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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, May 2, 2015


Last week in a post entitled Water Beads 1, I talked about how the water beads ended up all over the floor.  Whenever there is a huge mess at the sensory table, my first inclination is not to find fault with the children.  They are doing what they do best: explore and test.  Rather, my first inclination is to look for design flaws in the apparatus or the setup.  As I looked at the setup and how the children were using it, I figured out that the incline on the PVC half-pipe was too steep. That caused the water beads to race down the pipe and bounce all over the place.
Since it was not the children's fault and since I did not want to stop their rich play, I created a temporary cardboard patch to minimize the number of water beads bouncing onto the floor.

After class, I found a solution that was both simple and satisfactory: I removed the top of the Oobleck Platform so only the frame was left.  The children lost a second platform for their operations, but I was able to lower the incline for the PVC half-pipe and add an additional half-pipe.
This change made for a more open apparatus.  Children could pour and drop beads up, over, around and through the apparatus.

Did it make a difference in the number of water beads on the floor?  Yes it did.  Mind you, there were still plenty bouncing around, but not nearly as many as with the original setup?

An interesting question now becomes: Did it change the children's play and exploration?  Did removing the platform change the play of the children?  There was now one less platform for them to work on.  And if it changed the play, how did it change?  Was there some play that did not change?

Here are two videos showing basically the same operation: filling the tube with water beads.  The first video is with the black sheet of plastic on the frame and the second is with the sheet of plastic off.   See if there is a difference in operations.

Can in the tube from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Water bead water fall from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

There does seem to be a few differences.  In the first video with the plastic sheet over the tube, the tube does not get so full.  Also in the first video, the child is surprised at the juice container appearing in the tube. In the second video, the whole operation seemed to more intentional. Someone held the juice container so it blocked the water beads so the tube could fill up completely.  The child holding the second container to catch the beads waited patiently for the beads to be let loose and for them to fill and eventually overfill his container.  The reactions in the second video were also more boisterous from the children and the adults, too.

What brought about the change?  Was it because the children were building up experiences with the apparatus and the materials?  Was it because of the openness of the apparatus seen in the second video that allowed the children to monitor the whole process of filling up the tube and watching it empty?

There is one set of operations that did not change substantively: collecting the beads.  The video below shows the open setup without the plastic sheet.  You will see children collecting the water beads in a strainer.  There are so many hands in the video it is hard to tell who is just feeling the beads and who is adding to the beads in the strainer.  You can see that another set of hands pours beads down the clear tube for another child to collect in a copper pot.

Water bead collecting from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

This operation did not change substantively between the two setups.  There are pictures and movie clips at both setups of the children collecting the beads in all sorts of containers.   However, it probably is important to have at least one platform above the water for the children to more easily fill containers without having to hold and pour at the same time.

The absence of conflict in either setup during the operation of collecting beads is intriguing to say the least.  Is that because there were plenty of water beads?  Maybe.  In the last video, though, you did see multiple children working in the same container, the strainer.  Some had immersed their hands in the beads and some were in the process of adding still more beads to the strainer. No one questioned or challenged the other's intentions.  Why?  How did they arrive at this mutual dance?

And that is just one segment of the video.  The second segment shows other children cooperating in a mutual endeavor to pour and catch the water beads down the clear plastic tube.  Is that because there is a fascinating way to transport the beads from one point of the apparatus to another, from one level to another?  Does the mutuality of the transporting---pouring and catching---foster the positive interchange?

There are many and varied factors that could lead to so little conflict at the table.  Some are inherent in the questions raised above; some are unknown because I have not found the right questions.  Some may be so big or complicated that it would be difficult to tease out the factors. For instance, maybe we have been able as a group to create a culture of constructive negotiation, accommodation and cooperation.  If so, what are the factors, human and material, that have contributed to such a culture?  Where to begin?

Saturday, April 25, 2015


About three years ago, there was a phenomenon all over the blogosphere: Water Beads.  I even got in on the action by introducing water beads with an apparatus called Table Covering with Holes.

The table coverings sat seven inches off the bottom of the tables so the children would reach into the holes to collect the water beads.  Once they collected them, they rolled them down PVC half-pipes that were set on inclines.  The inclines were opposing so the beads could be transported back and forth between the two tables.

The beads were extremely attractive because of their features.  They were soft, slippery, and translucent.

That was over three years ago.  I remember vividly how much exploration water beads inspired in the children.  One boy even invented his own game using the water beads.

