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, October 21, 2017

False bottoms

Back in 2012, I built an apparatus I eventually called the box metropolis.  I started out with 11 boxes in two tables all connected.  Over the course of three weeks I added 16 more boxes for a total of 27 boxes all connected in one way or another.

To complete the box metropolis, I added a final box that stood on the floor next to the sensory table.  Because this box was tall enough to connect with the rest of the apparatus, the bottom was essentially the floor and too low for the children to reach over the walls of the box.  I decided to create a false bottom midway up the box so the children could reach the bottom.

To create the false bottom, I cut a cardboard strip the width of the box.  The strip by itself would not be strong enough to hold the corn, so I used another box to support the cardboard strip.  I made the strip longer than the span across the box so I would have tabs extending out of the box.  I taped the box shut and then around the middle to tape down the tabs for added strength.

With the false bottom even toddlers could reach the feed corn in the box.  Of course, to do that they first had to stand on a stool.

Later that year, I built another apparatus that required a false bottom.   I cut a large box in two and set each half on each end of the table.  Again, the boxes were tall enough to connect with the cardboard tubes at table height, but too tall for the children to reach to the bottom.

I needed two false bottoms.  This time I simply inserted support boxes inside each big box.  I cut a cardboard strips and I taped them over the support boxes.  I purposefully positioned the false bottoms below the lip of the table to create additional working surfaces easily accessible for the children's play.

The third time I made a false bottom, I fabricated it inside the sensory table for a triangle divider apparatus

I cut the support box from a flimsier box this time.  Because of that, I needed to add cross pieces inside the support box to make it strong enough so the bottom would not collapse under weight.

I turned the support box over and placed it inside the square created by the triangles.  I cut a square piece of cardboard and placed it on top of the support box.  I taped the bottom all around the edges.

Each one of those false bottoms had a different depth.  The first was relatively deep below the lip of the table.  The second was shallow in relation to the lip of the table.  The third was below the lip of the table but inside the table itself.  All three false bottoms created interesting spaces that invited children's operations.  This third false bottom created one of the more interesting spaces because it was an inside space that was harder to access.  Not only was it an inside space, but the false bottom was below the lip of the table, but the walls of the box were above the lip of the table.  When the children filled that inside space with wood fuel pellets, they could measure the depth of that false-bottom space with their arms.

Did you touch the bottom? from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

What made that so intriguing was that the false bottom was still higher than the bottom of the sensory table itself.  

I cannot say that the children understood cognitively the discrepancy in heights created by the false bottoms.  However, on an experiential level, they did get to the bottom of the investigation of each of these apparatus.  (Pun is totally intended.)

I will be on vacation for the next two weeks with limited internet access so I will not be posting for at least two weeks.  Especially if you are new to this blog, you might use this opportunity to look back on some of  the older posts.  In November, I am a featured presenter at the NAEYC annual conference in Atlanta.  I will be presenting my newest talk on children's scientific inquiry at the water table.  If you are attending the conference and would like to hear it, my presentation is on Saturday, November 18th from 11:00 - 12:15 in room A411 in the Georgia World Conference Center.  If you do come, make sure you stop by and say hello.  If you cannot make the session but would still like to meet---this is, after all, a great place and time to network---send me an email.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Connections II

Last week, I wrote about a recent visit to a Canadian kindergarten class in Guelph, Ontario.  In that post, I said I was struck by how easy it was to make connections with children.  That visit reminded me of another visit I made to a preschool in the UK in June 2014.  After doing a building workshop, I was invited to visit the school the next morning.  I had visited a couple of preschools earlier in my trip, but this visit was different because instead of taking a tour of the preschool, I was able and encouraged to interact with the children for the entire morning.   When I went back to look at what I wrote about that visit, I found I wrote about making connections back then, too.  What follows are two play episodes about connections from that morning visit.

