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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 25, 2016

What is play?

I have been thinking a lot about play lately.  Today I did a conference session on play at the sensory table in Mankato, Minnesota at the Midwest Play Conference hosted by Mankato State University.   Whenever I do conferences or workshops for early education venues, I always emphasize play.   This seemed a little different because what is the value of play in a classroom and, more specifically, just in one area of the classroom?

To make sense of play at the sensory table, I have been looking at three episodes of play from the apparatus I wrote about last week: the channel board.  I am astonished with what the children come up with.  Sometimes it is so simple and sometimes it is elaborate and sometimes it warms the heart.

The first episode is a child washing out a metal measuring cup.   The cup has residual mud and she wants to clean it out. 

Washing the cup from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

This is a fairly simple operation, but what does it have to do with play?  Why does she want to clean the cup in the first place?  She will just go back to scoop mud with it and then do it all over again.

The next episode shows a child directing a more complicated operation.  First, the middle channel is padded down with mud.  Once enough mud has been padded down, it is then swept down the channel.   The child directing the action takes a small piece of bark to scrape the remaining mud out of the channel.  She then uses that same piece of curved bark as a sled for a dinosaur and sends it zooming down the clean channel.


Cleaning the dinosaur slide with mud. from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

How does a child begin to create such a complete and elaborate scenario that draws in and accommodates others?  How did the child who is directing the operation ever come up with the steps for cleaning the channel with mud?  Why does one child help and the other watch? Why did the child help even though he was not sure exactly what they were doing?   How did that same child realize that the whole operation was to make the sledding dinosaur go faster?

The final episode is beguiling to say the least.  The child has made a mud birthday cake with a stick for a candle for her bear.  She sings happy birthday to it and then tells the bear to blow out the candle.  Of course, she animates the action herself by holding the bear in front of the candle and blowing.


Happy birthday from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

What gave her the idea to make a birthday cake?  Was it the mud? the pot? the stick for a candle? did she just experience a birthday?  In any case, the joy she feels playing out the episode is palpable.  How can that be?

I am convinced that adults, for the most part, play differently than children.  Adults are much more linear and need external rules for play to hold together and make sense.  For children, if there are rules, they are more internal and very mercurial.  They are expansive and unpredictable.  They are highly idiosyncratic with a deftness for making connections, connections with things and others.  Play for children is not so much a thing as a production.  Through play they produce their own reality, a reality that makes sense of the worlds that surround them: the physical, the social and and the emotional worlds.

In the end, the place where children play may not be so important because they play constantly and everywhere; it is their way of being in the world.  What may be more important is creating the space, the time and the means for uninterrupted play.


Saturday, June 18, 2016

New element for the channel board

I have built a couple different channel boards over the years.  The first one I built was made of wood.
One of the main objectives with this type of apparatus was to have children explore how water flowed down and over different textures.

The first one was heavy and cumbersome so I built a second one using lighter materials that were more impervious to water.

For both channel apparatus, I would continually look for something new to fill the channels.  This year, I found something new in a dumpster that looked promising.  I do not dumpster dive much anymore, but I could not resist the plunge when I saw the object below sticking out of  a dumpster.


I had no idea what this was.  It was white; it was metal; and the cross pieces had tiny holes.  I thought if I could nest it in one of the channels, the children would create a beautiful cascade with water gushing through the holes and dancing over the cross pieces.




By pure chance, the new element fit perfectly into one of the channels; all I needed to do was tape it into the channel.  As far as the other channels go, one channel was kept clear and the third channel had DRICORE squares all up and down the channel.

I usually set up the channel board with water, but this year I was experimenting for the first time with mud in the sensory table.  The mud was pretty clean as far as mud goes because I used Jurassic Sand to make the mud.  Since Jurassic Sand is so fine, I still thought that as children poured the mud down the ladder-like element, they would still experience the cascading affect, just more of an oozing cascade.

That was not the case at all.  Instead, the mud would not flow over the ladder-like element.  The children put mud inside the little compartments, but when they poured loose mud or water down the channel, water and sand flowed under the cross pieces.

Leave it to the children to invent their own use for all the little spaces created by the cross pieces: a dinosaur ladder


I was disappointed because I thought the children would encounter a beautiful cascade.  There are two important lessons here: 1) There are unlimited possibilities for provisioning the channels; 2) No matter what my original idea may be, the children will do with it what they will. 


