About Me

My photo
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, March 25, 2017


I like rocks.  I always have.  I remember as a child hunting for agates, a semi-precious stone that can be found in Minnesota.  As a dad, I would take my own children down to the Mississippi River to hunt for agates and fossils.  We usually found some, but we also spent plenty of time just throwing rocks in the river or skipping them across the surface.  Physically and emotionally, children feel a great sense of agency when they throw a rock in the river and watch the splash and the ripples.  It's addictive.  The bigger the rock, the better.  Or the farther, the better.  Or the more, the better.

It is important for children to be able to explore rocks outside.  I also think it is important for children to be able to explore rocks inside the classroom.   In fact as a teacher of small children, I know there is much to be gained by offering children a chance to play with rocks on a regular basis all around the classroom and especially at the sensory table.  To that end, below is an example of how I set up rocks on a table for the children to use in the sand table.
Here is a closer look at the rocks.  One of my purposes was to offer rocks of different sizes, colors and textures.

By offering the children different kinds of rocks, they were able to compare and contrast the rocks. One year, I offered the children the tripod magnifier next to the sensory table so they could get a better look at the rocks as they did their comparisons.
The video below is a another good example showing a child comparing two rocks.  Though the color and the size of the rocks are similar, she examined the number and size of the holes before she concluded they were not the same.

One year, I recorded an interchange I had with a child as she was exploring the rocks.  I transcribed our conversation on a big sheet of newsprint and taped it up on the wall next to the sand table.  Below is the transcription.  Alert!  Emergent literacy and numeracy event.
At first, she looked for a big rock.  I asked her if she was looking for a heavy rock.  She insisted it had to be a big rock.  But when I asked her how her search was going, she said it had to be heavy.  Why did she switch---or add to---her description of her search?  Near the end of the episode when she was looking for a small rock, she found one that she said was "shiny, heavy and little."  In the course of examining the rocks, she kept expanding her classifications.

Another reason rocks are important for children in the classroom may fall under my own speculations.  Here goes.  Rocks were important for our development as a species.  (How is that for a theory?)  And I think children recreate some of those important points of development with rocks in the sand table.  (How is that for another theory?)   For instance, the child in the video below used a small rock to clean off the ledge in the sand table.   In essence, the child created her own tool from a small rock.

Here is another example.  In the video below, the child discovered that he could make marks with a rock on another rock.  

Making marks with rocks from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

If rocks are important for some fundamental operations that emerge from our DNA, shouldn't there be a place in the classroom for them?  What do you think?

Sunday, March 19, 2017


I was invited to Juneau, Alaska to be one of the featured speakers at their annual early childhood symposium.  Juneau is the capital of Alaska.  The population is a little over 30,000.  There are no roads in or out because it is surrounded by mountains that go on and on.  Here is a picture of the old downtown with Mount Juneau towering over the town.

I got to do a little sightseeing with the help of someone from Juneau involved in its early childhood organization (AEYC SE Alaska).  The highlight was walking two miles out to a glacier on a frozen lake and walking into a glacial ice cave.  I never knew glaciers were blue.

I was asked to do a building workshop and a couple of shorter presentations.  For me, the high point was the building workshop.  After I presented the participants with a generative framework for building, they could hardly wait to get started.
I am always impressed by the amount of cooperation, negotiation and accommodation that takes place in a workshop like this.   The ideas just seem to fly throughout the room both within building groups and between building groups.

Inevitably,  the participants create something unique and novel.  I think that is a function of the materials that are available and the unfolding of the social process of building.  Here are a just a couple of the novel things the participants built.

One group created a sand wheel from sturdy cardboard triangle pieces that were originally packing corners.  Besides the wheel, they had to come up with the axle.

Another group came up with a sliding incline.  They taped a inclined chute to a cardboard bracket they manufactured that slid up and down a sturdy cardboard tube.

One person even made a snake-like ramp by cutting pieces of paper towels tubes and taping them together.

The ideas are always inspiring to me.  Even more inspiring is watching someone who has never used a drill, pick it up and start drilling.  

