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, April 21, 2018

Conference musings

This past weekend I was invited up to Devil's Lake, North Dakota to do a building session for the North Dakota Childcare Providers Association annual conference.  

After my morning presentation of a building framework, the participants had about an hour to start their building.  Because we were working in the cafeteria and the tables we were working on were our lunch tables, they had to pack their unfinished contraptions into a corner during the lunch hour.  After lunch, though, they could not wait to start building again.

Two builders who were worked side-by-side made two separate but similar incline constructions.  Both used long narrow boxes on an incline.  Both cut holes as windows so whoever played with the construction would get glimpses of the marbles or beads racing down the incline.  They each set the boxes at an angle in a shoe box.  They cut holes in the end of the shoe box so the marbles or beads crossed through the box into receptacle boxes that they fashioned from the lids of the shoe boxes.  The two constructions looked the same, but were slightly different.
Though they each made separate constructions, their plan all along was to combine the two to make one construction.  This was a great illustration of how individual inventiveness could be combined to create something new.  See below.

Two other builders were ingenious in their own right.  Their idea was to make a ball cascade with pieces of gutter.   To do that, they fashioned a two cardboard pieces to suspend and hold the top gutter in place above the bottom gutter so when the ball rolled down the top gutter, it would drop into the bottom gutter and go on its way out the box.

For someone to build in a workshop like this, they have to take a risk, an intellectual and emotional risk.  The questions come fast and furious.  How do we start?  Oh, that doesn't work, so how do we modify it?  What is your idea?  How do we make it work?  There are also physical risks involved, too.  For instance, working with sharp tools carries its own risk.

Did I say risk? 

Niki Buchan was the keynote for the conference.  Niki is from Australia and does consulting around the world on outdoor learning for children and adults.  Well, even Niki got into building.  She created a rotating construction by making a cardboard washer between a cardboard base and a cardboard platform that held three small cardboard tubes.

At the end of the sessions, the builders were asked to leave their constructions in the hall so other conference attendees could see the possibilities for cardboard constructions for the sensory table.
On Monday after the conference, a couple of the educators sent me some pictures of things they had already built.  Below is one of those pictures.  I noticed that the incline for the apparatus was not very steep so the child needed to push the pellets down the cardboard chute.
When I mentioned that, the educator wrote back that the child was pretending that he was making cement.  He would push the pellets down the chute much like a cement worker would push cement down the chute coming off the cement truck.   She also said that he used a dust pan like a mixing blade to mix the cement in the pail.  She added that his dad was in construction.

In their play scenarios, children in early childhood settings recreate the work of adults.  For the most part, however, that play is in the housekeeping area of the classroom.  Because of the way this educator set up this apparatus in the sensory table, this child was able to represent in his play what he has seen his father do at work.  He could be his father in play.  How cool is that?

Saturday, April 7, 2018

What is the teacher's role?

About a year ago, I wrote a blog post on children's scientific explorations with rocks in the sensory table.  Looking back one of the episodes in the post, I think I got one wrong. Here is the episode I think I got wrong.

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.

In looking over my documentation, I found a subsequent video that casts a little different light on this episode and opens up a different line of thought for me.

Let me start with the different line of thought.  After adding more rocks to the funnel, the child says he does not know why the sand still flows through the funnel.  At that point, I could have explained that there are still spaces between the rocks so the sand can still get through the funnel.  To prove the point, I could have also suggested that they put their contraption on the ground so they could see the sand flow through the spaces between the rocks.  Instead, I decided to keep quiet.  I thought that if I interjected myself at this particular point in time, I would necessarily change the direction of their inquiry.  And, I don't think my job is to always give children the answers to their questions.  Rather, it is more important for me to give them time and space to further play with those questions.

As it turns out, the children did not really reach a dead end.  They actually continued this same inquiry with the rocks, sand, funnel and tube.  However, it did take an interesting tangent.

In the video below, the sand has stopped flowing through the funnel.  It is not because the children have plugged it with rocks.  Rather, the sand in the tube is so high that it plugs the funnel so no more sand can flow into the tube.  In fact, the sand has backed up into the funnel so the funnel itself is full of sand.  At this point, the children start to take the rocks out of the funnel.  The sand still does not start to flow.  The child in the red shirt starts to lift the funnel out of the tube.  To their great delight, the sand starts flowing again.  The child who is holding the tube squeals with delight.  Interestingly, the pitch of her squeal rises as the sand rises in the tube.  As the sand empties out of the funnel, the sand forms a little mound just above the height of the tube.

Plugging the funnel 2 from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

They may not have figured out exactly why the rocks did not stop the flow of sand through the funnel.  They may not have understood that the sand in the tube blocked  the flow of sand through the funnel.  I do think they were starting to understand a bit about flow and volume.  The most important outcome of their investigation, though,  has to be their palpable joy. 

My overarching question is: How do teachers decide when, where and how to intervene in children's explorations and play?  Are we so driven by a superimposed need to make sure children are learning all the time that we intervene too often?  In this particular instance, I am glad I stepped back so the children could direct their own inquiry and reach that point of pure joy.  And the great thing about joy is that it reinforces their agency to keep exploring.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Tubes embedded in a big box

Over fifteen years ago, I put together an apparatus using an large box and two cardboard tubes.  One tube was longer but not as wide as the other.  I cut a window of sorts in the longer tube so the children could see the sand rush down the tube midstream.   Both tubes emptied into the tub next to the sand table.