P.S.  I will be presenting at a virtual conference by Fairy Dust Teaching that begins on July 11th.  It is the fourth year for the conference and can be viewed anytime without travel or hotel costs.  Here is the link to the conference:  https://io156.isrefer.com/go/summer16/tpbedard/

In an effort for full disclosure, Fairy Dust Teaching gives me a % of the registration through this link.  If you register before June 25th you can get a 20% discount on the conference by using the code save20


Saturday, June 11, 2016

Party

I have been thinking about retiring for over a year.  One of my big concerns was: What kind of party do I want because I knew the families in our program would want to throw a party.  That was especially true because my colleague and mentor, Lani Shapiro, whom I have worked with for the past eight years, was retiring with me.  Lani was the parent educator in the program and had worked very hard with the families to build a community, a community that looks inward at its values and outward to use those values to build a bigger, more inclusive community.  To be true to our values, we wanted a celebration that included past and present families.  We wanted a celebration that would bring them all together, not to talk about us, but to talk with us and with each other.  We also had an obligation---yes, an obligation---to have the children be an integral part of the celebration.

In early winter, I had a meeting with an group of educators I meet with on a monthly basis to talk about large muscle play in the classroom.  As we were leaving the meeting, one of the members off-evenhandedly asked another member about their adventure play event at his school.  That question was all that was needed for the light to go on.  I had read blogs over the past couple of years that talked about adventure play events.  The one I have seen the most is Pop-up Adventure Play.   It just so happens that the member asking the question is involved in Twin City Adventure Play.  In January, I asked to meet with the group to talk about the possibility of doing our retirement party.  I liked what I heard and asked them to give me a proposal I could send along to our advisory council.  When the advisory council saw the proposal, they were on board immediately.

Fast forward to last Saturday.  Parents had been gathering cardboard boxes of all sizes, cardboard tubes, fabric, sticks, rods, tape and you-name-it for two weeks.   It was time to party.  All the materials were laid out on the lawn.
It might look like a recycling nightmare, but this was the invitation for the children to play.

The coordinator gathered the volunteers for a brief training, a training that encompassed their role in the event.
Essentially they were to act as play workers to step back and monitor the play from the background and to only intervene when play looked dangerous.  They were also encouraged to help other adults step back to let the children play.

Of course, as the children arrived, they knew immediately what to do. No instructions were necessary; no dividing up into groups; no dividing into age groups.  This was their play space to create their own narratives.



As the afternoon progressed, more and more people came and everyone kept busy.  The adults got to visit and the children played.  Old acquaintances were renewed and new friends were made.
There were short bursts of rain throughout the afternoon, but that did not dampen play.  In fact, when it would rain, the adults retreated under the eaves of the school and the children kept right on creating, usually fabricating little shelters from the rain.

At the end, there was a little talking to the group about us and we got to thank the families for all they had given us over the years. 

As I drove home from the event, I could not stop smiling.  I was ecstatic; I was floating on air.  Ostensibly the families had come to celebrate our retirement.  In actuality they came to celebrate a community; a community of families they had helped build over the years that respects children and their rights, that respects others and are not so quick to judge; a community that knows how to build community and will carry on. 

We had well over 400 people who came and went throughout the afternoon.  Sadly, I did not even get to talk to everyone who came.  So let me now say to all of you: thank you for a splendid party.  It was a superb sendoff.

P. S. I need to send a special thank you to Seniz and Damian from Twin City Adventure Play
for creating the framework for our community to pull off this event.  I hope others come to see the value in your work and guidance.

I also need to give a special thank you to the planning committee who spent many hours planning the event not really knowing what would happen but having the faith and conviction to make it happen.  Thank you Nora, Vanessa, Anne, Brianna, Becca, Ella, and Dawn.  You throw a great party!

Saturday, June 4, 2016

I dare you

When people ask me what do I use in the sensory table, I say I mostly use sand and water.  I always add that I never mix the two.  The main reason I do not mix the two is because the sand has to be dry before storing it otherwise it will get quite musty.  And to dry the sand out, takes a long time.

I decided to countermand my own maxim this year.  I took the Jurassic Sand and dinosaurs setup and added water to make a beautiful orange mud in the sensory table.

Why would I venture into this uncharted territory in my last few months of teaching?  One of the reasons was to clean the sand.  Jurassic Sand is expensive, but will last forever if it is cleaned every once in a while.  When I put water into the table, the sand was heavier so it stayed on the bottom while the debris floated to the top.
Each day after class, I would prop up one end of the table and that allowed me to scoop off the debris.

Another reason to try the sand and water mix was that I have seen so many great pictures of children playing outside in mud kitchens that I wanted to see if I could recreate that experience inside.

To make this happen, I set out a tub with water for the children to rinse their hands before leaving the area.  I did not want them washing their hands in the sink to prevent sand from going down the drain.


Washing hands from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

The child in the video simply put her hands in the tub and the sand easily rinsed off.  She dried her hands on the towel next to the tub.  When the sand rinsed off, it fell to the bottom of the tub so at the end of class I dumped the water leaving the sand on the bottom of the tub.  I could then scoop it back into the table.  I did not pour the water down the drain, but dumped it outside because, again, I did not want to wreak havoc with the sink drain.

