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, February 23, 2020

Discovering affordances

I am reading the book The Body Has a Mind of Its Own by Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee.  On pages 106 and 107, they talk about the theory of affordances by James Jerome Gibson.  "Affordances make possible and facilitate certain actions. So, handles afford grasping. Stairs afford stepping. Knobs afford turning. Doors afford passage. Hammers afford smashing."(p. 106).  Since children do not have so many preconceived notions about objects, children apprehend affordances differently than adults. 

By way of example, I want to look at one child's play at an apparatus that I call the large wooden tray. It is a wide tray that connects two sensory tables.  It acts as a counter on which the children can carry out their operations.  It is set up at a slight angle so that any water that spills onto the tray is directed into the blue table.   
A quick look at the tray and all the objects on the tray raises lots of possibilities for affordances such as pourability and fillability.

Instead of trying to name all those easily perceived affordances---that would be the adult thing to do---let me show you some astounding affordances that one child discovers as she plays with a funnel. 

In the video below, the child uses a funnel is an unconventional way.  She turns it upside down and proceeds to push it into the bowl of purple water and pull it out of the bowl of purple water like a plunger.  In other words, she discovers that the funnel has plungeability.

funnel plunger from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

In addition, she also discovers that force with which she plunges can vary depending on how she holds the plunger.  Grabbing the funnel around the neck instead of the bowl affords more splashability.

The plungeability quickly changes when the child nonchalantly places her index finger over the funnel's hole. 

Creating a vacuum from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

By placing her finger over the hole, she creates a vacuum.  Now when she tries to take the funnel out of the bowl, the pressure differential creates resistance so it is not as easy to pull the funnel out of the bowl.  A careful look shows that the resistance is due to the newly created funnel-vacuum pulling water up out of the bowl.   And when the child tries to push the funnel back into the water, she again experiences resistance.  That resistance is also due to the newly created funnel-vacuum displacing water in the bowl under the funnel.  As she pushes the funnel down into the water, the funnel wants to drift making it harder to push the funnel to the bottom of the bowl.  With her actions, she discovers that the funnel has vacuum-createability and all that entails.

This all happened in the span of 15 seconds.  Below is the original video showing the transformations in affordances in real time.

Creating a vacuum with a funnel from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

What is so fascinating about this episode is that it is not planned.  Rather it emerges spontaneously.

It just so happens that this child is not done finding new affordances for the funnel.  In the video below, she has figured out a new affordance for this upside down funnel: she can use it to transport water from her bowl into another container.   

Funnel scoop from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

As adults, we already know the affordances of a funnel, right?   It is used right side up as a tool to transfer a liquid from one container to another with a minimal amount of spillage. Oh, but look at the multiple and unlikely affordances this child has discovered for a funnel, an upside down funnel.  In her hands, it has plungeabiltiy, splashability, vacuum-createability, scoopability and ???

For adults, the process of perceiving affordances is often static.  Through our vast experience with living in the world, we already have preconceived notions of the affordances for any given object.  However, for children, perceiving affordances is dynamic.  In children's hands, many unlikely affordances emerge in the process of discovery that is both spontaneous and unpredictable. 

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Transcending the ordinary

Children's play can seem so ordinary.  However, in that ordinary is the extraordinary.  Maybe there is no extraordinary without the ordinary.

By way of illustration let's look at one child's play at an apparatus I call  Pipes embedded in planter trays.  This apparatus has two PVC pipes embedded horizontally through two planter trays.  The pipes extend beyond the ends of each tray so water empties into tubs next to the table.
A unique feature of this apparatus is that multiple holes are drilled in the top of the pipes.  Since the top of the pipes are a couple inches off the bottom of the trays, children have to fill the trays to a certain depth for the water to begin flowing through the pipes.

In the photo below, the child is pouring water into one of the pipes and catching it with a red bowl as it exits the pipe at the end. 
Pouring water can certainly be considered an ordinary operation.  However, notice that this child has already modified pouring in a couple of different ways.  First, the child uses a little plastic ladle to scoop and pour water into the pipes.  Second, and more remarkably, the child appropriates a plastic syringe and inserts it into one of the holes in the top of one of the pipes.  In essence, he creates a shortcut---an efficient shortcut---for getting water into the pipes so he can use his bowl to catch the water.

