About Me

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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 30, 2015


Last week I wrote about an apparatus I called the Sand Cascade.  The idea was to create a chute with steps so when children poured the sand down the chute it would look like a bouncing waterfall.

The sand flowed down the chute, but it was not the awe-inspiring cascade I envisioned.  It was more like a bumpy chute.  Because of that, I said it was a failure.

Silly me.  I was only looking at it from my perspective.  When I began to look over the documentation of how the children actually used the apparatus, I had to rethink the failure part. Let's look at just two different features of the apparatus to see what I mean.

The first feature is the cascade chute.  Children poured sand down the chute using different cups, scoops and other implements.
The children experienced different rates of flow depending on how much they poured and how fast they poured.  And depending on which side of the chute they poured, the flow or lack thereof created a puzzling contrast.

Children also used their hands to explore.  If the sand did not flow down the chute and got stuck on a step, children used their hands to sweep it down.

They also explored the chute with the small rocks that were part of the provisioning for this apparatus.
What was unique about this exploration was that rocks could either get stuck on a step or they could tumble down the chute.  Did they only tumble down one side of the chute?  Did they always get stuck on one side of the chute?  How did the weight, size and shape of the rocks affect how they tumbled?

The second feature to consider is the hole at the top of the apparatus.  This feature was especially unique because it was not obvious where the sand went when a child poured it in the hole.
For many of the children, that was not important.  What was important was the physical challenge of stretching and balancing to pour the sand in the top hole.

For some children, detecting what happened to something put in the top hole was a latent discovery.  Because they were able to follow the sound of the rocks through the box, the children in the video clip below figured out where the rocks exited the box.

Disappearing rocks from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

There are a couple of things to note from this video.  The first was the joy experienced by the children, especially the one on the left, of discovering exactly where the rocks went.  Maybe the joy was heightened a bit because it was necessary for their eyes and ears to work together to follow the tumbling rocks through the box and out the bottom.  There was also an additional aural component to this apparatus: the big rectangular box amplified the sound of the rocks tumbling down the long, narrow box.  That component briefly fooled the child on the right when he heard the other child's rock tumble down and he looked inside the big rectangular box for it.  (Did you catch that when you saw the video?  I didn't see it the first time either.  It took me several passes and slowing the video down before I saw the child look for the rock in the big rectangular box.)

One child even figured out a way to modify that top hole.  He propped a minnow net over the hole and then poured sand through it.
This slight modification regulated the flow of sand into the hole by slowing it down.  As a consequence, the child saw the sand slowly drain through the minnow net from the top.  Contrast that with the view most children experienced when they poured sand into the minnow net.
By the way, this child said that this was what helicopters have and they pour it over fire.  That is a very nice representation of something he has heard about or seen in a video.

That was just two features of the apparatus and just a few of the different explorations by the children.  How many more features and how many more explorations are there in this one apparatus?

As you can see, there is no way I can call this a failure.  I forgot that children will approach the apparatus like any found object that they find intriguing.  They will enter into a unique dialogue with the apparatus, a dialogue based on a whole set of experiences and competencies, a dialogue informed by their interactions with the physical materials.   I just forgot that once I have built something, it is no longer mine.  It then belongs to the children to make it their own.

Saturday, May 23, 2015


You know the feeling when you make something and it doesn't work the way you thought.  It may be something like: Why did I think that would work?  Or: It kind of works, but not the dramatic effect I was looking for.  No matter, it feels like a failure.

Here is a case in point.  I wanted to build a cardboard cascade so when the children poured sand down the apparatus, the sand would fall and flow over steps in such a way that it would look like a small bouncing waterfall.
You can already see part of the problem with the cascade.  The sand gets stuck on the steps, especially the steps on the right.

Let's take a look at the actual construction because it is not so straight forward.  The first thing to note is that there are two narrow boxes, one taped on top of the other.  The longest box is embedded through the rectangular box in the table.  The second box, the cascade box, is taped to the on top of the first box.  For all practical purposes, the children did not see two separate boxes, but saw one incline box. 

From the other side, you can see that the large rectangular box rests on a bin taped to the bottom of the table.  That was necessary for height to create a greater incline for the long, narrow box
I cut a large hole at the bottom of the box to create another space within the apparatus for the children's operations.

With a short video, let me show you why I think this was a failure.  In the video, two children are pouring sand down the cascade box.  As the child in the stripes says: "Put it down the chute." The focus for these children---and for almost all the children---was the sand going down the chute, not the cascade effect .  Watch and see if you agree.

To be honest, there really is something fetching about this video.  The child in the stripes placed a bucket in the tub at the bottom so when he pours sand down the chute, he fills his own bucket. And he lets his friend know by saying: "It's going in my bucket."

It is clear from the video that my perceived failure is not a failure for the children. They simply go about their business of discovering how the apparatus actually works.

I was pleased about a couple of other features of the apparatus that were not directly connected to the cascade. Both features included a bit of artifice.

When children poured sand into the top hole, the sand did not go down the cascade box. Rather it flowed through the bottom box all the way to the end. Inevitably, the children would pour in the top and look to see if it went down the cascade box. It took some serious investigation to figure out where the sand really came out.

The other subterfuge was the hole in the rectangular box just above the cascade box.  Where did that lead?  
Children would put sand and rocks in the hole, but the medium would just rest on a portion of the long narrow box embedded in the rectangular box.  If they would brush the sand or rocks to one side or the other, the medium would disappear.  Where did the medium go?  If you want to know, it went to the bottom of the big box.   
This child discovered the little stream of sand coming from a bottom corner of the box.  I don't think he troubled himself with where it came from.  Rather, he seemed to be fascinated by the tiny stream of sand coming out of the corner filling his scoop ever so slowly.