Water bead game from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Is he trying to roll the water bead across the top of the table or is he trying to get it back into a hole?  I am not sure, but I think it is the former.  In any case, his game is to roll the water bead and track where it goes.

I decided to bring back the water beads.  To do that, I combined the beads with the small Table Covering with Holes and the Oobleck Platform.
The idea was to provide two platforms on which the children could do their operations.  In addition, the frame for the Oobleck Platform anchored tubes running back and forth between the two tables.

Needless to say, this was an irresistible invitation to play and discover all the features of both the apparatus and the water beads.
There are 10 children with smocks already at the table with an 11th child in the back of the picture going for a smock.  Did I say irresistible?  

Here are the provisions for play for this setup.   There are all kinds of containers and scoops plus two different sizes of minnow nets.
I would not recommend purple water beads.  They bled and stained everything they came in contact with.  Note the small metal pan on the top in the middle that is circled.  You can still see the stains from the purple water beads.

The two platforms added a second level above the water at each of the tables so the children could do their work above the water with multiple containers at the same time.  By being able to  use multiple containers at the same time, children could create and combine operations to author more elaborate play.  
There were many new surprises in their play.  One of the surprises had to do with the clear plastic tube. One of the children discovered that the empty plastic juice can fit perfectly into the the clear plastic tube.  Watch what happens.

When the video starts, the can is in the middle of the tube.  Someone pours beads down the tube that hit the can.  The can slowly starts to move and then picks up speed until it hits a child's container at the end of the tube.  It is a surprise, but a good surprise because when he removes the can, he is able to quickly fill his container with the gush of water beads behind the can.  

There is an important point to make here.  I do not do much testing on an apparatus once I set it up.  I had no idea the can would fit in the tube.  The testing, by default, is the children's' endeavor. And they do it quite well.  In many ways they are more creative because they bring all ideas to the table without censuring themselves.

Another surprise had to do with the PVC half-pipe that was attached to the Oobleck Platform on the top. Because the incline was so great, the water beads would bounce all over the place and onto the floor when children poured the beads down this incline.  Watch.

It may be hard to see, but when the child dumps his big minnow net of water beads, they go all over.  I had to rig up a quick patch because there were so many beads bouncing on the floor.  You can see the cardboard patch below taped to the lip of the table to prevent spillage.

Here is another important point.  All the water beads on the floor were not the children's fault. They were just doing what they do best: test the apparatus. This was a design flaw on my part.  When I put the apparatus together, I made the incline too steep so when the children poured the beads they raced down the pipe and did what they do best: bounce all over the place.

When I saw the large number of water beads that were bouncing out of the table and onto the floor, I had two immediate choices.  The first was to shut down the activity.  The second was the patch.  I chose the patch because the fault was mine that the beads were going all over the place. The children's play was too rich to stop, so I needed a quick solution mid "bead-stream" that would work until I could find an adequate solution for the problem I had created.  

Stay tuned for Water Beads 2.

A word of caution about water beads.  If you read the label it says to keep out of the reach of young children.  It also says things like it will plug up plumbing.  You will have to think what that means for you.  For me it meant knowing the children in my classroom and knowing when to supervise more closely.  The week I had them out, I did not have any children try to put them in their mouths.  Oh, and it also meant I could not pour any down the drain.

Sunday, April 19, 2015


Last week when I was looking over my pictures for the Giant Sponge with Jewels, I came upon a set of pictures that gave me pause.  The set of pictures forms a series of actions at the sensory table between two children over the course of 10 minutes.  (The series covers a span of 10 minutes, but the play lasted much longer than that.)  When I saw the pictures, I began to wonder if the pictures captured how separate actions by children become one action.  In other words, how does "my" project and "your" project become "our" project?  And how does that impact the overall experience of the children?

Let's look at the sequence.  One girl is lifting a corner of the sponge to look for the jewels that are underneath. The other girl is watching her intently.

The first child is collecting the jewels she retrieved from under the sponge in a plastic juice can. The other girl is collecting suds in a pot.

The first child offers the second child a pink cup.  She has already filled her plastic juice container and seems to be encouraging the second child to put jewels in the pink cup.  Is this the initial offer for joint play?  This is certainly a physical overture with their arms crossing over into the space of the other. 

The second child takes the pink cup and fills it with jewels.  Are they now planning out a joint activity?  The second child has not moved, but the first child has moved to the second child's right side.  This is beginning to look like a social dance with a hint of anticipation and joy.