I placed the tub a short distance from the table so the children would use it to rinse their hands rather than use it as an additional place to play.  The only problem was children's hands were not the only things that needed washing.  The dinosaurs did, too.


Washing dinosaurs from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

The child declared that his dinosaur needed cleaning.  He transported it very carefully over the two sensory tables and then quickly closed the gap to the tub all in an effort to minimize dripping on the floor.  He was also joined by another child who also needed to clean his dinosaur.

What is the hallmark of good mud play?  Mud pies---or cakes---of course.  Several children undertook the making of a dinosaur candy cake.


Dinosaur candy cake from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

The sticks sticking up out of the bowl of mud---I mean the cake---were the candles.  The clumps of mud on top of the candles signified that the candles were lit.

One child made a three-layer cake.  She took three different size bowls from the shelves, filled them with mud and then sequentially stacked them to make her cake.  Once the bowls were stacked, she added as much sand as she thought her cake could hold.


Three-layer cake from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

There was a little magic at the end when she poured water with a spoon over her cake: the water diffused the sand so her cake looked smooth and velvety.

Make no bones about it, bringing mud into the classroom is setting the stage for a mess on the floor.
While the sand was wet, I did not even try to sweep it up.  I usually left it over night to dry so it was easy to sweep up and put back in the sensory table in the morning.

Outside mud kitchens are great.  Can you see yourself bringing the mud into the classroom?  I dare you.




Saturday, May 28, 2016

Ephemeral

I often tell people that so much of my work happens even before the children arrive at school.  For the sand and water table, that means setting up an invitation that I think will capture the children's imagination.  Sometimes that is an elaborate installation and sometimes it is a very simple construction.  Whether the construction is complex or simple, the apparatus is not complete until the area is provisioned with intriguing loose parts.

I wrote about a simple construction last week with Jurassic Sand and dinosaurs.  Along with the dinosaurs, I provided other natural elements such as rocks, sticks and tree cookies.
Whenever I equip the sand table, especially if it is a very simple setup, I have a choice: Do I leave it as a blank slate on which the children assemble their own creations or do I create an invitation using the loose parts myself?
I think you would agree that the Jurassic Sand makes a beautiful canvas.  More often than not, though, the children dump everything into the table.  
So much for a blank slate.   Because I also like to create, I often offer my own arrangement of loose parts on the blank canvas as an overture to children to rearrange or embellish.
Even then, what happens more often than not is that everything ends up in the table helter-skelter.
A busy helter-skelter to be sure with the children totally engaged in their individual and joint endeavors.

Every once in a while, though, something special happens.   One child used a half-log as a base for balancing tree cookies, sticks and rocks.  She also used other rocks, shells and pine cones to adorn the assemblage. 
 
The child who made this took great care in making it happen.  She started by earnestly examining the properties of the sand using a small scoop with a hole in the bottom.
From there, she moved around to the other side of the table and started to balance the tree cookies between the log and the table.
 
Then she brought the container of rocks over from the shelves and started balancing those between the lip of the table and the tree cookies.
At one point during the making, she even accepted an unsolicited offering of sand from another child.
She had a look of "what-are-you-doing?" surprise, but after a moment of reflection, she gladly incorporated his offering in her work.

What she ended up with was something ephemeral.  Something totally out of the ordinary using ordinary materials in a way only this particular child could on this particular day with those particular materials.  It is a piece that will never be repeated.  
 

When I look at her piece of nature art, I can't help but be reminded of the work of nature artist Andy Goldsworthy.  Though her piece may not have the symmetry of many of Goldsworthy's pieces, it has the same beauty built in an organic progression of adding one element of nature to another with a harmony of purpose, both consciously and unconsciously.






Saturday, May 21, 2016

Jurassic Sand and dinosaurs

People always ask me what I use in my sensory table.   For the most part, I use either wood pellets, water or sand .  One of my favorite kinds of sand is the original Jurassic Sand.  This sand is expensive for filling a sand table, but well worth the investment.   The sand is soft and dustless and has a beautiful natural color.  I use it several times a year.  Most recently, I set it up with small dinosaurs and other natural elements such as sticks, tree cookies, rocks, pine cones and a half log.
I added a simple wooden tray as a bridge of sorts to connect the blue sand table with the smaller, clear sensory table.

As far as setups go, this is pretty simple.  However simple it is, though, it is still quite inviting.  The bridge offers a different level on which the children can do their operations.
For the twenty-month-old child in the picture above, it is an extremely comfortable level.  His arm and hand rest comfortably in and on the tray as he animates his dinosaurs.  Since the wooden tray is narrow, it creates a space in between the two tables that children step into.  That space makes it easy for a child to reach the other side or engage in play with another child on the other side.