I want to thank Joy Lyon, the executive director of SE Alaska AEYC, and her staff and board for letting me be part of their annual conference.  They are doing some great work for the children of SE Alaska and their enthusiasm is contagious.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Sticks continued

Last week I wrote about how, over the years, there was a progression of sorts to how sticks were brought into the classroom and used at the sensory table.  At first, there were small sticks, rarely longer than 6 to 12 inches.  As time went on, I started bringing in big branches and even logs.  In the interest of safety, I would tape them down because I did not want them rolling off the table onto someone's foot.  Last week's post ended with the introduction of loose sticks that were tall and narrow and, more importantly, not tied down
For me that was a leap of faith because my mother drilled into me not to play with sticks because someone could get their eye poked out.  I have never stopped playing with sticks even though that dire warning has stayed with me to this day.

What I discovered was that the children handled the sticks with plenty of care and no one got hurt.  I was emboldened so I filled the table with sticks, branches and stumps---and none of them were taped down.  This is how the setup looked from one side...
And then from the other.

One of the things that changed was that the children started to examine the natural pieces of wood more carefully.

The sticks became tools with which to stir and pound.

Because they could move the sticks and branches, the children did.  They moved the wood around within the sensory table.

And outside the table.  This child took it upon himself to move every piece of wood he could lift out of the tables and onto the floor.  Why?  I suppose because he could.

Many of their operations with sticks, branches and stumps looked haphazard.  But were they?  The following video did show a child with some purpose.  He entered the video from the top with a wide branch.  He tentatively placed it on two branches that were already part of a balanced structure.  When he was sure his branch was balanced and would not fall, he stepped back and wiped his hands together like he has just done some hard work. 

Balancing branches from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Judging from his body language and without seeing his face, I think he was pretty pleased with what he had just accomplished.

For some children, the bigger branches and logs were used to test their strength.  In the video below the child lifted a big heavy maple log up onto the stump to roll it over the stump.  He first used the stump as a fulcrum to lift the log off the bottom of the table.  Then he lifted the log up every so slightly before balancing it on the stump.  The effort was palpable.  Once it was balanced on the stump, he re-positioned his hands so he could control the log as it rolled to the other side. 

Heavy lifting from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

I would say this child was on the border between controlling the log and loosing control of the log.  Early in his endeavor, I moved in to help because I thought he would drop it on his finger.  Though I was close, I ended up not helping at all.  Instead, he shifted his hands and his body weight to keep the piece of maple log under control.  After he rolled the log to the other side, he brushed his hands together again, intimating that that was hard work and now it was done.

Since I started the first post on sticks, I have been thinking a lot about how the children handled the sticks, branches, logs and stumps.  More specifically, I was wondering how the children managed the wood pieces so well in the closed-in area of the sand and water table.

Children are attracted to sticks.  I could forbid their use in the classroom by simply not bringing them into the classroom.  Or I could offer the sticks as play things to the children so they can learn to use them for constructive pursuits of their own making.   To do that, they need the time and the agency to explore the possibilities of sticks within the social and physical context of the classroom and, in this case, the sensory table. However, that does not mean anything goes because, as the teacher, I am part of that context and my role is to know the children well enough that I can intervene when something looks too dangerous.  That said, I do not remember intervening even once with the sticks.  Maybe we had already built a play culture in the sensory area that precluded the probability of dangerous play with sticks.  Is that possible?

Let me leave you with a picture of my grandson dragging a stick that is twice his size along the Mississippi River.  He is also holding a shorter stick in his other hand.
Sticks are important to children.  I do not know why.  I do know they do increase their imprint on the world: sticks allow children to reach farther and higher.  Since they are so important maybe we should not forbid them, but figure out a context in which the children learn to use them constructively---even inside.

Saturday, March 4, 2017


I started introducing sticks into the classroom at the sensory table at least 25 years ago.  At first, the sticks were small.
Many of the sticks I used in the classroom I had collected on my walks down by the Mississippi River with my own children.  

In the classroom, the children had no trouble figuring out what to do with the sticks.  For instance, in the sand, they would "plant" them to make miniature landscapes.