Bean Play at Adventure Preschool, UK
 23rd of June 2014

There is one child who is just standing around with a vacant look on her face.  She  is not engaged in any activity or with anyone else in the classroom. She has been out of school for several days because she was sick with the chicken pox.  The teacher invites her over to the bean table where there is an apparatus that has a small cardboard tube embedded on an incline through a box.  She sits down on the floor next to the sensory tray close to the end of the tube.  I pour some beans down the tube. She is not looking when I pour the dry mixture down the tube.  The teacher calls her attention to the beans coming out the bottom of the tube.  I pour some more of the dry mixture down the tube.  This time she notices and tracks back up the tube to see where the beans are coming from.  She makes eye contact with me.  I pour again and she begins to smile ever so slightly.  I pour again.  By now she has picked up a scoop to catch the dry mixture I am sending down the tube.  Now she is really smiling.  The game continues; I pour and she catches.  Without words, I initiate an exchange of scoops.  She willingly accepts the overture.  I ask out loud to no one in particular: "Where can I find more beans?"  The answer I get is two children bringing me beans from a different area of the apparatus.  I offer to switch places with the child.  I will set and catch while she pours down the tube.  She accepts the overture and play continues.  Another child comes along and starts to catch the dry mixture at the bottom of the tube.  I draw back.  After the first child does a few more pours, she stops pouring and sits in my lap.  Before long, I say I want to go outside to see the water setup.  She follows me outside but is more interested in the big plastic tube she can slide down.  This is not the end of our interaction but we are each doing our own thing the rest of the morning.  Every time our paths cross, we acknowledge each other.

A few things struck me about this play episode.  First, an initial connection was formed through a barrier.  I poured down a tube and she started to catch what I poured.  Does a barrier make it safer to connect?  I was surprised at how willingly she traded scoops and then traded places with me.  I was also surprised at how willing she was to sit in my lap after our brief play exchange.  I know part of it is that I sit on the ground at a child’s height.  Is that enough of an invitation?  And/or what role does the quality of a short interaction play to help break down barriers so quickly?  In any case, what a joy it was to exchange glances the rest of the morning knowing it was based on this play episode.

Weaving Screen Play at Adventure Preschool, UK
 23rd of June 2014

From the water play area outside, I move back inside to the weaving area.  There is a screen with large square holes and ribbons for weaving.  There is a child in the area whose first language is not English.  He is hanging around the area but not playing with anyone or engaged in any concrete activity.  I poke my fingers through a hole in the screen in a feigned attempt to reach him.  He instinctively pulls back.  I promptly pull my fingers out.  He approaches the screen and puts his fingers through at a different hole in the screen.  I put my fingers through at yet another hole.  He does not retreat this time, but reciprocates.  I take a ribbon and start to thread it through the screen.  He tugs on the ribbon and we engage in a little tug-of-war.  He comes over to my side and we start to weave ribbons together.  A third boy enters the play.  I have recently had a brief encounter with this third child on my way in from outside.  He had a long, strong lace---probably from the weaving area---and I grabbed one end of it and had a little tug-of-war game with him.  The boy is on the opposite side of the screen from the first boy and myself.  The boy tosses one end of his lace over the screen.   I grab it and start the tug-of-war game all over again. The child on my side also grabs the lace.  Both of us pull so hard that the other boy is pulled up against the screen and doing all he can to hold on.  I let go so only the two boys are engaged in the tug-of-war.  At first the second boy protests.  My thought is that his original overture to play was to me not this other child.  I am called away for a phone call and as I leave, I look back and see both are smiling and laughing with their new game.

Again, there is a barrier that seems to foster play with a child.  Why is that?  And in this case, the barrier also allows two children who have not been playing together to play together.  It is true, I played a transition role, but play continued through the barrier when I left. I was also stuck by how little language was required for this play to happen.  In fact, there was very little language in all the episodes; most of the play happened in the physical realm with each of us reading each other's actions.

I remember coming away from the morning visit thinking about the role physical barriers play in 
fostering connections.  In one instance, it was the space between the top and the bottom of the tube 
and in the other instance, it was the weaving screen itself that formed the barrier.  Do the barriers 
create spaces in which children feel a sense of safety from which to operate?  Does that feeling of 
safety lead to a sense of confidence that allows the children to actually open up to connecting with 

Though children are hardwired to make connections, the conditions for making connections are many and complex.  For the most part, making connections is a reciprocal dance in which the players are constantly negotiating and making up the steps.  In the play episodes I have related both last week and this week, I am struck by how little language played a part in fostering connections.  Rather, the predominant mode of connecting was through physical interactions with materials and others.  And within those physical interactions, children were constantly required to read the non-verbal cues of others to keep play going.   Maybe the physical interactions necessarily have to come before language.  What do you think?

Saturday, October 7, 2017


This past weekend I was in Ontario, Canada.  I did one workshop and two presentations to EC professionals just outside of Toronto.  Monday morning, I was invited to spend the morning with a junior kindergarten class in Guelph.  Since retirement, it has been two years since I have spent any appreciable time with a group of 3, 4 and 5-year-olds.  This story of connections comes from my morning spent in the kindergarten interacting with the children.  The story begins as the parents are dropping off their children for school.

