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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, June 27, 2015


The Piggyback Inclines apparatus is a variation on the Big Box Incline

I do not save a lot of my cardboard apparatuses because of storage issues.  I usually break them down, tear off the duct tape and recycle them.  However, I did save the long, chute-like box that comprised a recent version of a large, closed incline.  It just so happens that a neighbor recently purchased car mats that came in a sturdy box with almost the same chute-like dimensions.  I quickly asked myself: Why not combine the two?  I could have done it side-by-side, but piggyback fashion seemed to offer some intriguing possibilities.
One of the possibilities that emerged immediately was to place the top box in a staggered position over the bottom box.  That decision led to some additional intriguing possibilities.

That same week, another neighbor bought a very large flat screen TV.  It also came in a sturdy box that begged to be used.  I decided to use it as the base for the Piggyback Inclines.
The TV box was wider than the table.  As a consequence, I cut notches in the bottom of the box to fit over the lip of the table on each side.  

Before securing the TV box to the table, I had to figure out where to cut the box in the front and where to cut the box in the back to embed the Piggyback Inclines on a slant.  Whenever I try to figure out an incline, I measure by eyeball.  What does that mean?  I simply hold the box I want on a incline next to the base box.  I then make a mark for the depth of the cut on the front side and then a mark for the depth of the cut on the back side.  Rocket science it is not.  Maybe I should use my high school geometry but my constructions are too ephemeral to be ruled by real math.

Once the cuts were made, I duct taped the Piggyback Inclines into the base.  I also duct taped the base box to the table and the bottom incline box to the end of the table.  That means I secured the apparatus at three points forming a triangle if I were to connect the dots.  There is that pesky math again.  Math or not, it did create a lot of stability for the whole structure.  

Here is a picture from the other side of the apparatus.  The cut into the base box on this side was just three inches less than the front; that gave the apparatus enough of an incline.  
There a couple of features of note here.  The first is the long cardboard tube that is embedded in the top incline and runs down into a second table next to the blue table.  Holes in the ends of the two inclines are another.  Children are able to pour corn down either incline though those holes.  

Here is a picture of the whole apparatus from the side.  Is it a structural monstrosity or a thing of beauty?  I guess you would have to ask the children.

There is a bit of subterfuge with the apparatus.  When children pour corn into the chutes, there is only one exit for the corn.  Children can pour corn down the tube at the top but every other hole empties at the bottom into the tub next to the table.

To understand how the corn poured into the top incline empties through the bottom incline, let's go back to the initial decision to put one box on top of the other.

A hole already existed in the bottom of the top box.  I cut a flap in the bottom box to create a slit for the corn to drop into from the top box.

A cardboard piece is taped over the hole so corn does not spill out and is further directed into the bottom incline box. This closeup shows the patch outlined in yellow.  Of course, there is one on each side.

Below is a picture of the path of the corn when it is poured in any of the holes in the top incline.

If you look closely, there is a pipe coming out of the bottom of the bottom incline box.  The corn does not exit through the pipe, but on either side of it.  The pipe is a gutter extender that can be extended and bent.

The gutter extender is embedded through both boxes so corn poured into it travels through both boxes until is exits out the bottom incline.  Here is a very rough schematic of how the gutter extender is woven into the apparatus.

If I reach up as high as I can on my tippy toes and dump the corn in this hole, where does it go?

Where did it go?

Did I say intriguing possibilities?

Saturday, June 20, 2015


Last week I told you my story about the hand pump.  This week I would like to tell you a story about the children and the hand pump.

The story begins with three girls cooperating to make the pump work.  Their actions are full-body actions that take a lot of effort and a lot of coordination.  The handle is not long enough to accommodate three pairs of hands so their hands are on top of each other as they work in unison. The child on the right wants to give more power to her pumping action so she starts to jump. Almost immediately, the child on the left also begins to jump.

Working the pump from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Their jumping action takes on a teeter-totter rhythm which interferes with their coordinated action. As a consequence, their pumping ceases.

After these children leave, another child tries his hand at the pump.  He figures out how to do it himself.  By jumping, he is able to put the force of his whole weight behind his pumping stroke. He does not have to coordinate his jumping with anyone else, but he does have to coordinate his jump with the downward thrust of his arms.  You can see a couple of times in the video that his timing is a little off and his pumping is interrupted.