The second child has filled up the pink cup and now moves to her left. As she move, she has her eye on the silver bowl.

The second child places the pink cup into the silver bowl.  The first child has not moved, but is watching the actions of the second child.

The first child has now moved back around so she is again on the second child's left side.  The second child is still depositing jewels in the cup and it looks like the first child is about to pick up the pink cup. At this point, their actions really seem in sync.

After a gap in the series, we can see the empty pink cup on the sponge so one of the children must have emptied the jewels into the steel bowl in the corner of the table.  The second child is pouring jewels and suds from a copper pot into that same bowl.  The first child is waiting in the wings with a handful of jewels.

The first child deposits her jewels in the bowl.  The bowl is now full and the bubble cake is ready to bake.  (It was soup at one point, but it has just now become bubble cake.)

They could have easily continued on their path of collecting their own jewels and suds, but instead, they decided to work together to produce a bubble cake. What is it about the materials that help fosters the transition from a solitary play scenario to a shared play scenario?   What is it about how the children act on those materials that brings them together in a joint endeavor?  

For sure, the materials are open-ended.  There is no right or wrong way to use the sponge, implements, bubbles or gems.  For their part, the children are driven to research the materials in the their immediate world in an effort to build understanding of how the world works.  When it is done socially, the narrative changes from simply exploring how the physical world works to also exploring how the social world works.  So, does the physical narrative necessarily come before the social narrative?  Does the social narrative then take precedence over the physical?  

In this play scenario, does collecting suds and jewels separately necessarily precede collecting them together in one pot so the children can make bubble cake?  In other words, would there have been a bubble cake without first exploring the materials physically on their own?  Once the social narrative begins, does it usurp the exploration in such a way that the story they create becomes more important and fulfilling than exploring the physical properties of the materials?  What do you think?  

Saturday, April 11, 2015


The Giant Sponge is a sponge that is as big as the sensory table. Maybe calling it a sponge is not technically correct.  It is foam mattress bedding that I cut to fit in the table.  (This "sponge" was given to me by a colleague who could not stand the condition of my original giant sponge that I had been using for over a decade.)
As far as apparatuses go, this is one of the simplest.  I put it in the table, add dish soap and just enough water so the sponge does not float.  I have written about this apparatus four different times:  hereherehere and here.  Of all the apparatuses I have written about, this one has gotten the most hits.  It just seems to soak them up :-)

Because I rarely do the exact same setup from year-to-year, there are always changes.  It is hard to change the actual sponge, but what I can do is change the loose parts that are available for the children to use.  Here is a picture of the loose parts next to the table from this year.
There is the usual assortment of hodgepodge and doohickies plus some small sponges and some boomwhackers.  The boomwhackers are musical instruments, but I have set them out as sturdy tubes to be used with this apparatus.

I added one more set of loose parts to this years setup: glass gems.  These are smooth glass pieces that are available in craft stores.
As you can see, I put the gems in a second, smaller table next to the bigger, blue table.  Why didn't I put them on the shelves next to the table?  I am not sure how conscious my decision was, but they are highlighted better this way.  What would you think is the first thing many children do with the gems?
I am sure you guessed it.  A child naturally wants to dump them all out.  But what happens next?
What happens next is some splendid fine motor work that involves transporting and dropping the gems into small containers on the floor.  This child could have just dropped handful of gems into the red container, but he chose to drop them in one-by-one using a pincher grip.

In fact, if you provide glass gems, collecting the gems seems to be the most conventional of operations for the children.

But, by combining loose parts,  leave it to the children to find an unconventional way to collect them.
Give the children credit, too, because this was more than a "collecting gems" activity.  By combining loose parts, they created a new container to increase volume or holding capacity.  And imagine their experience when they pour water into the top to see what happens.   Can they fill the water up to the top of the yellow tube?

One operation that was truly unique with the glass gems was pouring them with a scoop into a clear plastic bottle.  It was unique because of the aural aspect of the operation.  Watch---and listen.

There seems to be a zen-like quality to this child's actions.  He carefully and purposefully scoops and pours to an inner rhythm.  The distinct sound of the gems steadily sliding from the scoop into the clear plastic bottle only adds the impression.

With the Giant Sponge, the children still did plenty of other operations with the sponge itself such as making and collecting copious amounts suds.  Here is one example:

One of the features of suds is that it has volume but hardly any weight.  Also, as you could see in the video, the suds stick to spoons, hands and containers so they make life interesting for a child who wants to pour or deposit the suds to a container.  