The child and the mom are engaged in a dance, the dropping-off-your-child-for-kindergarten dance.  There is no music but they both know the steps to their singular, but familiar dance.  Mom cajoles her son to join in play with the other children inside the fenced-in drop off and play area.  The son takes a few steps through the gate and then quickly returns to cling to his mother.  The dance continues for 5 minutes.  With each passing minute, the mother becomes more frustrated and the son becomes more animated.

The teacher knows this dance.  He knows the child has collected small rocks and he offers his coat pocket to hold the rocks.  As he offers his pocket, he encourages the child to join the group.  That almost works, but the child has to do a couple of more dance steps with the mom before finally accepting the teacher’s overtures.

The bell rings and the children lineup to go inside.  I use the term lineup loosely because these children, who are 3, 4 and 5 years old, have only been attending school for a couple of weeks.  In fact, the boy who has been collecting stones wanders around a bit more searching for new stones before joining the line on his own terms.

The teacher gets the children moving into the school where they drop off their backpacks.  Once they have dropped off their stuff, they return to the outdoors.  The teacher gathers the children in front of the shed where they sing a hello song.  He opens the shed door and the children help him take out big loose parts that the children can use on the playground.  Things such as trucks, tubes, crates, etc.

While the children are helping to take things out of the shed, I decide to look for rocks.  I figure I may have a chance to offer the rock-collecting child some rocks.  I immediately put each rock I find in my pocket.  I try to do it so no one notices I am collecting rocks.  Shortly after I tuck a third rock in my pocket, the rock collector shows up by my side.  He offers me one of his rocks.  I happily accept his offering. That gives me the opportunity to offer him one of mine.  I am not sure if he is surprised that I, too, have rocks, but he is willing to engage in our little game of swapping rocks.  He refuses the first rock and then the second rock.  He does accept the third rock; it just happens to be my biggest rock. 

With three rocks in my hand---the one he gave me plus the two he did not accept--I order them from biggest to smallest in the palm of my hand.  The child understands what I am doing and proceeds to find smaller and smaller rocks and sets them in descending order in my hand until I have seven rocks in my hand from biggest to smallest.  The order is not perfect but approximate.

I find a tube and I start to put the rocks down the tube.  The tube is only an inch in diameter and flexible.  Some rocks fit in the tube and some do not.  The tiniest ones fall all the way through into the sandbox.  However, some of the medium size rocks go in but do not come out the other end. Our investigation reveals that there is something blue stuck in the tube.  When that is removed, anything that fits in the tube falls out the bottom into the sandbox.  This game is great fun and filled with plenty laughter.

Other children come to join our play.  At this point, I step back and watch the children negotiate the tube and the rocks.  They do it quite well without any conflict.  I actually move to another part of the play area to engage with some other children.  I thought he might follow me, but he is perfectly content to play with the others who have joined his game.

After some time, the teacher blows a whistle to signal that it is time to go back inside for the snack.   In the hallway, the children change into their inside shoes and grab their snack from their backpacks.  I sit next to the boy who gathers rocks.  We have not really exchanged a lot of words, but it seems comfortable sitting next to him.  After a short time, I go sit at another table and then a third table just to interact with other children.  My movement around the room is both conscious and unconscious from years of being in an early education classroom.

After snack, we go back outside for recess.  As we head out to the playground, the child who gathers rocks takes my hand to walk outside.  I am surprised and delighted.  Once outside again, he does not want to collect rocks, but asks me to hold a small nylon bag while he fills it with sand.  He offers it to me so I can see how heavy it is.  I give it back to him and he dumps it out and we start again.  I change the game slightly by trying to fill the bag with several different scoops that either work well or not.  At one point, he gives me the bag so he can show me how to get big scoops of sand in the bag.  He takes the bag back and empties it again.  By this time another child has joined us in filling the bag.  This is my cue to step back and let their play continue without me.
I had the great pleasure of playing and interacting with many children that morning.  There was one really intriguing interaction with another child.  A girl got inside a milk crate and pulled another milk crate over her head so she was fully encased in a crate capsule of her own making.  Everywhere I stationed myself that morning, I would turn around and I found her crawling into her crates.  Was she trying to connect with me in her own way?  When I noticed her, I would knock on the top of the crate and ask where she was.  I always got a smile through the crate.  No words, just a smile.  Many children copied her little game, but she was the only one to follow me around.  I finally decided to meet her crate-to-crate.
That is me in the red crate meeting crate-to-crate with the child in the crate capsule.  Two people looking at each other through crates was a first for me. 

I was struck by how easy it was to make connections with children in the span of less than two hours.  This tells me that children are always looking to connect with others.  For me, the best way to do that is to show an interest in the children and what they do.  If a child collects rocks, why not collect rocks with him.  If a child uses a crate as a safe place from which to connect, why not go with it.  Connections are important because connections lay the foundation for relationships.  Relationships, in turn, lay the foundation for all learning.