Below is the video clip of this child pouring the water into the syringe so he can catch it with his bowl.  The clip shows that the child creates a narrative to his overall operation.  It is a narrative about yummy and yucky sugar. 

Yucky sugar from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

At the beginning of the clip, the child pours water from his ladle into the syringe and catches it with his bowl.  When he does that, he declares: "Yummy sugar."  As he moves to the center of the water table to scoop some more water, he further declares: "Not a yucky sugar."  After he scoops water with his ladle and returns to the end of the table, he continues his narrative by saying: "A yucky sugar is too yucky for our oatmeal because it makes the oatmeal yucky."

How does pouring water into a syringe stuck in a pipe that carries the water out of the table into a waiting bowl become a narrative about yummy---not yucky---sugar in a bowl of oatmeal?  I think that is possible because in play, children are able to transcend reality.  They are able to make ordinary materials and objects represent something else.  And often times what those ordinary materials and objects represent are other ordinary materials and objects that fit the narrative they are creating in real time.

Without really understanding the process as an adult, I can appreciate the children's ability to transcend reality to make the ordinary into something else just as ordinary.   Maybe the extraordinary is not those ordinary materials and objects specifically.  Rather, maybe the extraordinary is the ability of children to transcend the ordinary to use those materials and objects to represent something else. In other words, the extraordinary is the creative genius of the children they bring to their play to have ordinary things represent something totally different.   In that case, there is no extraordinary without the ordinary.  

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Giving voice to curiosity

Children are naturally curious.  I always cringe a little bit when I read something that purports to build children's curiosity.  It does not need to be built because it is fundamental to children's being. Instead, I like the idea of giving voice to children's curiosity.

Curiosity for children usually takes the form of exploring how things work.  That is an active process.  For example, with the apparatus pictured below, the children have to act on it to see how it works.  (More about this apparatus can be found in the following two posts:  Totally different and Channel, tube and homemade plunger.)
How do children make sense of this apparatus.  They act on it, of course, but how might it give voice to children's curiosity? A couple of the features that will give voice to the children's curiosity are the inclines and the holes.  Various strategies emerge as the children figure out how to move the sand through the holes and down the inclines, 

Inclines are simple machines and children quickly learn how they work.  However, as the sand piles up at the bottom, children's curiosity burgeons into a variety of strategies for getting the sand through the hole at the bottom of the apparatus.  How do I use my hand? (See example on the left.) Can I find a tool to help me? (See example on the right.)

The child pictured here is curious what happens to his scoop when he drops it through the hole on the top.  He has an idea, so he crouches down on the stool to confirm his theory.  I suppose I could have asked him where he thought the scoop went, but since curiosity is in his being, I know he is already asking himself that question.

The picture below shows the apparatus with an added feature: a cardboard chute taped to the incline.  One hole is cut in the top and one at the bottom.  Yet another hole is cut at the bottom of the chute so it directs the sand into the original hole at the bottom of the apparatus.
The child has just poured sand in the top hole of the chute.  Her eyes reveal the focus of her curiosity.  This may not be as simple as it seems, because once the child pours the sand in the top of the chute, it disappears.  When it re-appears, she observes that flow of the sand changes as it exits the bottom hole of the apparatus.

The picture below shows the apparatus with yet another added feature: a cardboard chute taped horizontally to the top of tower box. 
The child pictured above is pouring sand through a clear plastic tube that she has appropriated and inserted into one of the holes of the horizontal chute.  The hole has a corresponding hole on the bottom of the horizontal chute so the sand drops into the top hole of the incline chute.  If that sounds complex, it is.  She is not just pouring sand but creating a new route for the sand through the holes and down the inclines.  Her operation takes more coordination, both fine motor and large motor.  The voice of children's curiosity can grow in relation to children's competencies.   

Collaboration can also give voice to children's curiosity.  These two children are using clear plastic tubes to refine a new path for the sand to flow from the apparatus into the tub next to the table.  On the left, they have put one tube inside the other, but the tube in the chute is at such an angle that the sand slides underneath their tube construction.