Jump pumping from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

This video also captures a conversation between two children that is important to the story.  We don't hear it, but the child on the boy's right has already asked if she could try the pump.  A child off camera says: "And if she is not strong enough, you can do it together."  To which the boy responds: "No, she's going to try by herself."  As the video backs away to include all of the sensory table, we can see with whom the boy is talking.  It is one of the girls from the first video who knows how hard it is to pump and thinks that the child waiting patiently to pump may need help. In fact she states: "But if it can't move that means there needs to be help."

One of the things to note about this conversation is how it arises naturally in the course of the children's work.  It also incorporates their point of view---from their own experiences---relating to how they think the waiting child will make the pump work.

One other note about this video is how patient the child is who is waiting for a turn.  Is that because she knows she will get a turn because of an implied message from the boy who says she's going to try to pump by herself?

Her patience pays off and she does indeed get a turn.  And she does indeed try it by herself.
As you can see, she is working hard to make the hand pump work.   She is even using her left foot to create more leverage.  No matter how hard she tries, though, she cannot get it to work.

Help enters the picture in the form of the child who already knows from experience gained in the first video that it sometimes takes more than one person to make the pump go. Even with two people it is not so easy.  First they try to jump together to push the handle up, but since they do not do it in sync, that does not work.  They pause ever so briefly and reposition themselves under the handle and push up together.  When the handle is lifted as high as it can go, they shift their weight together to pull down on the handle.  At this point, they realize they have reached synchronicity.  The one child exclaims: We're doing it!

We're doing it! from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

As I began to write this post, I thought I knew what this story was about.  I thought it was about children figuring out how to use the pump.  I also appreciated that there was a strand with a beginning, middle and end running through the story.  The strand is embodied in the child helping another child work the pump by using her knowledge gained from previous experience.

That story is still there, but there is much more.  There is a part of the story for which language is inadequate in the telling.  That part has to do with questions that arise around how the children communicate and coordinate their actions.  When they tried to communicate verbally by saying jump, they did not coordinate their actions.  How, then, did they figure out how to coordinate their actions?  And at what point did they know they were in sync and that they were making the pump work?  If you watch the video carefully, you will see that the communication and the knowing is in the physical realm.  How do you explain that their bodies figure it out and that their bodies know?

By the way, the pump was not designed to be so difficult to work.  I did not lubricate the pump until days after introducing pump.  It actually got harder and harder to pump until I realized I needed to add a little oil.  Without this serendipitous mistake, I probably would have had a much different story to tell and query to add.

Saturday, June 13, 2015


Here is a little story about a pump.  In April of 2014 I bought a Kodo Kids Pump Works set.  It was expensive but we had some money left at the end of the school year that needed to be spent. Besides, I thought that this might be the answer to my quest to have a hand pump in my sensory table.
In the catalogue, this looked like an outdoor setup.  I bought it to use inside at the water table. Did you notice that I bought it in April of 2014?  I did not try to set it up until April of 2015.  That is a whole year of sitting in the box.  What took me so long?  It was, after all, a new plaything.  And for years, I had been dreaming about a setup with a pump at the sensory table.

Part of the answer is procrastination because of doubts about how well it would work.  I bought it not knowing if it would really fit into the table.  If it did not fit into the table, then would I have to build a stand for it?  My not knowing stopped me from even beginning the process of opening the box.  That is a poor excuse because I should have been more like the children who would have torn open the box immediately as if it were a present.

Let's fast forward to this spring when I actually did open the box to put the pump together. When I started to assemble the pump, I found there was a piece missing.  (Assembly, by the way, is simple and the website has a good video on how to put it together.)  The piece that was missing was a custom made washer that was critical for assembly.  What to do?  I asked my support person to call the company to see if we could get the part.  She did and she admitted that I had waited a year to open the box.  No problem, they sent me a new washer no questions asked. Thank you Kodo Kids.

I put the pump together at home without knowing if it would fit into the table.  When I got it to school and placed it in the table, I was pleasantly surprised: it fit perfectly inside the table and I could secure the handles of the tub with duct tape to keep it from moving.  All my fretting was for naught.
I went for a simple setup first.  I connected pipes in a straight line coming out of the pump traversing the blue table.  I did add two elbow pieces for a for a step-down into the crate anchored with duct tape in the second table.

Because the lip of the second table is higher than the lip of the blue table, I had to made a slight adjustment to the height of the crate on the end where the pipe enters.  To do that, I took a small plastic pipe from a pipe manipulative and taped it to the bottom of the crate.

