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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, January 24, 2015


In the next month, I will be doing two conference presentations.   Because it takes me a long time to finish an original post, I will repost a few posts over the next few weeks that I wrote more than two years ago after another early childhood professional asked me the question: Why do I build?  I revisit them because they will also help me prepare for the second conference, which is a keynote presentation for the 15th Annual Launching into Literacy and Math Conference in Madison, Wisconsin at Madison College(MATC Truax) on February 7th.  This third repost emerges from discussions from a Reggio-inspired book study that examined how children create dialogue with and meaning from spaces they explore and inhabit.

Friday, September 21, 2012

I was asked last spring by another early childhood professional why do I build apparatus for the sensory table.  That question was a lot more thought provoking than I had anticipated.  I have been mulling over the answer here and here.  In the the first post, I stated that early in my career children demonstrated their need to transport what was in the sensory table out of the table.  I began to build apparatus so children could continually find ways to constructively transport.  An added benefit was that the children, given the chance to transport constructively, demonstrated an ability to regulate their own behavior.  In the second post, I said that children created and recreated operations such as digging and pouring that harken back to a time when our survival as a species depended on such operations. I postulated that those fundamental/primal operations are in our DNA and need to be expressed.

This summer, I started to participate in a book study through the  Reggio-Inspired Network of Minnesota.  The book study used the Reggio publication entitled: dialogues with places.  The book examines how the children use all their senses and their whole bodies to investigate space and reflects on how children subsequently make meaning of a place through those investigations. Because their investigations were always new and fresh, it was not unusual for them to pick up on features such as holes in the ceiling or cracks in the floor that adults simply ignore. For the children, though, those were important features to animate.  Those were important features that were "invitations" for the children to enter into a dialogue with the place and to ultimately create meaning.

For me, the sensory table is such a place.  It is a place in which children enter into a dialogue with the apparatus.  It is a place in which children find those "cracks" and "holes" from which they ultimately create meaning.  It is a place in which they use all their senses and their whole body to investigate.

They investigate spaces with their eyes.
 With their hands

With their arms

Even if the child cannot see the space he is exploring

And even through barriers

They investigate spaces with their heads

With their heads and torsos

With their whole body by climbing on

Or into

Or even lying next to

And they will always find that feature an adult would rarely notice

In the Reggio book, places have "form, energy, and rhythm."  At the sensory table, each apparatus has the same.  The form, energy, and rhythm that emerge will look different as each child---alone and with others---creates a dialogue with the apparatus.  That is exciting and creates multiple opportunities to make meaning out of space. Since children are master explorers, there is no end to the process.  So I continue to build apparatus for the children to investigate and make meaning out of new and intriguing spaces.

Saturday, January 17, 2015


In the next month, I will be doing two conference presentations.   Because it takes me a long time to finish an original post, I will repost a few posts over the next few weeks that I wrote more than two years ago after another early childhood professional asked me the question: Why do I build?  I revisit them because they will also help me prepare for the second conference, which is a keynote presentation for the 15th Annual Launching into Literacy and Math Conference in Madison, Wisconsin at Madison College(MATC Truax) on February 7th.  This second repost makes the case for children's operations that emerge at the sensory table that must be actualized by the children.  

Last week I started to answer the following question another early childhood professional posed to me: Why do I build apparatus for the sand and water table?  I gave two reasons in that post.  One was, when a bucket was serendipitously placed next to the table, children demonstrated their need to transport and to do it constructively by appropriating the bucket for their own purposes. The second reason was, by appropriating the bucket for their own purposes, they demonstrated their ability to manage their own behavior with minimal guidance or participation on my part.

The picture below illustrates both points well.  First, the children are transporting the water into the bucket.  Second, they are filling the bucket as full as they can without spilling.
  Flood or no flood?

Another reason to build surfaced from reflections on a book I read this summer: a child's work; the IMPORTANCE of FANTASY PLAY by Vivian Gussin Paley.   In the book, Paley talks about fantasy play as the children's agenda that spontaneously emerges between all the teacher-planned activities and projects.  She goes so far as to say fantasy play must come out.  Her first teacher told the undergraduates that children in the nursery school where they were observing were the only age group that was constantly busy making their own work assignments.  Because Paley provides the time and space and respect for children's fantasy play, she sees the children creating and recreating dramatic themes that span human history and that are reflected in the great works of literature and drama.  She says: "Words, words, words, where do they all come from?  It sounds like the poetry of a child's soul, nothing less, but the children are imagining vivid drama that must be acted out." (p. 32)

After reading the book, I began to construct a parallel between fantasy play and sand and water play. All the operations the children recreate in and around the sensory table span human history. I have often wondered why children dig, pour, fill and transport as soon as they they get to the sand and water table. Maybe the children are recreating those operations from a time when they were important to our very survival as a species.   Not only are they recreating those primary operations, but they are using contemporary implements to create new and novel operations. Those elemental operations must come out.  (Additionally, those operations around the sensory table often lead to a good deal of fantasy play, especially with the older children.)