Or make sculptures by piling and balancing them on top of one another.  This child told me this was his house and wanted to make sure I saw it.

One child even took a stick, stuck it in the sand and added a tree knot over the end to make his own microphone.

Gradually I started to introduce larger sticks.  Actually, it might be more accurate to call them branches.  
Since I was not sure how the children would handle these bigger branches, I taped them down to the table so they could not be moved.  In the picture above, the two longer branches were taped to the lip of the table with black duct tape.  There was a smaller branch with three arms that I did not tape down.  It was an experiment to see how the children would handle a bigger, loose piece.

I went so far as to bring a log into the classroom.  This, too, I decided to tape down; I did not want it dropping on someone's foot.

About the same time I set up the log in the sensory table, I was walking down by the river and found some long narrow sticks.  What caught my eye was that some animal---a muskrat?---had chewed them down and ate much of the bark.  I gathered a bunch of the sticks and set them in a bin next to the sensory table.

In a way, this was a leap of faith on my part.  I was introducing long narrow sticks knowing that they would increase the children's personal space beyond what they were used to in the classroom.  These sticks were as tall, if not taller, than they were and when they handled them, what would happen?  Would they swing them around and hit someone?  Would they poke themselves?  Would they use them as swords?  What kind of mayhem would ensue?

So what happened?  There was no swinging or poking or even sword fighting.  Instead, the children found ways to manipulate the sticks and build with them.  Below is an example of one such episode.  One child is using the sticks to build bridges across the sensory table.

The child was being quite mindful of how he was handling the sticks.  He was even aware of the child on the other side of the table and asked him to move so he could put down more bridges.

I eventually cut up all those sticks into smaller pieces and ended up with a basket full of sticks measuring 3 to 6 inches.   When people saw these little sticks, they were impressed and thought I had worked very hard to make the marks with a knife.  No, those were marks made by an animal feeding on the bark. 

These sticks became a permanent fixture in my classroom.  They continued to be used in the sensory table with various apparatus.  However, their permanent residence was in the housekeeping area.  This was the time I got rid of the plastic food and started using more open-ended and natural materials in that area of the classroom.

Believe it or not, I am not done with the classroom experiments with sticks, but it will have to wait until next week.    Will the dreaded mayhem finally ensue?

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Knob water ramp

One of the earliest apparatus I built was knob water ramp.  It was made with scrap wood from my basement.  The knobs were short dowel pieces made by cutting old broom handles I had been collecting.  I had two main reasons for making this apparatus: 1) I wanted to create the sound of water flowing over rocks, like a babbling brook;  2) I wanted to arrange the knobs so the children would see a dispersal pattern as the water flowed down the ramp. 

The idea came from a water fountain in the Twin Cities where I live.  The water bubbles up out of the top and tumbles over the bricks on its way down the sides of the fountain. 

The first ramp was too bulky, so I made a narrower one.  However, there was still one big issue with this apparatus: how to keep it securely taped down.  The knob ramp was made out of wood so it was heavy.  In the picture below, the tape was doing double duty.  It was holding the apparatus to the crate and the table all the while trying to keep it from slipping down.
I often ended up re-taping the apparatus daily because by the end of the day it had slipped down into the water, which is not good for wood.

One time during play the bottom of the tray actually came loose.  In essence, the ramp became a teeter-totter.  That gave the children more agency with moving the water on the ramp.  
However, I was not comfortable with the ramp rocking back and forth.  The picture below illustrates why.  The child's head on the right came awfully close to the corner of the ramp.
Credit does have go to both of these children because no one got bonked.  The child manipulating the ramp did it slowly and carefully and the child whose head is so close to the corner seemed to know the corner was near his head and simply avoided it.

When I made the second, narrower ramp, I kept the dowel pattern on the board again.  Did the children notice the dispersal pattern? 
Though it may look like the child pictured above was focusing on the dispersal pattern created by the dowels, I am not sure.  His pour was much too fast for him to see the pattern.  He surely heard the water splashing over the knobs and dropping into the water like a babbling brook.

