About Me

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Early childhood education has been my life for over 30 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, December 9, 2017

Horse play

Not every apparatus I install in the sensory table is complex.  Sometimes they are downright simple.  One of the earliest installations I created was also one of the simplest.  I bought two planter trays to see if they would fit in the table.  The body of the trays fit perfectly inside the table, while the lips of the trays rested on the sides of the table in such a way as to hold the trays above the bottom of the table.  Not only did that create another level for the children's operations, but it also created space between the bottom of the table and the bottom of the trays that was an "underneath" space for their explorations.

The trays fit snugly inside the table, but I still wanted to secure them to the table.  I used strips of duct tape to hold the trays down.  I reinforced those strips with more strips across on the lip of the table itself.





The trays were a simple way to add another level to the children's play and exploration (See axiom #3 on the right hand column of this blog).  However, it was not simply another level, but another level with depth.  What did that mean?  It meant that the children worked on different levels AND with different depths: the depth of the table and the depth of the trays.  That almost sounds like math.

Any simple apparatus can offer opportunities for very complex play.  With this particular setup, besides the usual scoops and containers, I added animal bedding and farm animals.  Children used the scoops to fill the containers so they could feed the animals.  In the picture below---even though it is hard to see---the children have filled containers to feed the horses.

Something special happened with this setup that made play especially profound for one class.  It started with one child whose eyes lit up when she walked in the room and saw the animals and the animal bedding.  I noticed her reaction, but had no idea why she was so taken by the setup.  I soon found out.  This child loved horses and knew a lot about horses.  She knew how to take care of them.  She knew what they ate. See even knew about Barbaro, a coveted race horse that broke its leg and how they tried to fix it.  In other words, she knew more about horses than anyone else in the room including me.  She is the child in the light blue below holding court with the others on the subject of horses and the care they need.

Something magical happened in that class on that particular day.  The child who knew about horses raised the level of play for those who joined her in horse play.  This child connected with the others in a way that was authentic and from the heart.  And the others responded in kind.

More importantly, the status of that child was forever changed in the group after that class.  She was the resident expert on horses.  That status carried over to other parts of the room with other children in other types of play.  Like I said, it was magical.

Watching this child act with confidence and enthusiasm, someone could have concluded that I had created this setup just for her.  That was not the case.  However, by offering this setup as a provocation for all the children, I found that this setup had special meaning for this child.  The setup offered her an opportunity to share her knowledge with others.  No amount of planning on my part could have duplicated the experience both for our resident expert and for those who joined her in play.  Not only was it magical, it was transformative.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Playing with ideas

Last week, I wrote about an apparatus that, from my point of view, was a failure.  It was a failure because the top box was so large over the table that when the children tried to pour feed corn into the tubes more corn got on the floor than down the tubes. 
I am not adverse to messes.  In fact, I think they are a part of life that we all need to deal with.  At some point, though, the amount of mess can get in the way of play.  That is what I felt about this apparatus and that is why I called it a failure.

In the post from last week and on Facebook, I asked readers how they might change the apparatus to cut down on the mess.  A couple people took up the challenge with some good ideas of their own.  I actually decided to riff on a couple of ideas from Teacher Sam.  One of his ideas was to open up the bottom box and have corn from the tubes drop into the base box.
So the children could access the corn in the base box, I cut holes on each end of a new base box.  I cut the openings but left the flaps because I wanted to use those flaps to tape the box securely to the bottom of the table.

So the children could pour the corn into the base box, Teacher Sam suggested I cut a couple of holes in the top of the base box.  Instead of cutting the holes, I cut the notches in the tubes to different lengths.
The tube with the shorter notch would empty into the base box and the tube with the longer notch would empty onto the top of the base box.
I used four cardboard tubes, two had the shorter notches and two had longer notches.  This configuration encouraged the children to figure out where the corn exited because the exit point was not the same for all the tubes.

To cut down on the mess, Teacher Sam suggested I remove the top of the top box so if the children missed the holes of the tubes, the corn would just fall in the top box.  I liked that idea, but I wasn't quite sure how to make it sturdy.  Instead, I attached another box on top of the box with the embedded tubes to serve as a catchment for the corn that did not go down the tubes.  I cut off the top of the box and cut holes to match the cardboard tubes that were embedded in the box underneath.   The box was a sturdy black box that was made sturdier by taping it to the box underneath.
I also added an additional element to the original setup: a white PVC chute.  The purpose was to add an additional constructive way for the children to transport the corn out of the table.

Was there still spilling?  Of course, you cannot invite children to transport and expect them not to  spill (see axiom #1 and it's corollary in the right hand column of this blog).

By the way, the other ideas that people offered were not lost.  Either they will use them for their own purposes or I can see myself riffing off of their ideas to make a completely different apparatus.  For me, this is adult play that is analogous to children's play.   It is not quite the same, because adults have more experience with the materials and can do more manipulations in their heads.  For children, the play process is all through their hands as they build their knowledge of the materials and what they can and cannot do with the materials.