Below is just a sampling of those operations.  Some operations involve just the hands and arms, and others use various implements.  Some are straight forward and simple, and some are more complex.

After reading Paley's book, I theorize that I build apparatus at the sensory table to create time and space and respect for the children to actualize those fundamental operations that must come out.

Saturday, January 10, 2015


In the next month, I will be doing two conference presentations.   Because it takes me a long time to finish an original post, I will repost a few posts over the next few weeks that I wrote more than two years ago after another early childhood professional asked me the question: Why do I build?  I revisit them because they will also help me prepare for the second conference, which is a keynote presentation for the 15th Annual Launching into Literacy and Math Conference in Madison, Wisconsin at Madison College(MATC Truax) on February 7th.  This first repost recounts a transformation in my practice all because of a recycled five-gallon bucket.  

Saturday, September 8, 2012


This past June, another early childhood professional asked me: "Why do you build apparatus for the sensory table?"  Even though I have been doing it for over 23 years, I did not have good answer. I have been thinking a lot about that question ever since.

At this point, my answer harkens back to the second post of this blog from July, 2010.  The post was about the lowly 5-gallon pail that you see below.
A mother, who worked at a fast food restaurant, brought in this dill pickle pail and asked me if I could use it.  Maybe she thought since I had such a small room I could use it for storage. Instead---and because I had no place to store it---I put it near the sand table.  What happened next was transformative for my practice as an early childhood teacher.

You can read the first transformation in the post about the 5-gallon pail referenced above.  The gist of the post is that the children use the pail to transport in a constructive way (Axiom #1 in the right hand column).  As a consequence, my communication with the children becomes much more positive about their operations of transporting the medium out of the sand and water table.  In other words, instead of always saying: "No,! No dumping on the floor", I can now say: "Put it in the bucket."  That positive communication completely changes the tenor of my communication with the children at the table.

Something else happened in relation to the pail that transformed my practice.  I no longer felt like I had to micromanage the children around the table.  Rather, I began to see the children as capable of managing their own actions at the table.  Instead of managing, I was able to observe.  By taking the time to observe, I started to notice how the children were able to manage even more of their own actions.  This whole process is now a virtuous circle that carries the day throughout the classroom.  

That may seem like a lowly bucket, but it started it all.  The bucket afforded a chance for the children to figure out a constructive way to do what they needed to do: transport.  Since then, almost every apparatus incorporates opportunities for children to discover new and constructive ways to transport.  

Though I have not answered the question to my full satisfaction, it will do for now.  And I will keep building.

Saturday, January 3, 2015


Last year I wrote a post I called My Classroom Picture of the Year.  One of the interesting aspects of that post was that it was taken in a different part of the room from the sand and water table area and presented a building project, not sand or water play.  This year, I am also posting a picture of a building project, but for this picture the building takes place next to the sensory table. Again, though, it has little to do with sand or water play.  It is a very simple picture of a child building a modest structure with the loose parts that are provisioned on shelves next to the sand table.  I call it: The Wondrous in the Everyday.

Why is this my classroom picture of the year?  The reason is that this picture represents so many layers of thought and concentration by this child.  He has failed to balance his structure once, but tries a second time to see if it will stand.  The picture captures the moment he cautiously lets go to see if it will stand this second time. You can see his whole body is poised in expectation. He is also gauging the structure's stability moment by moment as he lets go.   The amount of concentration is immediate, fluid and total.

Why did the child take these mundane loose parts---a plastic coffee container, a cardboard tube, a plastic measuring cup---and decide to build a structure?   Whatever the reason, it was quite generative.  Over the course of four weeks this child continued to build using a small variety of loose parts in multiple attempts to build various balanced structures.  Here is a sampling.

Is the structure beautiful pictured in My Classroom Picture of the Year?  To be honest, not particularly.  That is not the type of beauty this classroom picture represents.  Rather, it represents a concrete idea that a child has the capacity to continually see possibilities is these most ordinary of materials.  At first it may be serendipity, but can and does become intentional with causation.  That's a different kind of beauty, a beauty that comes from deep inside and is able to be expressed with the found materials on hand in a highly individual way.

Here is the picture of the child showing his reaction to his success after his second attempt at balancing the structure.

