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 20, 2017

Starting simple

I worked in the field of early childhood education for 38 years.  Over 30 of those years were spent in the classroom with children.  When I began my career in a small, non-profit childcare center, I did not have a sensory table in my classroom.  It took 10 years of teaching before I got a sensory table.  At that point, I was hired by a public school district to be an infant/toddler teacher in a family education program.  When I began to set up my new classroom, I found I had inherited a sensory table from the previous teacher.  I actually inherited two sensory tables from her, one for sand and one for water.  Both of them were very small.

As I started working with the sensory tables, I found them quite boring.   That was especially true of the sand table.  The setup was very basic: sand, shovels, scoops and pails.  The children quickly tired of the setup and so did I.  One of the first things I did to make the sensory table a little more interesting was to add an element or two to foster a little more play and exploration.  One of the early additions was a cardboard box taped inside the table with an attached plastic chute.
This is a digital picture of a photo from over 25 years ago.  I was already taking pictures back then, but because I was using rolls of film and because I was new at documenting, my pictures are not so plentiful and not so informative.

I said the table was small.  It was a metal table that stood 10 inches off the ground and was a square that measured 2' x 2'.  I did have a mat underneath that expanded the total sensory area to 4' x 4'.  Needless to say, even the expansion did not create a big area.

One of the important elements of this setup is the five-gallon pail next to the table.  If you look at the axioms in the right-hand column of this blog, the very first axiom states that children need to transport the sand out the table.  The pail gives them the option to do it constructively.  And, as many of you know from firsthand experience, without the bucket, the sand gets dumped on the floor.

My documentation on this apparatus is sparse.  I usually like to go into some depth about how the children explored an apparatus.  I cannot do that with this apparatus.  All I can do is speculate.

I am struck by the simplicity of this setup: a cardboard box with a plastic chute inside the table.  Though it was a simple setup, it created several spaces within the table that were intriguing invitations for the children's operations.

In the picture below, there are four main spaces in which the children can operate.  There is the pail and the the box.  Both of these spaces can be considered spaces to fill and empty.  There is the chute which allows the children to set the sand in motion.  In addition, the chute creates a space underneath.  If the children want to get sand by scooping underneath the chute, they have to figure out how to do that without bumping into the chute and without spilling.  And there is the sand table itself.   Interestingly, the cardboard box divides the sand table into different areas: there are areas on each side of the cardboard box and one in front of the box.  The box is both a barrier and guide for the children to operate in that space.  For instance, if a child wants to scoop sand with the white measuring cup, she has to move the cup laterally as defined by the edge of the cardboard box and the edge of the sand table.

When I started building apparatus, I had a birth-to-five classroom.   In the pictures I have of this apparatus, there are three children of different ages (4, 3, and 1) all playing at the table at the same time.  Not bad for a simple apparatus.

I started transforming my sensory table by building simple apparatus.  If you are tempted to build, I would urge you to start with simple constructions, too.  Though the structure might be simple, the children create their own complexity through play and exploration.  Just imagine what the play would be like for these children in this tiny table without the box and chute.  

Saturday, May 13, 2017

A little self promotion

Last year I was approached by Sally Haughey at Fairy Dust Teaching to be one of the presenters for the 2016 Fairy Dust Virtual Summer Conference.  The conference was a success so she is organizing another online conference for this summer.  I was again asked to be a presenter at this summer's conference.

Last year, I presented on expanding play and learning at the sand and water table by creating easy-to-build constructions from cheap, often recycled, materials using simple tools.  The constructions invited children into new spaces that were intriguing and that fostered self-directed exploration.  What I did not realize until late in the fall is that my presentation garnered the most comments: 508.  I was surprised at the number of comments; how positive they were; and that they came from all over the world.  I should have replied to the comments but, through my own fault, I did not know how to access them until connecting with Sally late in the fall.  By then it was too late to respond.  To give you an idea of what people said, I have included several of the comments at the end of this post.

This year, I will again be presenting on play and learning at the sand and water table.  However, this will be a new presentation that I developed recently.  The title of the new presentation is: Dialogue with Water: Children's scientific inquiry at the water table.  In the original presentation, children played and explored mostly with dry medium such as sand and feed corn.  In this new presentation, the children play with water in its various states.  The main emphasis of this new presentation is to show that children, given the time and materials, author their own experiments that illustrate how capable they are of complex scientific thinking.  So far only groups in Juneau, Detroit and Guelph have seen this presentation.