Whether the children are working with the loose parts or the apparatus itself, the children are always posing their own questions and probing for answers.  You also see that they are good at passing their own tests---in best sense of that word.  

Saturday, April 4, 2015


Two years ago, I wrote a post on the Quest for Physical Challenges. Since that time, I often find myself appreciating the children's actions in terms of the physical challenges they formulate for themselves.  My appreciation has grown to the extent that it is time to add a new axiom to the axioms in the right-hand column of this blog.  The axiom states: Children will pursue their own unique physical challenges when working on, at or next to an apparatus.

 It can be as simple as reaching into the bottom of a bucket to test a child's ability to extend her reach downward.

That is also true when the child has to work very hard to reach what she can't even see, but only feel.
That, by the way, takes a certain amount of agility because she has to use her fingertips to find the pink cup before she can even pick it up.  And the only way to pick it up begins with using her fingertips ever so gingerly.

Not only will they try to reach down as far as they can, they will also reach up as high as they can.

Maximum reach from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

This child in the video reaches as high as she possibly can.  It is so high she cannot even see where she is depositing the pellets.  Someone in OT would marvel at this child's trunk extension.

Besides stretching and agility, the children will also work on their flexibility.  Look at the range of motion this child is exhibiting with his arm, wrist and hand as he dumps pellets into the pail through two different holes in the box.
I am also wondering if this child in his contortions is also crossing his midline not once, but twice.

When testing their flexibility, that does not just pertain to body parts, but it includes the whole body, too.
My guess is that this child could have easily reached the bottom of the tub without bending his body to fit in the tub.  But where is the challenge in that?

Children will also create opportunitites for novel ways to accurately control their movements.
Besides accuracy in her actions, she has added a bit of flexibility to the physical challenge. Standing in the box, she pops her head and one arm out of a small hole in the top of the box. That position requires her to stand sideways as she reaches to pour the pellets from the scoop. That position also requires her to hold the scoop in her palm and then push it up so the pellets end up in the tube.

Children will often engage in physical challenges that test their coordination.  It takes a certain amount of coordination to simply pour water into a cup, but it is more of a challenge when a child pours and catches water at different points on the apparatus.
The child is coordinating his actions of his right hand so the water goes from the ladle into the syringe.  (The water then goes into the pipe that exits the tray.)  At the same time, he coordinates the actions of his left hand so he catches the water exiting the pipe.  When he does it well, it looks like one coordinated action.

Some of the physical challenges children seek will be fine motor.  The child pictured below is trying very hard to put a plastic worm inside a clear plastic tube.  
The task is difficult because the opening in the tube is small and the plastic worm is flaccid.

Children will always find ways to test their balance.  That often occurs even when they are trying to carry out a different operation.
This child is trying to get something out of one of the tubes. She could get at the tube more easily if she had her feet on the floor and reached under the tube she is draped over.  But this way, she can also work on her core strength.

There is yet another physical challenge children will create for themselves: they like to test their ability to apply force.  The child in the following video tries to push the homemade plunger as far as he can into the pail of feed corn.

He meets a lot of resistance.  What better way to test his own strength?

His actions take an interesting twist.  He climbs into the pail of corn to see how far he could push his feet down into the pail.  

I do not think he reaches the bottom, but with a strain in his voice, you can still hear him say: "I can't move."  He goes from testing his upper body strength to his leg strength.

Often times there will be a social aspect to these physical challenges.  That is especially true when space is limited.  The two children pictured below are in box that makes it necessary for them to negotiate physical space.
Though it may look like these two boys are wrestling, they are simply trying to coordinate their separate moves.  Did I say physical challenges?

These are just a few of the physical challenges that I have found looking over my archives. As you can see, the children seek out many different types of challenges.  Those challenges are manifested at the intersection of the features of the apparatus, the materials, the loose parts and the children's own physical capacities and needs.  What is important is that those physical challenges are freely chosen by the children to meet their physical needs.  Some are developmental for sure, but then others are totally idiosyncratic to each child.

Axiom #9: Children will pursue their own unique physical challenges when working on, at or next to an apparatus.

Saturday, March 28, 2015


Last April I received and email from a fellow teacher, Aaron Senitt, who teaches in a kindergarten in Guelph, Canada.  In the email, he attached one of the newsletters he sent home to parents in February 2014 he entitled "Creating Space."   He opens the newsletter writing about a Kindergarten Merzbau, "...a structure that has been growing in our classroom.  It began as a single sand table…"  That sure got my attention.