Below is a video of a child pouring water down the ramp.  As the water flows over the knobs and off the ramp into the tub, there is a zen-like aural component created by the action of the water.

Pouring Water Down the Water Ramp from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

So I am not so sure about how much the children noticed the dispersal pattern.  That is not big deal because that was my agenda.  I do think there was also a certain attraction to the sound the water made rippling down the ramp.  Again, though, that was my agenda.  The driving force behind the children's play came from the children themselves because they have this natural compulsion to pour water down ramps.  (See Axiom #4 on the right column of this blog.)

One thing that I have learned over the years is that inclines connect children in play.  When someone pours at the top, there is often someone positioned at the bottom to receive the pour.  Below is an example of this.  One child poured water down the ramp.  The water slowly worked its way around the knobs to the bottom.  When the water reached the bottom of the ramp, the child kneeling next to the tub started rubbing the water on the board with her soapy hand.

Knob ramp play from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

How intentional was this play connection?  The child at the bottom clearly waited for the child on top to pour the water down the ramp.  The child on the top seemed more interested in pouring and watching the water flow down the ramp.  Maybe there are different degrees of play connections in any given play episode.  And maybe those different degrees of play connections help move the play along until the play morphs into something else or simply runs it course.

What do you think?

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Large wooden tray, a win-win

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the evolution of a wooden tray that created a second level of play for the children at the sensory table.   That was a narrow tray that spanned the width of the table and was taped to the lip of the table on each side.

On the left, the children piled their Moon Sand creations on the tray. On the right, the children collected swamp water in the tray.  Whether they were working with sand or water, the wooden tray invited the children to work on a second level above the bottom of the table.  (See axiom #3 on the right hand column of the blog.)

Five years ago, I built another wooden tray.  This one was the size of a table top.  In fact, when I set it up, I set it up on a table between two sensory tables.  The idea was to create a work space on a second level for the children that would allow for a lot of pouring and mixing without having to worry about spills.

The tray was made from a thin sheet of wood paneling that was attached to a rudimentary frame of 1” x 2” pine boards.  The whole apparatus was sanded smooth and covered in polyurethane so it could be used with water.  The tray was enclosed on three sides and open on a fourth side.  It was propped slightly on one end so any water that spilled drained down the tray into the blue table.

There was one more important addition to the tray: a plastic flap to direct the water coming off of the tray into the the table.  Without the flap, the water clung to the bottom of the apparatus and splashed on the floor.

One of the nice features of this apparatus was its size.  It could accommodate multiple children and their operations at the same time.  In the video below, the children were all cooking.  The first one says she was making soup.  The second says she was making something from three different pots that contained M&M's and chocolate.  The first child liked the sound of that so she switched to making chocolate, lots of chocolate.  After hearing this exchange between the other two, the third child declared she was making noodles.

Cooking club from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Not only did this apparatus foster all kinds of social interaction, it also fostered specific kinds of motor skill development.  In the video below, the child was filling the ice cube tray with a plastic syringe.  To do that, he had to create a sequence of motor tasks to complete his self-appointed undertaking.    A couple of the larger motor tasks included getting the water in the syringe and directing the water into the individual compartments of the ice cube tray.

Filling the ice cube tray from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Believe it or not, this apparatus even fostered some unexpected scientific inquiry.  The child in the video below was using the funnel upside down like a plunger in the pot of water.  While plunging away, her finger found the hole in the spout of the funnel.  With her finger in the hole, she lifted the funnel.  Since she had created a vacuum by plugging the hole, she lifted water  out of the bowl with her funnel.  When the funnel was pulled completely out of the bowl, the water dropped back into the bowl.

Funnel suction from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

In all three of these videos of children using the large wooden tray, it did not matter if they spilled.  Here is one more series of pictures that makes the point definitively.  In the first picture, the child was pouring water from a metal cup to a little metal container.  He overfilled the metal container and water spilled out onto the tray.
Next, he lifted up the small metal container because he wanted to transfer the water into the big metal pot.  Because the little metal pot was so full, he spilled again.
As he went to pour the water from the little container into the large metal pot, he tipped the container toward himself and spilled a third time.