In any case, thanks for playing.


Saturday, November 25, 2017

Fail

In the last two months, I have given four presentations to different groups of early childhood educators.  Whenever I give those talks, people often ask me: How did I start building things for the sensory table?  Sometimes people get right back to me to proudly show me what they built and how the children used it.  Sometimes, though, I hear from someone who has tried to build but for some reason their construction failed.

I started simply so my first bit of advice for anyone who wants to build is to start with simple constructions.  Here are two: a wooden tray and a box tower.

The first construction I ever made was a wooden tray cobbled together with scrap wood from my basement. 
This wooden tray spanned the width of the table and offered the children another level on which to work (see axiom # 3 on the right hand column of this blog).  In this setup, the extra level created a platform/counter above the table for children to put their Moon Sand creations.

Another apparatus that was simple and that I built early on was a box tower.  I simply embedded a vertical box into a wider, base box. 
Not only did this structure offer the children different levels to work on, it provided them with lots of holes for their operations (See axiom #5).  In addition, this construction promoted spacial literacy by creating spaces over, under, around and through (See axiom # 2).

The second bit of advice I would give anyone who wants to build is to embrace failure.  When I give talks, people only see what works.  There were plenty of times a construction did not work as planned.  Sometimes that was OK and sometimes that was not OK.  Usually when something was not OK, there was a design flaw.  Here is a cool looking one---at least from my perspective---that did not work very well.  I called it vertical tubes between boxes.
I connected two boxes using cardboard tubes.  I embedded the tubes in both the boxes.  The bottom box was the base that I taped securely to the bottom of the table.  I wanted to invite the children to pour feed corn down the tubes.  I cut notches in the tubes so the corn would exit the tube on top of the base box, which also give the apparatus an aural component.  So where was the failure?

The failure was in the design.  Because the top box was almost as wide as the width of the table, a lot of the feed corn ended up on the floor.  That was not the children's fault; they were just learning to pour so, of course, they spilled.  They spilled moving the corn from the table up and around the top box and then they spilled when they tried to pour corn down a tube.  As they missed the holes on top, a lot of corn ended up on top creating an invitation for the children to bush the corn off the top---right onto the floor.  Mind you, it was not a failure from the children's perspective, only from my perspective because of the amount of mess.

Interestingly, I usually was able to modify an apparatus soon after I saw what I consider a flaw in the design.  With this particular apparatus, I could not figure out how to modify it so there would not be so-o-o-o-o much spilling.  After a week, I took it down and never made it again.

I still think this was a cool apparatus.  To me it was a small sculpture or model for a piece of architecture.

Here's a question for you.  If you were me, how could you have modified this apparatus to eliminate the design flaw?


 

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Thanks a million

According to google analytics, my blog reached one million page views on Thursday.


How did that happen?  I am not sure, but there are a few people I need to thank that helped to make that happen.

The first person I need to thank is Lani Shapiro, a colleague and a mentor.  I remember the very first time I showed Lani a video I had taken of children playing at the sensory table.  I just thought it was a cool video.  When I showed it to her, she also thought it was a cool video.  But then she started to point out all the things that were going in the short video such as the three-year-olds actually taking turns and how they were experimenting with hydraulic flow and that they were doing all this without any teacher direction.   From that moment on, I kept showing her videos and she kept helping me understand truly how capable young children are in directing their own learning.

The second person I need to thank is Juliet Robertson, an early years trainer in the UK of some renown for her work in outdoor education.  Juliet was an early follower of my blog and does an excellent job of taking some of the foundational ideas from the blog and applying them to outdoor settings  Three years ago when I floated the idea of doing presentations and workshops in the UK, she encouraged me and helped me get enough gigs.  For that, I am eternally grateful.  Juliet has a blog of her own and I encourage you to check it out: http://creativestarlearning.co.uk/blog/

The third and fourth people I need to thank are also from the UK.  Natalie Adamson was also an early follower of mine and was one of the first people to actually send me a picture of an apparatus that one of her teachers built that she said was inspired by my blog.  Gaenor Nokes and Natalie invited me to do a workshop at their new school.  They were so proud to show me a room they called the "tomsensori" room.  They said my work was their inspiration.  That have since really taken sensory play to a whole new level.  Make sure you check out their Facebook page because they are doing some amazing work: https://www.facebook.com/OdstockDayNursery/

The last person I want to thank is Alec Duncan from Australia.  Alec wrote to me to tell me that I should do a sand and water Facebook page and connect it to my blog.  He said he was giving me this advice because he thought the Facebook page would increase my readership.  He was right and I thank him for that.  Whenever he re-posts a blogpost of mine, I get a get a ton of hits from his followers on his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ChildsPlayMusicPerth/?pnref=about.overview

There are even more people I could thank like the local people I meet with on a regular basis to talk about early childhood practice or the the people in Ontario with whom I have corresponded with for several years, but I want to leave it at these five because they were most instrumental for my blog reaching one million views.

