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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.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


I have been asked how long I keep the same apparatus in the sensory table.  I usually keep it in the table one week.  Every once in awhile I keep the same apparatus in the table for two weeks, but the second week, I exchange the medium in the table to create a totally new and different experience.  One of the apparatus I keep for two weeks is the Water Ramp from last week's post.

The new medium is oobleck, a solution of cornstarch and water.

Can you see the difference?  It is the same apparatus, but oobleck fosters a much different experience.

When mixed together, the solution of cornstarch and water has unique properties.  If you squeeze it, it is like a solid.  If you let it go, it melts or pours like a liquid.  In scientific terminology it is called a non-Newtonian fluid that changes from a liquid to a solid state when stress is applied.  In other words, it has properties of both a solid and a liquid.  (3M has made a lot of money off a substance with such properties with their post-it notes and removable hooks.)  I have no recipe for the ratio of cornstarch to water; I mix until I get the consistency I want.  If there is too little water, the mixture is too hard.  If there is too much water, it is too runny.

One of the original ideas for building the water ramp with patterned dowels was to have children experience how water gets dispersed as it flows down a ramp with obstacles.  That worked, but by using the cornstarch solution, which flows more slowly, the dispersal pattern is easier for the children to see.

That is true even when it dries.

The substance can form a ball and stick together.

The substance can ooze.

You can catch with your hand when it drips.

With the right utensils, it feels more like cooking.

Here are two sequential videos that illustrate nicely the melding of an apparatus, the medium, and the children's imagination.  In the first one, two boys are collecting the oobleck in bowls.  The one kneeling is scraping from underneath the tray and the ramp.  That exemplifies nicely how a child can find spaces that are not readily apparent(See axiom #2 in the right hand column).  Also, notice where he has his bowl.  It is suspended between the table and the ramp so it is off the bottom of the table.  That frees up his hands and allows him to scoop the oobleck using one hand to scrape and one hand to counterbalance the force needed to scrape.  If you listen to him talk about putting the solution into "our bowls," notice how his voice matches the cadence of working with the obleck.  Slow and deliberate with a lot of effort.  The other child is moving around the table saying we are collecting all the "hot lava."  That is the clue to the purpose of their activity. He first scrapes on one end and then from under the ramp before dropping it in his bowl.   Watch and listen.

In the second video, the two boys have filled their bowls.  That was no easy task because it is hard to scrape the obleck.  You remember that it turns to a solid under stress: the scraping.  It took time and it took persistence.  As the video starts, they are poised to pour the "hot lava." One of the boys says: "Come on, let's do it." They pour the contents of the bowls down the ramp. After pouring, the other boy says: "Get shovels.  Catch it."  They proceed to  retrieve their shovels and try to catch the "hot lava" flowing down the ramp.  As they do that, they narrate what they are doing and what is happening.  Watch and listen.

With the ramp and the oobleck, these two boys have used their imagination to recreated lava flowing down the side of a mountain.  In other words, the three elements---apparatus, material and imagination---combine so these boys are foreshadowing the kind of modeling adult engineers and scientists do all the time in real life.  Now that is impressive work for two young engineers and scientists.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Water Ramp

Over twenty years ago, I made a water ramp for the sensory table.  It looked like this:

(Please excuse the poor quality of the picture.  It is a digital picture of an old picture.)

This is a 1" x  8" board with 1" x  4" boards attached to the sides to make the ramp.  The small pieces of dowels screwed into the ramp are pieces of old broom handles I cut to form obstacles for the water to flow over and around.  For a more recent version, I used a narrower 1" x 6" board and 2" x  4"s for the side. I still used pieces of old broom handles to make the obstacles.

I have set the water ramp at different inclines. The first picture shows a steep incline between two tubs.  The water rushes down this incline.  The second picture shows a more moderate incline.  This inlcine comes from taping the ramp to a tray that sets it above the lip of the table so the water flows more slowly down the ramp and into a tub at the end of the table..  Because I want the children to see how the water is diverted by the dowels, I have stuck with the more moderate incline over the past few years.

This apparatus was my attempt to duplicate a fountain in downtown Minneapolis, Minnesota.  This is the fountain.