I thought with all the natural elements, the children might build environments for the dinosaurs.  Nope.  They had other ideas and many of them had to do with pouring sand.  Below, a child buries a little pteranodon.


To bury the pteranodon, he uses a little scoop.  (The scoop is a measuring scoop from a baby formula can.  I am partial to hodgepodge and doohickies.)  Burying the dinosaur looks like intricate work for him; it takes him three scoops to cover the dinosaur with precision and care.  The first scoop covers most of the dinosaur.  The second scoop covers the feet and the third scoop covers the last speck of green from the wing.  When done, he declares: "OK, he's buried up."  He could have used a bigger scoop like the child next to him, but was he purposefully matching the tool to the job?  Or does the tool determine the job?

Here is one example of a child creating an environment for the dinosaurs, but only using the sand.  The child uses a long-handled kitchen spoon to carefully transport sand into the orange bucket next to the table.


Her pouring is very meticulous.  She carefully scoops sand from the table, not even filling her spoon.  And as she deposits the sand in the bucket, she sprinkles the sand so it falls just right into the bucket to make the place for the dinosaurs.   Was she making a nice, clean home for the dinosaurs like we would for a pet?

The third example of pouring using the dinosaurs is a collaborative effort by three children.  One holds the dinosaur; one holds a strainer; and the third child pours the sand into the strainer.


Referring to the dinosaur getting rained on by the sand, the child holding the strainer chuckles: "He's getting all covered.  Looking at the faces of the other two, they are all in on the fun.

I thought I was setting up the sensory table for children to create enthralling dinosaur dioramas.  Silly me.  Instead, they used the dinosaurs for elaborate pouring exercises of their own making.  It just goes to show, I can create what I think is a wonderful invitation to play but the children will do with it what they will.  More power to them.




 

 



 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

What do spaces have to do with Harry Potter?

For the past four weeks I have been writing about aspects of play at an installation called "big boxes around the table."  Catchy title, no? The aspect of play for this post is the connections between play and the space in which that play is realized.
For this installation, the sensory table was encased in five large boxes.  In essence the apparatus created unique spaces that invited children to explore.  The title may not be catchy, but the invitations for play were quite fetching.  

The children played in those spaces by inhabiting them and giving them life.  Some of that play was physical.
The picture above captured a child in two boxes at the same time.  He was standing with his feet and legs in one box and his head and torso in another box.  If you look closely, you can see the child's head and hand in the window of the one box.  The space was so cramped that only one arm and hand could fit around the child's head at a time.

Some of the play was solitary, like the child who found himself alone scooping pellets after everyone else left.

However, the majority of play must be categorized as social.  There were so many examples of social interactions, but let me give you just two.  The first actually took place next to the setup.  We often forget about the spaces created around an apparatus; children do not.  In the picture below, the children have settled into the space between the boxes and the cabinets to do their cooking.  They have taken the pellets from the table and the containers and utensils from the white shelves.  In this case, too, the floor was an important factor in determining the space. 
Could this play have happened without the installation?  Does the installation have any role in sustaining this all-consuming social enterprise?   The children's bodies and their containers contributed to defining the space in which they were working.  Maybe the actualization of the children defining that space was more crucial to the social engagement than the original space created by just the apparatus.

Even though the setup from the example above may not have been the critical piece for the social interaction, that same setup did play an important role in the following scenario.  In the video, one child was the witch collecting "potions" from the other two children.


Gathering potions from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

The setup in this example would seem to be a main character stimulating this scenario.  There was place up high to gather the potions.  Was it a castle?  The witch came down from the perch to collect the potions from her helpers working in spaces that felt like nooks and crannies.  After gathering the potions, she returned to her place in the sky.

There was more to this scenario.  After she gathered her potions, she came down from her perch to give instructions to her helpers.


Witches instructions from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

I do not know what she said to them, but the cackle of the witch was unmistakable.  She did, in fact, tell me early on that she was a witch collecting potions.

When I showed her mother this video, she was able to give me more context to this play.  She had recently been reading Harry Potter to her daughter and her daughter was smitten.  So here she was, making some sense of  a story her mother had read to her.  She could not do it alone, so she enlisted the help of others.  The others probably had no idea about the scenario but were perfectly willing to play along because she carried the plot of the story.  Not only that, she did it with such passion.

What makes these social engagements so powerful is that they are authored by the children without adult interference.  They are authored by the children using a complex set of factors, some of which are the spaces available to them.  Sometimes those spaces play a lesser role; children can play cooking in any number of spaces.  It is true, it would take a different form, but it is still cooking.  Other times the space is critical.  A Harry Potter play needs a castle with perches and nooks and crannies to fabricate a good rendition of the magical tale.