The crate holds a funnel connected to clear plastic tubing.  The clear plastic tubing runs from the small table back to the tub with the pump.

Below you can see where the clear plastic tubing enters the tub with the pump.  The purpose of this part of the setup was to create a complete water cycle within the apparatus itself.

Was a year worth the wait?  Did the apparatus really work?  What types of operations emerged when the children had at it?

To be continued…

There is a point to be made about the year-long wait.  The year-long wait was a metaphysical place suffused with uncertainty.  That uncertainty made this place uncomfortable.  Uncertainty itself is not bad.  Rather, how that uncertainty affects actions and thoughts gives it value.  In this case, it was a handicap for me.  Once I embraced the uncertainty, I was able to move forward and actually became excited with the possibilities.  

Saturday, June 6, 2015


Since 2011, I have written about Funnels and Clear Plastic Tubing four times. The first and second posts dealt primarily with the actual setup.  The third post detailed how children experimented with the apparatus.  And last year I wrote about even more experimentation by the children.  What is there left to write about?  The answer: the children's great capacity for new and novel exploration.

The setup for the Funnels and Clear Plastic Tubing is slightly different this year.  There are a total of six funnels taped to the crate.
The funnels are numbered one through six above.  There are corresponding numbers to show where the  water goes when poured into each tube.  Two of the tubes are longer this year, so when children look inside the crate to track any given tube, it looks like tube spaghetti.

Watch how one child tries to figure out the path of the water in one of the longer tubes.  Notice especially how she looks inside the crate and bobs her head up and down as she follows the tube from the funnel to the tube through the crate.

Oh, I see from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

There is a lot going on in the video so it is not always easy to figure out where the water goes when a child pours it into a funnel.  A case in point is near the end of the video when a child pours water in another funnel that leads to a sprinkler but, because the girl makes such a strong point that the water is emptying into the big white bucket, the boy looks for his water to empty into that bucket instead of seeing that his water actually comes out the sprinkler.

This year I have a video that captures how a child can focus on how the water empties from a funnel. Watch the concentration of the child as he watches the funnel completely empty of water. It is all the more impressive because as he focuses, another child pours water at close quarters into the funnel right next to him.

Funnel watching from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Is it the whirlpool that fascinates him?  He climbs up on a stool to pour and watch the water.  Can he focus so well because the funnel is at his eye-level?  In any case, it seems to be contagious.

One day I left the tube that emptied into the white bucket hanging back into the table.  One child's experimentation with water hydraulics caught my eye.  The child holds the end of the tube up as he pours water into the funnel it is attached to.  He does not even watch himself pour, but focuses on the end of the tube.  Because he is pouring in a deliberate and measured way, he can watch the level of the water rise in the tube until it spills out.  He keeps watching it as his cup empties and the water level drops.  When no more water comes out, he still focuses on the end of the tube because as he lets go of the tube, water again spills out.

Filling the tube from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

One child takes this experimentation with the tube hydraulics one step further.  He places an empty juice can over the end of the tube.  When he pours water into the funnel, the force of the water coming out of the tube launches the can into the table.

Tube hydraulics from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

You think he is pleased with his experiment?  The adorable smile tells us he thinks he has discovered something pretty cool.

This apparatus lends itself well to eliciting what must be considered real scientific inquiry by the children.  Even with that understanding, one of my favorite clips at the apparatus this year has little to do with science.  Rather, it is a video clip of a child taking a familiar tune and adding his own words that relate to exactly what he is doing.  As the child scoops water in his spoon he sings: "Do you know the scooping man, the scooping man who lives in California?"  He sings it to the tune of Do you know the muffin man?  When he picks up a bucket, the verse changes to: "Do you know the bucket man who lives in California?

Do you know the scooping man? from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Is this creativity?  This is a creative mashup of a familiar tune using his own words.  What I was struck by, though, was that this was the first time I have heard this child burst out in sponteanous song.  There is something really beautiful when you see a child so comfortable with who he is in that given moment that he erupts into song, a song of his own making.  

Saturday, May 30, 2015


Last week I wrote about an apparatus I called the Sand Cascade.  The idea was to create a chute with steps so when children poured the sand down the chute it would look like a bouncing waterfall.

The sand flowed down the chute, but it was not the awe-inspiring cascade I envisioned.  It was more like a bumpy chute.  Because of that, I said it was a failure.