This last picture would not be possible with out the first picture, my picture of the year.  That picture is really about how the mundane and ordinary are transformed into magic in a child's hands everyday in the classroom.

Happy New Year and and may you be lucky enough to celebrate the many wonders that happen every day in your classroom.

P.S. If you are interested in more context for this set of pictures, I wrote about this child's original building in a post called Agency.  What you will also find in that post is the mother's perspective and his own reactions to seeing himself build in a couple videos I took of him making his balancing structures.

Saturday, December 27, 2014


When you think of real tools, what do you think of?  I bet you think of things like hammers and drills and other tools both power and non-power.  How about putty knives?  Recently I added various putty knives that were big, small, plastic and metal to the Hodgepodge and Doohickies that reside on the shelf next to the sensory table.

How did putty knives end up on the shelf of loose parts?  Serendipity.  They were handy because the previous week I had used the larger ones for cleaning wet finger paint off our art table.  Since I had Moon Sand in the sensory table, I knew cutting the packed Moon Sand would be intriguing for the children.  Even though the Moon Sand packs hard, it cuts easily and cleanly with a knife.

I was astonished at how well the children wielded the putty knives.  Take for instance the three-year-old in the video below.  At first she tries to scrape the sand with both hands high on the handle. When that doesn't work, she repositions both her hands with her right hand above the blade and her left hand lower on the handle to get more force so she can scrape the Moon Sand from the bottom of the table.  How did she know to do that?

Did you see that she then uses the blade of the putty knife to shovel some sand into a measuring cup?  That is not so simple because she first pulls the blade toward the edge of the table, turns the putty knife 90 degrees and shovels again using her other hand to make sure the sand stays on the blade of the knife.  With a full blade, she uses two hands to lift the heavy sand over the measuring cup to deposit a good portion of it into the measuring cup. Her reaction: "I got it!" 

The whole sequence reminded me of when I used the same knife to do some drywall work in the house.  The scraping, the piling on of Moon Sand and the transporting of it with the blade look all too familiar to me.  Again, how does a three-year-old figure this stuff out?

Here is another sequence by a child using the large plastic putty knife.  The child first cuts away the pile of sand from the edge of the table using a chopping and then a cutting motion.  She transfers the putty knife into her other hand and then grabs a small measuring cup to scoop up some sand.  The measuring cup is overflowing, but in one easy motion, she uses the knife to smooth and flatten the sand in the cup.

Did you see that she put her hand through the handle of the knife so she could flatten the sand in the cup with the hand that had been holding the knife?  And it was all done so effortlessly.  You would have guessed that this four-year-old works with putty knives all the time.

Here is a third sequence of a child using a small metal putty knife.  She has packed her plastic coffee can with sand.  As the video starts, she plunges the knife up to the handle into the sand. She then makes another plunging cut perpendicular to the first cut.  This second cut is positioned next to the first cut halfway between the two ends.  She makes a third cut perpendicular to the second cut at the opposite end of the second cut from the first cut.  (It's all perfectly clear, right?)

If you guessed she was making an "H" you would be correct.  She had been experimenting making letters in the sand on the top of the coffee.  Who knew a five-year-old could use a putty knife for a literacy activity.

I took almost 200 pictures and videos of children playing around this simple structure.  I often saw seven children around it, but it was not unusual to see nine children fully engaged.

To be fully engaged, they have to be able to author their own operations like the three girls you just saw in the videos.  The loose parts go a long way in helping them in this process.  The children's own experiences and skills also contribute to this process.  Still there has to be something inherent in the provocation for the children create meaningful scenarios.  It does not matter whether the apparatus is simple or complex.  My guess is that it may have more to do with the open-ended nature of the apparatus.  

Saturday, December 20, 2014


If you follow my blog, you know that some of the constructions get a little complex.  Take for instance one of the latest apparatuses: the Box Peak.

This construction creates lots of different spaces for the children to explore. There are up, down, in, out, on, under and through spaces. There are open and closed spaces.  There are flat and incline spaces.  Suffice it to say, there are many varied spaces.

Sometimes, though, it is good to keep it simple.  How simple?  Recently I set up a Large Platform over an extra sand table and set it next to the regular sand table.  That's it, an open table and an open platform.

I was lucky because I did not have to build the Large Platform.  It came from a discarded sand and water table that was about to be thrown out from the elementary program in our building. It looked like this.
The infant toddler teacher really liked the simplicity of the table, but it was too high.  I removed the bottom shelf and cut the legs to make it lower to the ground.  Here is what it looks like now.