However, I would be remiss if I did not thank the thousands of children who entered my classroom through the years.  They have taught me everything I know about how children learn.  No two children were alike and they each challenged me to see beyond the t-shirts and the shoes to create a connection and relationship that honored who they were and who they were becoming on any given day.

Thanks a million.




https://www.facebook.com/OdstockDayNursery/

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Cornered

Several years ago, there was a child who was hoarding all the cars at the sensory table.  Other children were trying to grab some vehicles away from him.  He was having none of that.  In fact he was making quite a raucous and screaming bloody murder.

At that time, I had a student teacher who was monitoring the sand table.  She approached the situation by telling the child that he had to share.  There was one problem: he was an English language learner early in his quest to master this new language.   As she approached him, he recoiled and squeezed the vehicles harder and closer to his body.  He also screamed louder.

Next, the teacher aide came over to help out.  The aide knew I never used the word share in my classroom because when an adult asks a child to share, he is basically asking the child to stop playing with what he is playing with and to give it to the child who is asking for it.  Needless to say, that is not sharing.  The aide used the strategy I often used.  She had the children who wanted a vehicle to ask the child for a car.  Then she asked the child hoarding the cars: "Which one can he have?"  In that way, the child would have some control over who gets which car.  However, there was still an implied assumption that he was expected to "share" the cars.  The result was that he screamed even harder and held the cars even tighter.

Nothing seemed to be working, so as the teacher, I figured I had to try to help restore a little calm to the sand table.  I remember getting up from the art table and actually wondering what I was going to do.  By the time I reached the sensory table, I saw four children yelling for cars from the child hoarding the vehicles.  When I looked at the child who had all the cars, I saw a mixture of fear, desperation and defiance as if his life depended on him keeping the cars.  In other words, he looked like an animal that had been cornered.

I made a split second decision to stand between the four children and the boy with the cars.  I actually nudged the little group to the other end of the sensory table and began to play a different activity with them that did not involve cars.  I kid you not, within 30 seconds the child with all the cars stopped his screaming, came out of his corner and started giving each child one of the cars he had been hoarding.  There was no need for me to stick around at that point because play resumed with everyone happily engaged.  And they all seemed to have gotten what they wanted.  The boy who had been hoarding got to play with the others partially on his own terms and the others all got cars. 

As a teacher, what did I learn from this episode? First, nobody likes to be cornered.  When a child is cornered, it is time to give him space.  Second, you cannot make a child be generous.  Rather, given half a chance, he can and will be generous of his own accord. 
 
Conflicts are an inevitable outgrowth of living, working and playing together.  Because they are inevitable, I do not view conflicts negatively.  Rather, conflicts are an opportunity to learn about how to get what you want and still get along with others.  When we do that in the classroom in a constructive way, children gain important life skills.


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. 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Self-regulation at the sensory table

People have asked me how do I manage the number of children at the sensory table.  My answer has always been that I do not limit the number of children at the sensory table.  Given the chance, the children themselves manage numbers at the table quite well.  Sometimes, there will only be one child at the table.

And at other times, there will be a hoard of children occupying the whole space.  It is not unheard of to see as many as 10 at the sensory table.
With that many at the table, the children are literally shoulder-to-shoulder.  That means there is a lot of incidental contact as they play. So how do they manage?

One reason is that children's idea of personal space is much different than that of adults.   Take a look at this video I call "Close encounters."  Two boys are standing on the same stool, one literally on the back of the other,  pouring pellets down a tube.

Close Encounters from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

You might think these two are good friends who play together all the time, but that was not the case.  They were both so intent on what they were doing that personal space did not seem to matter.  Space matters, but not personal space.  Given the chance, the children negotiate space non-verbally with their bodies, which means that there can be a lot of physical contact without real conflict.  Too often as adults, we step in too soon to impose our idea of personal space on the children.  That short circuits their own ability to negotiate and accommodate to each others actions.

If the children are given the chance to negotiate and accommodate, they get to practice true self-regulation.   Take a look at his video in which three boys are taking turns pouring sand down the same tube. 


Taking turns from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Taking turns for these boys was both a negotiation and accommodation and mostly non-verbal.  The child in red on the right was able to pour two scoops of sand down the tube before the other two even had a chance to pour one scoop down.  Was that fair?

Adults often try to impose turn taking on children when none is really needed.  We do that by limiting the number of children at the table or making sure every one gets their turn before anyone gets a second turn.  "Wait your turn" does not lead to children's self-regulation.  Self-regulation is a byproduct of children's own actions to negotiate and accommodate with others in the context of their play.


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 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 
others?   

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

Connections


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.

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!