Cascade failure?  I guess I have to qualify the failure part.  I could not realize my idea of a cascade that I thought would capture the children's awe and attention.  I had a preconceived idea of how I thought it was suppose to work.  I am glad the children had no preconceived idea about how the apparatus should work because they ended up making more out of it than I could have imagined.   


Saturday, May 16, 2015


This year more than most I have returned to what I call keeping it simple at the sensory table. The latest setup is as simple as it gets.  It is my blue sensory table filled with Jurassic Sand. Next to the table is a smaller clear sensory table.  There is also a five gallon pail on the floor next to the sensory table.

Here is a view from the other end.  As you can see, the tables look warn with use, a lot of use. That is the setup.  Could it be any simpler?
It does not get much simpler than this.

This may be a common setup in many early childhood classrooms.  It is usually not in mine, so why did I revert to it this time?  I have to admit that time constraints were part of the initial reason. Building a new apparatus every week takes time.  In the spring, I seem to have less of it as we begin planning for end of the school year events. Once I decided on a simple setup, though, another reason came to the fore: Directly on the heels of a complex setup, what types of play would emerge with such a simple setup?  Would the children even choose to play here without an apparatus?

To understand the type of play that emerged from this setup, you need to see the utensils and the loose parts that accompanied this setup.  Besides the usual spoons, scoops, cups and bowls, there were natural elements such as sticks, rocks and pinecones.

They did indeed play and play in some very engaging ways.  Let's start with the sticks.  For one child, the stick became a real tree that he planted in a cup and "watered" with the flowing sand.
The child who has planted to the tree is on the right.  If you look at the other two children, you see that they are mimicking the pouring of the child with the stick.  How does that happen?

Children love rocks.  They will collect them, pile them and bury them.  What one child discovered was marvelous in an ordinary sort of way.  The child in the video below realized he could make marks on a rock with another rock.

What made this marvelous and so ordinary were the words he used before he showed me that he could make marks on the rock.  He simply said: "Look what I can do."  Who needs paper?

The pine cones provided an invitation for the children to create little trees.  But when the "sand rain" came, one child noticed that the flow of the sand through the scales of the pine cone was a cascade of sorts.

A second child was also pouring sand on the same pine cone, but he was doing it fast.  The sudden downpour just accentuated the cascade of sand down and through the scales of the cone.

Later in the week, I added another implement: little minnow nets.  Children appreciated how the Jurassic Sand flows.  The minnow net slowed the process so the children could appreciate it even more.
Not only did it slow the process of sand flowing, but it also spread it out so the flow was more dispersed.

One thing I did not expect was to be transported back to the very first apparatus I used at the table: the Five Gallon Pail.  I forgot how important it is to be able to transport the sand out of the table into a simple bucket.  Not only is it important, but it can also be pretty exciting.  These boys are filling the bucket and squealing with joy.  Watch.

And it was not enough to just fill the bucket.  Each child had to take his turn to test his strength to see if he could lift the pail. None of them could, but then one child blurted out: "Teamwork. Everybody grab here."
Even with teamwork, though, they could barely move it.  That was not important.  What was important was the joint effort that created a bond that will carry over to other joint actions when they decide to work together as a group again.

I will continue to build, but I have a renewed appreciation for the simple.  

Can the simple inform the complex?  Can the complex inform the simple?  

Saturday, May 9, 2015


Two years ago, I wrote about an apparatus called the Oobleck Platform.  The frame of the Oobleck Platform is made from 3/4" PVC pipe.
The top is a sheet of 1/8" black plastic that I bought in the window section of a large hardware store. (The technical term for it is HDPE or high-density polyethylene.  In lay terms that is #2 plastic.) It is easy to cut with a utility knife and a straight edge.  I drilled the six rows of holes to allow the oobleck to flow through the sheet.

This year I added a PVC pipe that is cut in half lengthwise and attached from the Oobleck Platform to a second water table.
In essence what that did was provide yet another dimension---an incline---to an apparatus that already has several of the dimensions and elements from the list on the right-hand column of this blog.

For instance, the platform creates a horizontal surface on which the children do there operations. Watch how one child uses that horizontal surface to make a pancake.

If you have ever made pancakes on a griddle, you would have to agree that his operation with the oobleck on this surface sure looks a lot like making pancakes.   Where does that knowledge of his come from?

This platform is not just a horizontal surface.  It is also a second level the children use for their operations.  There is also a level underneath the platform, the bottom of the table, that the children access.
This child could have easily scooped oobleck on the sides of the apparatus, but this way she creates a challenge for herself by scooping oobleck from the table's bottom level in a more confined space underneath the platform within the frame of the apparatus. 

If you look at the child's hair, you can see strands of oobleck.  That is because she is also experiencing the oobleck dripping through the holes that were drilled in the in the plastic sheet. When oobleck is poured on the plastic sheet, the children get a unique view of oobleck going through small holes.  Watch.

Because of the physical characteristics of the oobleck, droplets form on the end and seem to pull a string of oobleck through the holes.  It seems like slow motion rain, oobleck rain.

Now lets contrast the motion of the oobleck dripping through the holes to the motion of the oobleck sliding down the inclined PVC pipe.  The child in the video likens it to flowing lava.

You can surely see why this looks like flowing lava.  Did you sense her anticipation as the "lava" gets closer and closer to her hand?   

By incorporating several dimensions and elements in one apparatus, the children are invited to play in many and varied ways.  And think about the role these dimensions and elements play in the transformation of the medium(the oobleck)by the children to make such a wide range of things from pancakes to lava.

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?