Since receiving that email, I have carried on a correspondence with Aaron.  One of the issues for me is: what exactly is a Merzbau?  How do I understand it?  Aaron has a background in arts education that he draws from.  He states in an article for Canadian Art Teacher, that Merzbau is a term created by a German artist named Kurt Schwitters that refers to "…a solid, organic, inhabitable form located within the house he lived in."1  Aaron points out that Schwitter's Merzbau was an open ended and "highly personal, sculptural space."2  One of the defining characteristics of the Merzbau was the connections it created between spaces within his house.

For Aaron, the Merzbau was a concrete construction around the sensory table that changed and grew and created new connections with space for everyone in his classroom.  It was also a metaphor for life in his classroom because connections continually change and grow along with relationships with others, the materials and space.

Because of our correspondence and his writing, I began to look at the constructions around my table differently.  Over 15 years ago, I remember attaching several large boxes together in a 6' x 12' area of my room over the course of a month.  Children could enter into or exit the structure through multiple doors and windows.  Back then I thought simply that this was fun for the kids. Aaron inspired me to look at the bigger constructions in a new way.  These constructions became solid, organic spaces that the children inhabit.  From his email, I resolved to build my own Merzbau this time with an eye towards seeing how the children inhabit the spaces created by the structure.

Last October, I recreated the structure from 15 years ago.   It was not exactly the same because the boxes were different sizes and different shapes.  I called it Big Box Fort.

From my observations, I started to see different types of interactions by the children depending on how the inhabitable space divided them or brought them together.  Whether those interactions took place outside, partially outside or inside.

I subsequently moved some of the big box structure over to the sensory table: Big Boxes Migrated to the Sensor Table.
Because the big boxes were now at the sensory table, they became more than places to socialize.  The structure now created spaces in which work was done.  The work was done inside the boxes, inside the table from inside the boxes and next to the boxes.  There was a lot of transporting between spaces both inside and outside.

Like any good Merzbau, it grew.  More boxes were added with different connections and orientations.

The new configuration created new spaces that separated play in some ways, but connected play in other ways.

In my latest attempt to create a Merzbau, I have combined 10 boxes over four weeks to form one apparatus.  Here is the progression.  The first week was a  Big Box Big Windows apparatus that was installed horizontally across the top of the sensory table.
This is two boxes because there is a box embedded horizontally in the top of the big box across the width of the box.

The second week I added two more boxes: a large box inserted in the window of the big box and a column box embedded vertically in the big white box.  These two boxes created an addition to the original structure.

The third week, I added three more boxes.  Two boxes were column boxes embedded vertically through the big box in two conners.  One column box was long and reached from above the big box to the floor.  If children poured pellets in it, the pellets emptied into a tub on the floor.  The second column box fit completely into the big box.  
The third box was embedded horizontally through the white box and could be accessed from either side of the apparatus.

With the addition of the column boxes, the nature of the play necessarily changed ever so slightly.  Without the column boxes in the corner, the child on the left could easily reach the pellets at the bottom of the table. The child on the right, however, had to prop himself in the window to reach around the column box to get to the pellets.

The fourth week, I added three more boxes for a grand total of ten boxes to complete this Merzbau.  Two of the boxes are flat boxes taped to the top of the two big boxes.  A third box stands vertically next to the big white box and through the bottom of the flat white box.

When you look at the overall footprint of this apparatus compared to when it was comprised of two or four boxes, it has not grown substantially.  Here in lies the difference from the previous big box structures at the table.  I added boxes on the inside and on the top so the structure grew inwards and upwards as opposed to the the other one that grew out and around.   Two different types of growth.  Sounds like another metaphor for a Merzbau and life in the classroom.

As a consequence, the children's operations become more constricted on the inside.

And at the same time, there are more levels to work on in a smaller, vertical space.

And an opportunity for the children to further challenge themselves vertically in their operations.

For me, then, a Merzbau is a construction that creates spaces that are solid, organic and inhabitable.  As children operate in those spaces, they form connections with their own capacities, with the materials and with others.  I especially like the concept of inhabit because without the children at the apparatus, there is no life in the constructions.  And children know how to inhabit the apparatus---literally.

1. Sennit, Aaron. Kindergarten Merzbau. Canadian Art Teacher.  13(1) 2014. P. 4.
2. Ibid.