I want to thank Aaron Senitt for inviting me to join his class for the morning.  It takes a special person to thrive and draw energy from the constant movement and commotion that is a kindergarten classroom.  Aaron is one of them. 

Monday, October 2, 2017

Sensory table setup

Over the years, I have found a certain setup at the sensory table works the best for me.  The total area does not have to be big.  In fact when I first started building for the sensory table, the area measured 4 feet by 4 feet.  My table was even smaller.  It was 2 feet by 2 feet and less than a foot off the ground.  Hey, maybe I started to build in the first place so I could expand the space.
There were two things I did right from the start that were important for the setup.  I put mats underneath the table and I enclosed the area on three sides.  

After 11 years at one site, I moved to another site that had a bigger classroom.  With the new classroom, I inherited a bigger sensory table.  Here is what that setup looked like.
Though the classroom was bigger, the size of the sensory table area was still only 6 feet wide and 8 feet long.  The table itself was only about 2 feet wide and 4 feet long.  The strong metal legs were adjustable, but I set them them as low as possible.  That meant the lip of the table was 19 inches off the ground.  The reason I liked the table low was because then I could build up.  I also liked the simplicity of the table which was basically a tub on legs because it served as a blank canvas for my building.   
Like the original setup, I put mats under the table to protect the floor.  They were two runners that I bought at a big box hardware store in the carpeting section.  Here is one caution about any floor protector you use: check underneath the mats everyday because water and sand gets under them and can ruin your floor.  And here is a tip.  I worked in a public school system for 28 years.  I always made sure the custodians were my friends.  I would make sure I talked with them often and not just about maintenance issues.  I got to know them and who they were.  I also liked to show them the things I built and asked their opinion.  As a consequence, they never gave me grief about the possible messes.  In fact, they all started setting aside stuff they thought I might be able to use in building something new.
Also like the original setup, I enclosed my sand and water table area on three sides.  The reason was to help contain the messes.  I placed high cabinets on one side, the wall became a second side and the third side was the counter with the sink.  I did not put the sensory table against the wall because I wanted the children to have access from all sides of the table; in essence, that increased the number of children who could play at the table at one time.  I hung the smocks on the end of a cabinet so the children could access them easily.  Underneath the counter behind curtains, I kept the supplies for the sensory table in tubs.  That way, I had easy access to the supplies.  I read a study once that found that teachers are more likely to change things up at the sensory table if they have easy access to the supplies.  If they had to go hunting in a back storage closet, they were less likely to make changes.  The sink was close by in case of messes.  And again, if a teacher has to lug water from across the room, she is not as willing to setup water play.  There is an important caution with sinks, too.  Not anything and everything can go down sinks.  Be careful what you put down them.

Shelves were not a part of the original setup.  Everything for the children to use was already in the table.  One year, though, I wanted a separate surface to hold babies, soap and towels for baby washing.  I solved the problem by putting a piece of board over a pair of steps to form a baby changing/drying table next to the table.  I covered the board with towels to make it seem more like a table.  It is behind the table and clothesline in the picture below.
That worked out so well, that I formalized that table as a place to keep all the containers and implements that the children could choose to use for their operations.  To do that, I used contact paper to cover the white paper I used to cover the board.  I then taped that to a second small water table that was not being used.

I eventually got a third classroom which was bigger than the other two.  I subsequently set up a space that was 6 feet wide and 12 feet long.  
By this time,  I started to use real shelves for the containers and utensils and other loose parts.  The shelves pictured turned out not to be ideal because they blocked the cabinet where I kept the extra supplies.

I eventually settled on lower metal shelving that I set against the wall in such a way that I could access the cabinet.  The picture below shows the shelves against the wall.

One of the unexpected consequences was that it made clean up easier.  Children seemed to willingly put the things on the shelf from the table at clean up time.  I am not sure if it was because it was a well-defined task or that I was not particular about what went where on which shelf.  

This post is a direct result of preparing for a workshop in Kitchener, Ontario Canada for the ECE staff who work for the Waterloo School Board.  In preparing for the workshop, I realized that I rarely talk about my setup when I do a building workshop.  I wanted to include it in this workshop because I realized that it is an important part of making the sand and water table successful in the classroom.  That is not to say that my setup is the only way.  If there are other ideas out there for setup, I would love to hear about them.   

I need to thank Sarah, Anne, Joanna and Cori for hosting me in Kitchener.  And thank you Vicki and Wendy for hosting me in Cambridge.  You were all gracious and kind hosts.