Silly me.  I was only looking at it from my perspective.  When I began to look over the documentation of how the children actually used the apparatus, I had to rethink the failure part. Let's look at just two different features of the apparatus to see what I mean.

The first feature is the cascade chute.  Children poured sand down the chute using different cups, scoops and other implements.
The children experienced different rates of flow depending on how much they poured and how fast they poured.  And depending on which side of the chute they poured, the flow or lack thereof created a puzzling contrast.

Children also used their hands to explore.  If the sand did not flow down the chute and got stuck on a step, children used their hands to sweep it down.

They also explored the chute with the small rocks that were part of the provisioning for this apparatus.
What was unique about this exploration was that rocks could either get stuck on a step or they could tumble down the chute.  Did they only tumble down one side of the chute?  Did they always get stuck on one side of the chute?  How did the weight, size and shape of the rocks affect how they tumbled?

The second feature to consider is the hole at the top of the apparatus.  This feature was especially unique because it was not obvious where the sand went when a child poured it in the hole.
For many of the children, that was not important.  What was important was the physical challenge of stretching and balancing to pour the sand in the top hole.

For some children, detecting what happened to something put in the top hole was a latent discovery.  Because they were able to follow the sound of the rocks through the box, the children in the video clip below figured out where the rocks exited the box.

Disappearing rocks from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

There are a couple of things to note from this video.  The first was the joy experienced by the children, especially the one on the left, of discovering exactly where the rocks went.  Maybe the joy was heightened a bit because it was necessary for their eyes and ears to work together to follow the tumbling rocks through the box and out the bottom.  There was also an additional aural component to this apparatus: the big rectangular box amplified the sound of the rocks tumbling down the long, narrow box.  That component briefly fooled the child on the right when he heard the other child's rock tumble down and he looked inside the big rectangular box for it.  (Did you catch that when you saw the video?  I didn't see it the first time either.  It took me several passes and slowing the video down before I saw the child look for the rock in the big rectangular box.)

One child even figured out a way to modify that top hole.  He propped a minnow net over the hole and then poured sand through it.
This slight modification regulated the flow of sand into the hole by slowing it down.  As a consequence, the child saw the sand slowly drain through the minnow net from the top.  Contrast that with the view most children experienced when they poured sand into the minnow net.
By the way, this child said that this was what helicopters have and they pour it over fire.  That is a very nice representation of something he has heard about or seen in a video.

That was just two features of the apparatus and just a few of the different explorations by the children.  How many more features and how many more explorations are there in this one apparatus?

As you can see, there is no way I can call this a failure.  I forgot that children will approach the apparatus like any found object that they find intriguing.  They will enter into a unique dialogue with the apparatus, a dialogue based on a whole set of experiences and competencies, a dialogue informed by their interactions with the physical materials.   I just forgot that once I have built something, it is no longer mine.  It then belongs to the children to make it their own.

Saturday, May 23, 2015


You know the feeling when you make something and it doesn't work the way you thought.  It may be something like: Why did I think that would work?  Or: It kind of works, but not the dramatic effect I was looking for.  No matter, it feels like a failure.

Here is a case in point.  I wanted to build a cardboard cascade so when the children poured sand down the apparatus, the sand would fall and flow over steps in such a way that it would look like a small bouncing waterfall.
You can already see part of the problem with the cascade.  The sand gets stuck on the steps, especially the steps on the right.

Let's take a look at the actual construction because it is not so straight forward.  The first thing to note is that there are two narrow boxes, one taped on top of the other.  The longest box is embedded through the rectangular box in the table.  The second box, the cascade box, is taped to the on top of the first box.  For all practical purposes, the children did not see two separate boxes, but saw one incline box. 

From the other side, you can see that the large rectangular box rests on a bin taped to the bottom of the table.  That was necessary for height to create a greater incline for the long, narrow box
I cut a large hole at the bottom of the box to create another space within the apparatus for the children's operations.

With a short video, let me show you why I think this was a failure.  In the video, two children are pouring sand down the cascade box.  As the child in the stripes says: "Put it down the chute." The focus for these children---and for almost all the children---was the sand going down the chute, not the cascade effect .  Watch and see if you agree.

To be honest, there really is something fetching about this video.  The child in the stripes placed a bucket in the tub at the bottom so when he pours sand down the chute, he fills his own bucket. And he lets his friend know by saying: "It's going in my bucket."

