child's words and writing them down, other children wanted me to write down their recipes.  And finally, it prompted one child to write his own name.  Not only was it a rich literacy experience, it was also an authentic literacy experience coming from the children themselves.

The very first time I recorded what a child said at the sensory table was back in 2003.  The apparatus was a wooden tray that spanned the width of the table.  The table had water, rocks and various implements and containers.

Below is what I recorded.  The interesting aspect of this episode is that I asked a lot of questions for clarification and made comments instead of just listening to the child and recording what she said.
Did my questions and added comments really get at her thinking?  Or did the questions and comments prompt her responses and guide her thinking?

Even though there has always been literacy components to all play and exploration at the sensory table, I did not always highlight them with the different apparatus.  To tell the truth, I rarely recorded what the children were saying or talking about at the sensory table in the ways I have just mentioned.  Literacy is important so why did I not highlight it more?

There was always a tension that I tried to navigate between academics and play.  Earlier in my career, I felt like I had to find a way to justify play by pointing out what the children were learning through play.   Later in my career, I felt there was tremendous value to be in the same space that children inhabited when they played.  That way, I could focus on what the children were doing rather than directing or even affecting the trajectory of their endeavors. 

Literacy moments will happen whether I highlight them or not.  Maybe for me, the flow of the children's play and exploration became more important than trying to impose some sort of literacy lesson on what they were doing.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Simple toddler apparatus

One year, I worked with an infant/toddler teacher who wanted to try something new in her sensory table.  She brought in two boxes with which she wanted to build.  As we talked about possible orientations, she decided to put one box across the top of the table and one box vertically on the side of the table.

What she did next was so simple yet so creative.  With the understanding that toddlers like to put things in holes, she cut three holes in the top half of the vertical box; she cut one square hole and two slits, one oriented vertically and one horizontally.  Almost anything the children found in the table could be put in the square hole, but the two slits added a bit of a challenge to figure out what would fit through the slits and what would not.  She cut a big square hole in the box right below the middle.  She covered that with a clear sheet of plastic to make a window so the children could see the objects falling inside the box.
At the bottom of the vertical box, she cut a slit so the children could retrieve what had been put in the holes at the top.

On the other side of the vertical box, she cut a large slit so the children could take things from the sensory table and drop them into the vertical box. 
The first Axiom on the right hand side of this blog states that children need to transport what is in the table out of the table.  By setting the box next to the table, the toddlers could fulfill their need to  transport and do it constructively.
The second box she set over the table itself.  That was a bit tricky because it was one of those tables that was divided in two with channels in the middle.  She actually cut out the bottom of the box so when the children dropped something in one of the holes it fell back in the table.
She got creative with the holes in the top of this box.  She cut a circle to match the size of the juice lids.  She cut little squares to match the square manipulative pieces in the table.  She cut slits---again with different orientations---to match the width of the juice lids.  She also kept the small pieces of cardboard she cut out which also fit through the slits.  And she cut a a hole in the shape of a rectangle so any object in the table could fit through it.  

This toddler teacher used two boxes to create a multidimensional space to enhance play and exploration.  The different size holes on different levels allowed the children to experiment to see what fit where.  Most importantly, she always had one big hole in each box so a child could fit any of the objects she found in the table through that hole.  In essence, she created a nice balance between challenge and success for the toddlers trying to put things in the holes.  Also, by setting the vertical box on the side of the table, children were able to transport the objects out of the table in a constructive way instead of dumping them on the floor.

This teacher created a toddler apparatus with boxes and holes.   Boxes and holes, how simple is that? But through this simplicity, she created a complex invitation for the children to explore and play.  It's that simple!

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Bicylce box

The great thing about boxes is that they come in all shapes and sizes.   For example, take this box for a car-top bicycle rack.  It was long and wide but only only six inches deep.
I thought it would be too tall to set the long side on the vertical.  I considered making it a channel box by setting it on an incline.   I eventually decided to use the width of the box and set it up vertically in the middle of the table.

That did two things.  First, it divided the table into two separate spaces in which the children could operate.

Second, it allowed me to vertically embed cardboard tubes in the box.   That created holes into which the children could pour sand.  The sand would disappear, but then come out the bottom.
The box was longer than the table, so I cut notches to hold the box four inches above the bottom of the table because I wanted the sand to come out the bottom of the cardboard tubes and I wanted to create a space underneath the box for the children's play.   Besides holding the box above the table, those notches were important for another reason.  I was able to use them to securely tape the whole apparatus to the table.

Midweek, I changed the apparatus by adding another box with vertical chutes.  I actually embedded it partially over the top of the original apparatus.

The children now had more holes into which they could pour the sand.  In the picture below, the child in the yellow shirt poured sand in one of the chutes and watched it come out the bottom.   In other words, he had a theory what would happen to the sand when he poured it into the chute; he tested the theory; and he saw the results.
The child also exhibited important motor skills; he poured without looking.   So while he tested his theory, he was honing his proprioceptive skills.

I kept this apparatus up for two weeks.  The second week I replaced the sand with feed corn to offer a different sensory experience with the same apparatus.  Instead of writing about the different sensory experience, though, I want to show how one child used a small space he found to create his own operations.

In axiom #2 on the right hand column of this page, I state that children explore all the spaces in any given apparatus.   One child explored a space that was not even on my radar when I built the apparatus.  It was the space in-between the chutes on the top of the inserted box.

What could a child possibly do with such a little space?  Well, he used a scoop to carefully pile corn into that space.  
That was not as straight forward as it looks, though, because he had to look around the top of the chutes so he lost sight of his arm and hand as he completed his actions.  As it turned out, this child was also honing his proprioceptive skills.

Once he piled the corn, he used both arms to reach around the chutes and simply feel the corn with his fingers.

Finally, he took a bowl from the table and placed it in that found space.  It fit quite nicely.  He filled the bowl with corn and again reached around the chutes to bury his fingers in the corn.

I was amazed as I watched this child use this small space as he created his actions and challenges.  Why was this space so attractive to the child in the first place?  Why did the sequence of his actions and challenges in this small space unfold the way it did?  Is there even a why or is there just the doing. 

Maybe it is like the building process for me.  I may start with an idea that is informed by the shape of the box, but only when I start to physically work on the construction does it become reality.  And along the way, I make decisions that affect the final outcome.  It is rarely a linear process in which I know what the final construction will look like.  The doing is the creating.  Given the time, space and materials, this is exactly what the children do all the time.