I am amazed at the group of speakers Sally has lined up for the conference: Teacher Tom from Seattle, Rae Pica, Sandra Duncan, Debi Keyte-Hartland, and Dr. Diane Kashin and Cindy Green to name just a few.  For more information about the conference, here is the link: 2017 Fairy Dust Virtual Summer Conference.

Here are some of the comments from my last year's presentation:

Wow! So many great, yet completely do-able ideas.  I can't wait to try some of these.  I think I'll be playing right along with children.

The objects that Tom used allowed children time for trial and error while learning through play.  As we know children are curious about how the world works and Tom reminds us to give children time, space and instruments to explore and learn.

It is amazing to see how each apparatus provided so many opportunities for complex thinking an creative exploration.  

Thank you!  Your insight into the joy of learning is contagious!  Letting the children get so invested in their play is a beautiful sight.

Wow!  So many ideas to encourage motor development, problem solving, social communication, and science.

This session made me wanna use the tables right away.  Play is children's language.  I am really impressed with the videos.  I realised that in Turkey we don't give much emphasis on sand and water tables.  I can clearly see how they foster creativity.  Lots of "sound of pure joy!" 

Many thanks for all the suggestions for expanding the life of the sensory table! Your apparatus were so imaginative and creative, they provided the children with opportunities for much deeper learning experiences.

This was really inspiring on so many levels Tom!  I truly respect your dedication for your work and how you were able to very creatively reinvent the sand and water table.

I'm truly inspired by Tom's deep understanding of engaging students through sensory play.  It is very helpful how he breaks down the various elements and orientations making it simple to see how children interact with the tables-great!!

When I first saw the title of this workshop I thought, "more cutsie pinterest ideas of things to put into the sensory table"boy was I surprised...Thank you for helping me see sensory learning in a whole new way.

Working in a Reggio centre in an affluent suburb, we are so focused on aesthetics of our provocations and experiences.  This video brought me back to the basics that if the experience is meaningful, interesting and FUN to children, they don't care if it looks like a pretty doll house or a cardboard covered in duct tape.

And finally, to sum it up:

So many wonderful ideas and implementations!  I love that these ideas have all evolved out of a magical mixture of the following (in no particular order): 
1. Tom's profound respect for and trust of children and their natural disposition to explore, play, create, and build meaning.
2. Tom's ability to observe children and discern their motivations and needs, instead of being derailed or limited by his interests and needs.  He cannot know how the children will interact with his creations, but he is willing to relinquish control to let the children show him the way (or rather "the ways" plural)
3. Tom's own natural inclination to create and innovate - what better model could there be for his students.
4. Tom's knowledge of his students and his ability to adapt his decision-making process in each moment to his understanding of the individuals involved.  Bravissimo!  A pure pleasure to witness Tom's ideas in action.  Illuminating!

If my attempt at self-promotion sounds the least bit enticing, I urge you to check out the 2017 Fairy Dust Virtual Summer Conference.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Workshop in Guelph

Over the past couple of years, I have corresponded with Aaron Senitt, a kindergarten teacher in Guelph, Canada, about building and creating spaces and what that means for children in the classroom.  Our correspondence led to a reflective post in 2015 on how children use and inhabit spaces.  Over the past couple of years, I have also followed the work of Melissa Mazar, another person from Guelph.  Melissa created a drop-in space for families called the Children's Art Factory.  What first got my attention from Melissa's work were her pictures of her sensory table setups.  

Fast forward to 2017.  When I found out that a couple of my presentation proposals were accepted at the HighScope International Conference in Detroit, I looked at the map and saw that Guelph was a little over three hours from Detroit.  I contacted Aaron to ask him about the possibility to do a presentation in Guelph.  It turned out that Aaron and Melissa were good friends and they were delighted with my offer to come to Guelph.  So after finishing the conference in Detroit, I headed to Guelph to do my first workshop in Canada.

I quickly realized that this was going to be a good workshop because the participants started to arrive carrying loads of different materials and every manner of tool to build with.  When participants bring stuff to the workshop that means they have already started to think about building and are primed and ready to go.