What was intriguing about this fountain was how the water flowed down.  It bubbled out of the top and dropped down the sides.  As you can see, the bricks are staggered and some stick out so when the water flows over them on the way down, it splashes and jumps as if  rollicking over rocks.  I wanted to create something similar for the children to experience.  Here it is in action.

In this clip the child pours the water down the ramp.  He pours it gently so there is a nice, gentle sound of water flowing down the water ramp almost like the water flowing down a little babbling brook. That is exactly the effect I was looking for.  You can also see how the water is diverted around the obstacles.

Of course, if you pour more water faster, then it splashes and jumps over the wooden pieces and creates a different sound that carries with it more energy.  Consequently, that energy transforms the play. That energy is transformed into force, a force that may even knock down a little duplo guy standing on the bottom rung of the ramp.

I really appreciate the experimenting that goes on at the sensory table.  Some of that experimentation comes from bringing things from other parts of the room to the table.  For instance, I do not know how the duplo figures got from the other end of the room to the sensory table.  Not only were they good figures to see if the force of the water could knock them over and down, but they were also good for other things such as figures floating down the ramp through the obstacles.

Think about what this child is doing.  He is guiding the figures in the cup down the ramp around the obstacles, like people in a boat down a river.  The cup is the right size so he can maneuver it nicely around the wooden dowels.  As he traverses the board---almost like a slalom---he is making sense of this physical world.

As adults, we can think or imagine in our mind how the cup would traverse the board.  We do not have to experience it.   A child has to physically do it. Their thinking and doing are one.  If you are ever wondering what they are thinking, just watch them.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


People have asked me how many children do I allow at the sensory table at a time.  My answer has always been that I do not regulate the number of children at the sensory table.  It is not uncommon for there to be anywhere from 1 to 8 children at the sensory table at a time.

1                                          2

    3                    4

5                                     6

                 7            8

How about 9?

So how many can fit around the table?  More than you think.  Parents are in the room with their children at the beginning of every class, so when there are adults, I have had as many as 11 people around the sensory table at one time.  That is 7 children and 4 adults in a 6'x8' space. That means they are literally shoulder-to-shoulder; personal space is not an option.

There are at least three reasons why I do not regulate the number of children at the sensory table. The first is that I believe that children have the capacity to self-regulate their behavior and to cooperate and make accommodations with others.  To do that, the children have to be able to negotiate both space and materials.  By reading children's cues, I am able to help them do that. For instance, it may be as simple as saying to a child that another child would like to play with him.  A simple overture like that often has astonishing results with the one child letting the other play. Sometimes more negotiation is necessary, but I am OK with that because I know if I can help them exploit opportunities for using those skills, they will use them on their own throughout the classroom and beyond.

Watch this video below and see if you can figure out how these two children can use the same cup at the same time for two different purposes.  Do their opposing actions lead to conflict? Watch.

To tell you the truth, I do not know how they did it.  I just know there is a whole lot of self-regulation and accommodation going on in this little space.  If there was some negotiation going on, I did not hear it.  For sure there was no cooperation because they were not doing the same thing.   Where did this play lead?  Well, cooperation, of course.

The second reason I do not regulate the number of children around the table is because, as they negotiate, accommodate, and cooperate in their play, they are exercising their ability to self-regulate their behavior.   As they do that, the types of play and exploration that emerge multiplies exponentially as more children join the space and the activity in that space.  Take a look at this video which actually comes from a previous post.

These boys are making a concoction.  Each is adding an ingredient.  One child has taken the lead and the others are following and even echoing the named ingredients. This is rich role play.  Role play by its very nature requires negotiation, cooperation, accommodation, and self-regulation.  If those things are not present, play breaks down.  If they are present, the play becomes infectious and more imaginative.

The third reason I do not regulate is onerous rather than positive.   To regulate, there has to be rules.  And with rules there has to be a way to manage those rules.  I do not want the role of police officer in the classroom and I am really adverse to children tattling about how another child is not following the rules.  Besides, if the first two reasons hold up, then there should be no reason for rules regulating numbers at the sensory table.

By the way, that is true for any space in my classroom.  My job is not to regulate spaces according to my agenda, but to provide guidance and opportunity for the children to develop their innate abilities to negotiate, cooperate, accommodate, and self-regulate.