It is clear from the video that my perceived failure is not a failure for the children. They simply go about their business of discovering how the apparatus actually works.

I was pleased about a couple of other features of the apparatus that were not directly connected to the cascade. Both features included a bit of artifice.

When children poured sand into the top hole, the sand did not go down the cascade box. Rather it flowed through the bottom box all the way to the end. Inevitably, the children would pour in the top and look to see if it went down the cascade box. It took some serious investigation to figure out where the sand really came out.

The other subterfuge was the hole in the rectangular box just above the cascade box.  Where did that lead?  
Children would put sand and rocks in the hole, but the medium would just rest on a portion of the long narrow box embedded in the rectangular box.  If they would brush the sand or rocks to one side or the other, the medium would disappear.  Where did the medium go?  If you want to know, it went to the bottom of the big box.   
This child discovered the little stream of sand coming from a bottom corner of the box.  I don't think he troubled himself with where it came from.  Rather, he seemed to be fascinated by the tiny stream of sand coming out of the corner filling his scoop ever so slowly.

Cascade failure?  I guess I have to qualify the failure part.  I could not realize my idea of a cascade that I thought would capture the children's awe and attention.  I had a preconceived idea of how I thought it was suppose to work.  I am glad the children had no preconceived idea about how the apparatus should work because they ended up making more out of it than I could have imagined.   


Saturday, May 16, 2015


This year more than most I have returned to what I call keeping it simple at the sensory table. The latest setup is as simple as it gets.  It is my blue sensory table filled with Jurassic Sand. Next to the table is a smaller clear sensory table.  There is also a five gallon pail on the floor next to the sensory table.

Here is a view from the other end.  As you can see, the tables look warn with use, a lot of use. That is the setup.  Could it be any simpler?
It does not get much simpler than this.

This may be a common setup in many early childhood classrooms.  It is usually not in mine, so why did I revert to it this time?  I have to admit that time constraints were part of the initial reason. Building a new apparatus every week takes time.  In the spring, I seem to have less of it as we begin planning for end of the school year events. Once I decided on a simple setup, though, another reason came to the fore: Directly on the heels of a complex setup, what types of play would emerge with such a simple setup?  Would the children even choose to play here without an apparatus?

To understand the type of play that emerged from this setup, you need to see the utensils and the loose parts that accompanied this setup.  Besides the usual spoons, scoops, cups and bowls, there were natural elements such as sticks, rocks and pinecones.

They did indeed play and play in some very engaging ways.  Let's start with the sticks.  For one child, the stick became a real tree that he planted in a cup and "watered" with the flowing sand.
The child who has planted to the tree is on the right.  If you look at the other two children, you see that they are mimicking the pouring of the child with the stick.  How does that happen?

Children love rocks.  They will collect them, pile them and bury them.  What one child discovered was marvelous in an ordinary sort of way.  The child in the video below realized he could make marks on a rock with another rock.

What made this marvelous and so ordinary were the words he used before he showed me that he could make marks on the rock.  He simply said: "Look what I can do."  Who needs paper?

The pine cones provided an invitation for the children to create little trees.  But when the "sand rain" came, one child noticed that the flow of the sand through the scales of the pine cone was a cascade of sorts.

A second child was also pouring sand on the same pine cone, but he was doing it fast.  The sudden downpour just accentuated the cascade of sand down and through the scales of the cone.

Later in the week, I added another implement: little minnow nets.  Children appreciated how the Jurassic Sand flows.  The minnow net slowed the process so the children could appreciate it even more.
Not only did it slow the process of sand flowing, but it also spread it out so the flow was more dispersed.

One thing I did not expect was to be transported back to the very first apparatus I used at the table: the Five Gallon Pail.  I forgot how important it is to be able to transport the sand out of the table into a simple bucket.  Not only is it important, but it can also be pretty exciting.  These boys are filling the bucket and squealing with joy.  Watch.

And it was not enough to just fill the bucket.  Each child had to take his turn to test his strength to see if he could lift the pail. None of them could, but then one child blurted out: "Teamwork. Everybody grab here."
Even with teamwork, though, they could barely move it.  That was not important.  What was important was the joint effort that created a bond that will carry over to other joint actions when they decide to work together as a group again.

I will continue to build, but I have a renewed appreciation for the simple.  

Can the simple inform the complex?  Can the complex inform the simple?