I did not discard the shelf because it was beautiful and well constructed; I put it in storage for future use. That future use turned out to be the Large Platform for this setup.  (As it turns out, you can buy the shelf separately from School Specialty for about $80.)  

There is a big difference between this apparatus and the Box Peak.  First, there are not nearly as many spaces created by the Large Platform.  Second, its two primary spaces are completely open.  Third, there are basically only two levels.

Moon Sand was introduced for the first time this year. Commercial Moon Sand from a catalogue is expensive, but it is worth the expense. There are also recipes for making moon sand on the Web. I have not tried any of them because our Moon Sand has lasted several years and still retains its unique qualities

There was one problem with the initial setup.  The sides of the shelf were too low to contain the sand.

Children always scraped the sand to the sides and would pack it up against the edges.  That meant a lot of the precious sand fell on the floor.

There was an easy solution to this problem.  I took packing corners someone had given me that came from an appliance box and taped them to the three edges of the platform where spillage was an issue.

This added enough height to the edges so spillage was reduced.  Here is an important bit of wisdom that comes directly from axiom #1 on the right-hand column of this blog: Children will always spill.  Heck, we spill all the time as adults.  You cannot prevent spillage but you can minimize it by design.

In a previous post, I wrote that the complexity of an construction can add to the capacity---number of children and operations---at an apparatus.  As it turns out, simplicity can also add to the capacity.
It was not unusual to find seven children around the table at one time.  Even when there were nine(pictured above), it still looks like there is room for more.

So how can simplicity also add to the capacity?  In this case, it must be the additional level. What can be so attractive about an additional level?  It may be its shape and its height.  The level is wide enough for multiple children to work on at the same time.  The height is such that the children do not have to constantly bend over to carry out their operations.   It may be similar to working on a counter top or workbench like we do as adults all the time.

So does the capacity of this simple construction also pertain to the number and variety of operations?  Stay tuned.

Saturday, December 13, 2014


Last week this blog featured a Box Peak apparatus that I had built in early November.  Colleagues and parents commented on the architectural nature of the construction.
The children, of course, did not comment on the nature of the apparatus, but they sure did play on, in and around the whole structure.

The second week I added some new elements, a channel and tubes, and a new loose part, a homemade plunger.

The channel that was added had two holes on the top into which the children could pour sand. The lower of the two holes also gave the children a peek at the sand flowing down the closed chute. The hole on the end of the channel directed the sand into the hole at the bottom of the apparatus. If you look closely, you see that the sand coming out of the channel is split in two, but is transformed into one stream coming out of the hole emptying into the tub.

There were two types of tubes added to the apparatus.  The first was a cardboard tube.  The purpose of this tube was to direct sand through the hole on the other side of the box.  Watch how this works; you will have to wait to the end of the video to see the child pour the sand---the red, hot lava---down the tube.  The video begins with the child saying:"Hot lava for sale.  Who wants hot lava?  Red, hot lava with a lot of candy in it.  And a lot of healthy things.  There are healthy things in here."  All the while she is scooping sand from the bucket and putting it in her measuring cup.  Every time she puts some sand in her measuring cup, she uses the scoop to smooth off the top.  When she is satisfied with her exact measurement, she stands up and pours the sand down the tube.  It rushes down the tube and out of the box---you might even say like hot lava.

Red hot lava for sale from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Did you notice all the areas of development that were touched upon in this 30 second video.  Here are a few I noticed: motor skills(both fine and large motor), language, role play, math(measuring the red hot lava), science(pouring the sand down the tube), cooperation(the other child is also in on the role play) and imagination.  Not bad for 30 seconds of play.

The second tube was a plastic tube that was embedded horizontally in the Box Peak.  The tube was set fairly high in the apparatus so the children could still reach under the apparatus to get at the sand.

The main reason for this tube was to encourage play with a new loose part: a sand plunger.  The sand plunger is a jar lid screwed onto the end of a sawed-off piece of broom handle.

The lid was the perfect size to fit into the tube.  That way the children could use the plunger to push the sand from one end of the tube out the other.  Or a child could just push the plunger through the tube without moving any sand.
The child at the top of the picture has just pushed his plunger all the way through the tube.  At the same time, he has pushed the other plunger out of the tube.

Of  course, the children found their own uses for the plungers that had nothing to do with the tube. Below, the children are using the plungers like shovels as they try to move the sand at the bottom of the box to the hole.

I can always enumerate the features of an apparatus.  I can explain how the different elements fit together.  I can illustrate how children use loose parts.  What I cannot do is begin to explain how the children come up with ideas like "red, hot lava" or appropriate a loose part to be a shovel.  It all happens in a context---physical, social, emotional, intellectual---that is greater than the sum of the parts.