The child spilled three times in the matter of 5 seconds.  The beauty of the operation was that it did not matter how many times he spilled because the tray captured the water and returned it to the water table.  

With this large wooden tray, the children were given a license to spill.  Maybe one of the ways we learn not to spill is to be able to experience what causes spills.  It sure freed the children up to socialize, to master motor skills and to engage in scientific inquiry without having to worry about spilling.  By the way, the tray also freed me up from worrying about the spills that naturally happen as children transport.  That's a win-win.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Other box towers, other possibilities

Last week I wrote about a certain type of box tower and the possibility of unique types of play as the children explored the apparatus.  Let me expand on the idea of a box tower with different combination of vertical boxes that expand the possibilities even further.

The size and the shape of the box determines the potential tower configuration.   The cardboard box tower pictured below was a combination of two long, narrow boxes taped together on their vertical axes.  It just so happened that the combination of the two was the exact width of the table so it could be taped down to the lip of the table to make it secure.  Holes were cut in the sides and on hole was cut on top of only one of the boxes.  There was also a window cut between the boxes.  Access to that inside hole was more of a challenge because the children had to reach into one of the boxes to use it for their play.
My documentation on this apparatus is minimal, so you will have to use your imagination as to how the children used this for their own purposes.   

A box tower does not need to be made from multiple boxes. The box tower below was made from one computer box.  For this box tower, the holes on the sides were smaller, but the holes on the bottom were larger and opened out into the table.
When I cut the holes at the bottom, I made sure I ended up with a flap that I could tape down to the bottom of the table.  The flap is buried under the the corn but is outlined in the picture above.  I cut holes with flaps on the bottom on all four sides so it was taped down so securely that the children could not push it over.  With this tower, there was a lot more exploration on the top and the bottom of this box tower and much less with the smaller side holes.  Why?  Was it the dimensions of the box?  Was it the size or placement of the holes?

Here is another box tower made from one box.  That is not exactly correct because I did add a channel box horizontally through it. 
How a child combines any given provision with any given feature of the structure is always important for how play develops at any given moment.  A case in point is the two pictures below.  The pictures are grossly out of focus but hopefully you can see the child's genius anyway.  The child created a machine (her own words).  And what did her machine do?  It separated the smaller grains of sand from the larger ones.

The child found a sieve and placed it on top of the box over the hole.  She added sand and shook the sieve back and forth.  When she was done, she was pleased to display what her machine produced.

Here is a box tower made from six boxes, six liquor store boxes.  In a way it reminds me of a pyramid with steps on two sides.  However the steps all have holes.  The holes are formed by cardboard packing panels taped onto the top of the boxes.  Things dropped through the holes fall down to the bottom of the table.  
How did the children's exploration of this structure differ from that of the other boxes already mentioned?  Here are two ways.

On the left, the children inserted a loose cardboard tube and filled it.  They were experimenting with volume. On the right, the child referenced his own actions in the box through the hole above.  He was honing his proprioception.

Here is one last box tower.  This was made from six boxes that were larger and of different sizes.  There were actually two towers, one in each sensory table, that were connected by a horizontal element in the form of a box bridge. 
Since this box tower was more complex, the children's exploration of space was more varied and more complex.

The child on the left examined the space inside the small tower by bending under the bridge.  The child on the right put sand into the bridge, a much different experience than dropping it down a tower.

There is really no limit to what a person can build in terms of box towers.  But why build in the first place?  I would be disingenuous if I said I did not get a certain amount of satisfaction to see what I can come up with.  Everybody needs a creative outlet and this has been mine over the past 28 years.  I do have another motive which is just as important: I am extremely curious about how children explore and investigated spaces, both large and small.  By offering built spaces, I get a chance to satisfy that curiosity.  Given the time to explore and make it their own, the children manifest their own curiosity in ordinary and extraordinary ways.  In other words, my curiosity feeds their curiosity.  Since their curiosity is boundless, their is no limit for the play possibilities in and around these built structures.