After a 45-minute presentation highlighting elements and dimensions to incorporate when building that are important to children in their explorations, the real work---and fun---started.  The first task, of course, was to brainstorm what to build and where to start.
This is such an important first step because it models many of the skills we ask of the children.  We want children to be able express their ideas clearly.  We want children to be able to negotiate with others around their ideas.  We want children to accommodate and cooperate with others in the building process. 

That does not mean the ideas need to be fully formed to begin building.  Many times participants start with an element they know they want to use in their construction and immediately go about creating it.

One group knew they wanted to use a cardboard tube cut in half.  They immediately cut the tube using a sawzall, a tool one of them had brought.  The person cutting said it cut like butter.  Then they taped the two halves together to finish the element.

Now that this one element was completed, they again had to brainstorm, negotiate, accommodate and cooperate to complete the next step in the building process.
This process never ends.  There is nothing wrong with that.  In fact, it is an extremely good practice because when people build an apparatus for the sensory table---especially if it is a little more complicated---things do not always go as planned.  There may be some frustrations, but because this is a creative process, the fun is in the building.

Near the end the workshop, I asked the participants to do a debrief.  I asked them to talk to the group about their constructions.  I especially asked them to talk about the features they chose to include in their structures.  I also asked them to talk about the process with an emphasis on difficulties they encountered and how they worked around or through them.

As part of the workshop, I always have documentation on the walls showing things that I have built over the years.  I display the documentation for participants to look at when they arrive and to reference when they start building.  Indeed, this group looked at the documentation before the workshop, but they were so busy creating their own apparatus that they never used my documentation as a reference.  Each one of their constructions was unique.  Here are a couple I thought found especially intriguing.

Thank you to the educators from Guelph and its surrounds for playing with your hearts, minds and hands.  Thank you Aaron and Melissa for making it possible to visit your fair city; for the warm welcome; and for the long conversations about our craft.  I came away inspired and thinking, even though I no longer have my own classroom, I must start building again.

I urge you to check out Melissa's Facebook page ( Children's Art Factory ) because she is doing some very extraordinary things with sensory tables and art for the children in Guelph.  Her drop-in is so successful, she will be moving to a larger space this summer.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Too dangerous?

Last week, I presented at the HighScope International Conference in Detroit.  I am not HighScope trained, but I do know my work has been cited in their curriculum newsletter as a way to get teachers to think differently about the possibility for play and learning at the sensory table using constructions to foster children's thinking.

In one of my presentations, I was challenged by a participant as to the safety of letting the children climb onto the lip of the sensory table.  The teacher told me outright that what I allowed was too dangerous.  Here is the clip showing the children climbing on the lip of the table to pour pellets down a cardboard tube.

Going vertical from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

The reason this video was in the presentation in the first place was because I wanted to make an important point.  Vertical is one of the orientations in the right-hand column of this blog and is always one of the dimensions I think about when I build an apparatus.  Why?  Because children feel the need to go vertical in their operations.  I have learned through the years that children will always go as high as I build.  That means I build only as high as I am willing to let children go.  By extension, anyone building on the vertical should build only as high as they are willing to let the children go.

From the clip, you can guess my comfort level for children going vertical.  However, for me to get to that comfort level, a couple of things had to happen.  First, I had to make sure the construction was sturdy and stable.   That was not so easy with this vertical structure because I knew children would exert significant force in multiple directions on the top of the structure.  That required that I make sure the bottom was really secure.

To that end, even before I put the medium in the table, I taped the bottom of each large white tube to the bottom of the table itself.  I then taped a long cardboard tube across the top of each of the large white tubes.  Now, instead of being three separate tubes, they were now connected making them part of one structure.  For added stability, I taped the long cardboard tube to the lip of the table.  In addition, I taped three cross pieces to the lip of the table and taped each of the large white tubes to a cross piece.  I also embedded a clear plastic tube through two of the large white tubes fortifying the two tallest tubes into a unit.
I am not an architect or an engineer so I cannot tell you how all the elements make this apparatus sturdy and secure but it passed my stability test knowing that children would climb, push and pull on it.

The second thing that needed to happen was that I had to assess in real time the children's coordination, strength and balance as they went vertical on this apparatus.  The child on the left in the red shirt was comfortable from the beginning climbing up and down.  However, the child on the right was tentative from the beginning.  To begin with, even before I started video taping, I positioned myself next to her to see if she could climb both up and down without assistance.  When I was convinced she had the physical acumen to climb on her own, I could then step back and observe.  That did not mean I let my guard down because I knew this child was challenging herself at the edge of her comfort zone.