After some deliberation, the children decide to separate the tubes.  Next, they prop the bottom tube against the side of the tub next to the table.  That bottom tube is then put through the hole in the bottom of the apparatus and then through the hole in the bottom of the incline chute.  They then place the second tube inside the incline chute so it is propped up against the bottom tube.  Not only is that second tube propped up against the bottom tube, but it lies flat inside the incline chute and can be lined up better with the bottom tube.   Their collaboration fuels their curiosity and creates a new path for the sand to travel down and out the apparatus.

There is one final element that gives voice to children's curiosity.  That is my own curiosity about how children make meaning of the their world.  David Hawkins writes about this in his book The Informed Vision.  On page 142, he says to be a teacher, one has "...to be easy and attentive with children, to find them fascinating bundles of capability and potential, to love the world around, and to wish to induct children into exploration of its marvels and its mysteries, to know enough of the discipline to be able to learn more, sometimes with children rather than ahead of them."

In other words, giving voice to my own curiosity is one of the necessary components for giving voice to children's curiosity.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Freedom to try things

When I read these days, I look for phrases or sentences that have potential meaning for play at the sensory table. In the book The Wonder of Learning: The Hundred Languages of Children published by Reggio Children, I found a sentence that I would like to see if it has such a meaning. The sentence is in the section on The enchantment of writing on page 107.

                  Freedom to try things makes our thinking less timid, and freer; and
                  supports not only "doing" but also "creating."

In this section of the book, they document how the children experiment with mark-making, letters and words to provoke children's thinking about multiple ways to express their ideas.

Children's exploration of mark-making, letters and words is their context.  My context for looking at their stated hypothesis is the following sensory table apparatus: the Fun house mirror.  (You can follow the link to see how I made the mirror.)
The fun house mirrors consists of a wavy, plexiglass mirror mounted on a Channel board apparatus.  (Again, you can follow the link to see how I made the channel board.)

One of the fundamental precepts of the sensory table area in my classroom is that the children have a broad license to explore the apparatus, the materials and the medium.  In other words, they have the freedom to try things.  Does that make them less timid?  Does that support "doing" and "creating?"

In the picture below, the child moves his head closer and from side-to-side and even sticks out his tongue.   
In essence, he is playing with his image by looking in the wavy mirror.  It is transient and ephemeral, but he has the power to change how he can see himself.

Since this is an incline and there is water in the sensory table, children pour water down the mirror.  And children find many ways to pour the water.  Sometimes they only pour a little at a time.
The child above pours the water in a steady stream from her measuring cup.  That allows her to see how the water flowing over the mirror changes her image.  And the person on the other side of the apparatus has a different perspective that includes seeing the other child's face through the rippling water as it hits the mirror.

In the picture below, the child pours a lot of water from a five gallon bucket as fast as he can. 
This child is not so interested in playing with his image.  He seems to be looking at the water splashing up against the side of the incline.  Is he testing the capacity of the incline to handle the amount and speed of the water gushing from his bucket?  Is he testing his own physical ability---strength, coordination and balance---to pour water from such a big bucket?

Some children like to experiment to see how common objects travel down the wavy incline, sometimes with some surprising results.  In the video below, one child observes how a pink plastic cup travels down the wavy incline and another child watches how a long-neck bottle goes down the incline.

What rolls down the fun house mirror from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

The child with the pink cup first sees that the cup slide and then, as it gets turned around, roll off the incline.  The child with the long-neck bottle first sees the bottle roll and then, as it gets turned around, slide off the end of the incline.

Here is another video of a child rolling an object down the wavy incline.  However, she is using a clear plastic tube as a tool to both push and catch the object, a yellow vehicle.

A tube and a car on an incline from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

With her first attempt to catch the vehicle, the tube actually stops the vehicle because of the speed of the vehicle and the angle at which she holds the tube.  She successfully catches the vehicle on the second try because the car is traveling faster and she raises the angle of the tube.

The freedom to explore this apparatus definitely fostered a lot of "doing" and "creating."  However, I  do think that freedom to explore is not enough to make children's thinking less timid.   I think that the provocation that is offered to the children has to be one that is both inviting and intriguing.  Not only that, but the child's prior experience and current skill set will also play a role in how timid their thinking may be.  Not every child is going to try to pour the water from a five-gallon pail and not every child is going to try to catch a car with a plastic tube.  Maybe freedom to try things also means freedom not to try things and timid is a more cautious way to "do" and "create."