Just a quick note for those of you who follow my blog in Wisconsin.  I will be presenting on sand and water tables next Saturday afternoon, October 22, at the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association in Appleton.  If you get a chance, check it out.  If you would like to meet to ask questions or exchange ideas, email me and we can figure out a time to meet during the conference.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


Colleagues have always asked me whether I allow children to help build the apparatus I make for the sand and water table.  To this point, I have not.  But in an attempt to provide a building experience for children at the sensory table, I made a Duplo Board Ramp.

The Duplo boards I used are listed in the Lego catalogue in the education section under Lego Wall Board.  They have their own bin and are attached to the wall.  When you buy them, you buy them in a pair.  They are quite pricey.  Amazon has them listed here and they look like this:

I have had these in my room on the wall for several years with alphabet and mosaic tiles (which cost extra). A couple of years ago, a colleague showed me an apparatus her son had built for a sensory table using Lego boards.  I did not build anything that looked like his apparatus, but that was enough to get me wondering what I could do with my Duplo boards.  I did decide to built a wooden ramp in which to lay the boards end-to-end.

I used a tray to set the board on a slant.

If you look at the structure of the board, you can see strips of wood on the bottom that run the width of the ramp.  That was to give the structure strength.

Those strips also provided the extra wood necessary to hold the screws that fix the Duplo boards to the wooden ramp.  I used a thin piece of plywood for the base, so without that extra wood, the screws would stick out the bottom.

I caulked the inside joints of the wood---not the Duplo boards---so water would not leak through them onto the floor.

The Duplo board extends over the lip of the sensory table and empties into a tub.

The idea was to have children build in such a way as to impede the flow of water.  Below was my provocation.

There was building, but not as much as I would have thought.  The Duplos do not actually dam up the water.  Water finds its way around and through.  Interestingly, the knobs of the Duplo board disperse the water as it flows down the ramp.  There is an added benefit to this apparatus: the children are building on an incline surface.  How often does a child get to do that and what does that mean for spacial literacy?

This year I decided to add the Duplo zoo animals.  That fostered an extra bit of role play with the children spending a long time arranging the animals.

And then pouring water over them.

Several children noticed how the water slowed and dispersed when they poured it down the Duplo ramp. Watch the 13-second video below as a child pours the water down the ramp.

After pouring water down the ramp with a small pot, the boy runs around to the other end to see it come out.  He says: "Here it comes. It's..."  He stops his sentence and seems a bit surprised when it does not come out as one stream.  (The the knobs on the Duplo board slow the water flow by dispersing the water.)  He processes what he is seeing and then declares: "It's...leaking, leaking, leaking."

Children experiment with other things going down the ramp besides water.  Watch this little guy as he tries to slide some Duplo pieces down the ramp.

This boy experiments with sliding three different Duplo pieces down the ramp.  First he tries the giraffe.  The giraffe needs help so he uses the tree to knock it down the ramp.  Next he flips the chicken down.  He uses his left hand so it doesn't have as far to go and it is smaller and lighter and bounces nicely down the board into the tub.  Last comes the tree.  That takes two flicks with the fingers before twirling down the ramp.  As you watch him observe what happens with each piece, you can almost see him trying to make sense of how things tumble down this ramp that is not so smooth.

Though the ramp was set up to build, the was an awful lot of deconstructing, too.  When that happens, it is not at all unusual for the children to take everything off the Duplo board and collect everything in the tub at the end.  That is OK because then that leads to yet another type of play.

This little girl said she was washing dishes.  She was immersing her hands and arms in the water and swirling all the objects around the tub.  Besides the feeling of putting her arms in the water up to her elbows and swirling objects around, she must have associated the sound of all the legos bumping into each other in the water  with the sound of washing dishes.  In other words, there was an important auditory component to this play.

Here I thought I was making a building apparatus for the sensory table.  Silly me!

Just a quick note for those of you who follow my blog in Wisconsin.  I will be presenting on sand and water tables on Saturday afternoon at the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association conference October  20 - 22 in Appleton.  If you get a chance, check it out.  If you would like to meet to ask questions or exchange ideas, email me and we can figure out a time to meet during the conference.