Below is a video clip of this same child on her way to mastery.  I had already been supervising her to make sure she was comfortable enough going both up and down.  She started out by telling me she could reach "way up there" if she stood on the lip of the table.  She climbed all the way up and poured her pellets down the long cardboard tube.  She then climbed down.

Verticle up and down from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

I could tell she was still working hard with balance and coordination to go up and especially to come down.  However, I also saw that as she climbed, she was in contact with the table and apparatus at three points almost all the time.  So for instance, when she stepped back down onto the stool, one hand held the cardboard tube, one hand was anchored on the lip of the table along with one foot. 
She had already figured out that three points of contact gave her the needed support to climb up and down.

I really appreciated being challenged by the participant at the conference.  From looking at the eyes in the crowd as I showed the video, I am sure others felt the same way.  For that reason, I thought it was important to hold that as a legitimate concern for the group.  It was a moment that offered an opportunity to examine our feelings, beliefs and values.  We are, after all, teachers in a classroom of young children making decisions all the time based on our feelings, beliefs and values.  If we do not examine them, we are not living up to our potential as teachers.  The last thing I want in a presentation is for someone to take what I have to say hook, line and sinker.  It is not meant to be prescriptive.  It is meant to be about possibilities.  But the possibilities begin with our own values.

To be perfectly clear, I am not advocating that teachers allow children to climb on the sensory table, especially if they are not comfortable with children climbing on the sensory table.  I rarely worked alone in my classroom.  At times, another teacher or aide had to supervise the sensory table.  I would always tell them that they had to make decisions based on their comfort level.  And, indeed, some of them would not let the children climb on the lip of the table.  I had no problem with that as long as they owned their decision.  Interestingly, the longer they worked with me and saw children challenging themselves physically without getting hurt, the more they would allow.

I never felt like our job was to inhibit what children could do in a space.  Instead, we were to create a supportive physical and psychological space in which the children could test their abilities.  Only through testing themselves, would they start to know what they are capable of doing.  In the process, children would gain the confidence to inhabit the edge of their comfort zone, the place where so much learning potential resides.    

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Rock art

If you have been reading my blog, you know that I like rocks.  Three weeks ago I wrote there is a primal connections between humans and rocks and, by offering children rocks to explore at the sensory table, some of those primal connections surface in children's play as they use them to make tools and make marks.  Two weeks ago, I wrote that if children are given the chance to manipulate rocks in the sensory table, their explorations turn out to lay the foundation for important math concepts.  Last week I wrote about how children use rocks at the sensory table for scientific inquiry.

This week I would like to write about how children create works of art from rocks.

I could highlight an activity like children coloring rocks with chalk.  However, I would rather empha-
size the rock art that emerges at the sand table which is more child-initiated and child-directed.

How does one define rock art at the sensory table?   Actually, how does one define art in general? Is it something beautiful to behold?  Is it something that is aesthetically pleasing?  Who gets to judge?

In her book Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia, Vea Vecchi lays the groundwork for understanding the concept we call art by writing about a sense of aesthetics or an aesthetic dimension.  Interestingly, when writing about aesthetics she emphasizes something other than beauty.  On page 5 she writes:
     "Undoubtedly it is difficult to say simply and clearly what is meant by an aesthetic 
      dimension.  Perhaps first and foremost it is a process of empathy relating the Self
      to things and things to each other.  It is like a slim thread or aspiration to quality
      that makes us choose one word over another, the same for color or shade, a certain
      piece of music, or mathematical formula or the taste of a food.  It is an attitude of
      care and attention for the things we do, a desire for meaning; it is curiosity and

When a child simply stacks different size rocks in the corner of the sand table, is that art?
How is he relating his Self to the rocks?  As his mini-project unfolds, what makes him choose one rock over another?  How is he making meaning with his actions?  Maybe he is just piling rocks one-by-one as he picks them out of the sand.

When children start to create patterns using the rocks, their actions become more intentional and seem more relational.  Often times, they will arrange the rocks so there is a good bit of symmetry.   In the example below a child chooses rocks to fit around the circle hole.  (All the rocks offered the children were gray and smooth so his only choice was size.)
Why does he make a circle?  Is it simply to outline the hole?  He eventually makes some meaning out of his arrangement: it becomes a pizza.

Here is another example of symmetry with rocks a child creates.  In this instance, she chooses different colored rocks, but she chooses rocks of the same size to encircle one, larger rock.
Much like the previous example, this child ends up making meaning by using the rocks to enhance her role-playing: cooking.  With both these examples, there is something pleasing in their symmetry, but is that enough to call it art?

When children start to combine other elements with rocks, their endeavors reach another level of complexity.  Below the children are essentially in the process of creating a prehistoric diorama with Jurassic Sand, rocks, sticks and small dinosaurs.
There seems to be a rough symmetry here or, because of the intentional spacing of objects, maybe more of an organic symmetry.  Most people would agree that this diorama-like arrangement looks a lot more like art with rocks.

When more natural elements are available, children's explorations become even more complex.  On the left is a typical arrangement I offer children.  The picture on the right shows a child exploring the setup, which has already gone through major changes by the children themselves.  

Below is the third picture in this sequence.  It shows the result of the child's explorations once she feels like she is done exploring.
The child combines multiple elements to make an integrated design.  She uses rocks, sticks, pine cones, shells, tree cookies, a stump and some bark to make her creation.   In essence, she creates a sculpture using all these natural elements.  Most people would agree that this is art.

Vea Vecchi makes clear in her book that there is another important process children summon in their artistic endeavors: they create a relationship with the objects they are working with---in this case rocks.  That relationship introduces them to the 'beat of life.'  "This 'beat of life' is what often solicits intuitions and connections between elements to generate new creative processes" (p. 8).

If art is something more than pretty, these children have it in spades.   They know rocks by handling them; by choosing which ones to work with.  They know what they can do with them by exploring  symmetry and by combining them with other elements.  In so doing, they are tapping into their own 'beat of life'---from which all art flows.

P.S.  I am a little out of my comfort zone with this post.  I am not sure I know as much as I purport to know about this.  I sure hope someone challenges me on this just to advance my own understanding on this topic.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Rock science

I have been writing about the importance of rocks at the sensory table.  Two weeks ago I wrote that there is a primal connection between humans and rocks and by providing rocks for children, some of those primal connections emerge like making tools and making marks.  Last week I wrote about how children use rocks to do foundational math.  Today I want to write about the importance of rocks in fostering scientific inquiry at the sand table.

Children use rocks to carry out self-directed experiments.  Even a toddler is able to create his own experiment.  In the video below, a one-and-a-half-year-old works very hard to see what happens when he drops a rock down a small cardboard tube.  First he has to pick up a rock he can't even see because the pegboard makes him turn his head in order to reach the rock.  After grabbing the rock, he steps up on a stool to better reach the cardboard tube.  Once there, he has to negotiate his turn with a much older child using the same tube.

Down the tube from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

I am struck by how intentional this child is.  He seems to know what he wants to do and figures out how to do it each step of the way.   Are his actions too simple to be called a scientific experiment? 

The experiment created by an older child using  a rock and the same cardboard tube becomes a little more complex.  This child seems to be asking the question: Can I figure out the trajectory of the rock coming out of the tube so it drops in the bowl?

Aiming the rock from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Again, I am struck by the intentionality of this child's actions.  She wants to get the rock in the bowl by using the tube.  Her first two attempts are not successful.  On her third attempt, she figures out exactly where to position the bowl so the rock hits the target.  When the rock falls in the bowl, she squeals with joy.

Some experiments children create do not have the intended result.  In the video below, two children try to plug a funnel with rocks.  After adding rocks to the funnel, the sand still flows through the bottom of the funnel.  One child brings more rocks so the funnel is completely full of rocks.  However, when he pours sand in the top of the funnel it still flows out the bottom to his consternation.

Plugging the funnel from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

When I asked him why the rocks do not plug the funnel, he said he does not know.  At this point, they no longer pursue this investigation, but move on to other explorations with the clear plastic tube and sand.  Scientists reach dead ends all the time, but like these two, continue to explore new veins of inquiry.

Some experiments have an unexpected outcome and a child is able to come up with an elegant theory as to why.  In the video below, the child plops two rocks on to a balanced structure of branches lying across the sensory table.  When he does that, he knocks off a stick that is keeping the whole thing in balance.  As a consequence, a rock at the end of one of the branches drops to the floor as the branch tips under the weight shift.  The child explains that the rock fell because the branch "jumped."  And that the branch "jumped" because the "weight was too heavy." 

The weight was too heavy from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

At the end, he gives marvelous demonstration of what happens when the weight shifts.  He pushes down on another stick to show how a weight exerted on one end makes the stick "jump."

One of the hallmarks of scientific inquiry is testing how different objects react using the same apparatus.  In the video below, the child has created a ramp out of a piece of tree bark.  He takes one rock from a nearby bucket and slides it down the ramp.  The rock hits a crack in the bark and starts to tumble until it lands in the sand at the bottom of the ramp.  He then takes a second rock which is a little bigger and slides it down the ramp.  This one also hits the crack, but does not tumble.  Instead, it continues sliding down the ramp to the end.

Sliding rocks from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

The child continues to slide rocks down the ramp.  What is he learning?  One of the things he learning is to hone his observation skills which is essential to good scientific inquiry.

Within the field of science, researchers try to replicate experiments of others to test an original hypothesis.  In the two videos below, the children play out that exact process.  In the first video, the child strikes two rocks together.  The result is a rock powder that drops into her bowl of sand.

Rock powder from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

This second video shows a child trying to replicate the very same experiment by striking two rocks together.

No rock powder from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

He does not get any powder.  The children now wonder why.   When there is not definitive answer, the inquiry continues.

Too often we think of science only in terms of content to be taught.  In an early childhood classroom it has to be lived.  Children have to be able to ask their own questions and search for their own answers.  In a way, it is pure scientific inquiry the purpose of which is simply to know what works and what doesn't work.  Content has its place, but may best be preceded by what David Hawkins calls "messing about." 

And when children mess about with rocks, that is rock hard science!

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Rock math

Last week I started to make a case for having rocks in the classroom for children to explore and use. There is a primal connection between humans and rocks and by providing rocks for children in the classroom, some of those primal connections emerge.  Last week I wrote about how children used rocks as tools and for making marks.

Another reason I provide rocks in the classroom is that they are so versatile.  The children find a myriad of ways to use them for their own purposes.  
Children simply line them up.  On the left, a child balanced the rocks on the lip of the table as if to outline the table.  On the right, the child lined the rocks along the line created by the transition between the carpet and the tile.  

Children use rocks to fill containers.  On the left, they filled a jello mold with rocks.  The children had to find the right sizes to fill the mold.  On the right, they filled up a cardboard tube to overflowing.

Children use rocks to fill big containers, too.  The children filled a five-gallon bucket with rocks and then tried to lift it.
On his tiptoes, the child strained to lift the bucket full of rocks.  He could not lift it; he could not even move it.  Interestingly, he did not stop there.  After trying to lift the bucket, he collected more rocks and put them in the bucket.  He said he wanted to make sure no one could ever lift it up.


Children try to fit rocks into holes.  On the left, the child wanted to see if the rock fit into the clear plastic tube.  On the right, the child wanted to see if a rock would fit through the hole in the top of the bottle. 

Children not only try to fit rocks into holes, they also experiment with what fits into holes in rocks.  One child tried to fit her fingers into a hole she found in a rock.  She first put her little finger into the hole in the rock and said: "Even the little finger fits."

Finger holes from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

She was able to fit all her fingers one-by-one into the hole in the rock.  Each time she put a finger into the hole, she declared: "Even this one [fits]." 

These may seem like simple operations to adults, but to children they are fundamental math exercises.  To create lines and angles with rocks is geometry.  To fill containers is to experience volume and, in the case of a big container, weight.   To test to see if a rock fits into a hole---or fingers fit into a hole in a rock---is an exercise in estimation and measurement.  

Though I am trying to make a case for bringing rocks into the classroom, children need an opportunity to explore rocks outside, too.  When we give children the time and the space to explore rocks---both inside and outside---their explorations look a lot like math.

I have purposely left out counting or numbers with rocks.  Yes, I am a heretic.  Too often we only think of math in terms of numeracy for young children.  Given the opportunity, children will find ways to use rocks that lay a concrete foundation for multiple and complex concepts in the area of math learning.

Dare I say it: rock math rocks!

Saturday, March 25, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

Making marks with rocks from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

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

Sunday, March 19, 2017


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Sticks continued

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

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

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

The sticks became tools with which to stir and pound.

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

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

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

Balancing branches from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

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

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

Heavy lifting from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

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

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

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

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