I embedded the two cardboard tubes at different angles.   I made the incline greater for the longer tube on the left and not as great for the wider tube on the right.   The tube on the left was steep enough so the children could easily pour directly down the tube.  I modified the tube on the right by cutting a piece away from the top.  Otherwise, the children would have had a harder time pouring sand down the hole.
I created one more feature for this apparatus.  I cut part of the back panel of the box to create a space underneath and inside the box.

For the children, this apparatus provided the opportunity for them to move the sand from the sensory table out of the sensory table to a tub set next to the end of the table.  That was important because---as stated in axiom #1 on the right---children need transport what is in the table out of the table. 
The tubes gave them a constructive way to do what they needed to do.

Besides all the action up top, there was also a commensurate amount of action on the bottom.  Interestingly, the children at the bottom could not see when someone poured something down the tube because the box itself obstructed their view.  As a consequence, they were often surprised when something shot out of the tube. 
Over time, however, the children learned to use their sense of hearing to know when something was coming down the tubes.

Of course, a child could always try to peek.
I kept the apparatus up for two weeks.  However, I did make a couple of small changes for the second week.  First, I took out the sand and replaced it with whole kernel feed corn. 
Second, I cut holes on both sides of the box to install a planter tray.  That added another level for the children's operations that was partially inside the box and partially outside the box.

Over the course of two weeks, the children had two separate experiences using the same apparatus.  Corn streaming down the tubes was much different than sand streaming down the tubes.  The corn had a different smell; it was lighter, faster and noisier; and it was bouncier than the sand.   In essence, the children had an opportunity to compare the characteristics of two different mediums through the same apparatus. 

That sound likes science.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Profile picture (update)

This is a re-write of a post from February 2011.  A lot has happened since then, but the post concisely summarizes my basic view of children that has developed over time---and deserves a little update.

I would like to explain the picture I chose for my profile. The picture does not speak directly to sand and water tables, but rather to my view of children. That in turn, influences my practice which includes building apparatus for the sensory table.

This picture was taken in 2008 in a park in Los Banos, Peru.  Los Banos is famous in Peru for its thermal baths that were used by the Incas.   The baths are a short ride by combi from the city of Cajamarca in the Northern Highlands of Peru.  My daughter was living and working in Cajamarca at the time, so I went to visit her.  My daughter worked for a non-profit organization that gave mircroloans to women.  On this particular day I accompanied her to one of her meetings with the women with whom she worked.  As she was talking with one of the women in the park after the meeting, I noticed the woman's two children playing.  Before long, they were bringing me flowers.

So why the picture?   It has to do with connecting with and respecting children for who they are.

It began when the children noticed that I was watching them.  Children are always looking to make connections and form relationships.  They reciprocated immediately.  It was then my turn to reciprocate.  By the way, often times it works in reverse: a child initiates and I reciprocate. 

There are two things to notice about the picture.  First, I was down on their level.  There is really no other way to understand the children's perspective of the world.  A colleague once related a story of a little girl who kept telling the teacher to look at the bunny in the snow.  The teacher could not see it no matter how hard she tried.  The child was insistent and finally the teacher bent down to see what the child was pointing at.  It was only then she saw what the child saw: the snow had drifted into the shape of a rabbit.  The teacher was so intent on seeing a real rabbit hiding in the bushes that she could not even imagine anything else until she looked from the child's physical perspective.  The world from a child's perspective is full of surprise and wonders.  How often do we miss those surprises and wonders because we do not take time to get down on their level?   How often do we fail to show respect for the children by not validating their perspective?

The second thing to notice is that we were focused on each other.  Our actions were our shared language even without words. That was doubly true in this instance because I did not speak Spanish and they did not speak English.  All our communication was non verbal.  There was no script to our interactions, so we made it up as we went along.   We were living in the moment: both sides initiating and responding; both sides reading each other's cues. 

When I build an apparatus for the sensory table, I use it as a provocation to prompt a dialogue.  For the most part, I am interested in the dialogue between the children and the materials.  Ideally, the apparatus is inviting and rich in possibilities.  There is no script to follow.  Rather, the children bring their own set of abilities, interests and ideas to the table---literally.  My job is to notice.  In noticing and recognizing the context of their interactions, I, myself enter the dialogue.  For the most part, I am not playing with them or the apparatus; I do not try to guide or direct their explorations.  Rather, I am there to bear witness to their ideas in action; I am there to understand their perspective and all the surprises and wonders that ensue; I am there to show how much I respect their thinking.   Though I am always trying to put words to what children are doing, I can't stress enough how much the reciprocal dialogues depend more on actions than on words.

One last point about what the picture says to me.  The act of giving flowers is an excellent metaphor for the beauty all children have to offer if we are primed to notice their cues, prepared to receive them, and ready to reciprocate in kind.  And, if we are able to take their perspective, we are more likely to appreciate and value that beauty.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Scientific inquiry

I just finished doing a session at our annual state early childhood conference.  The session was on children's scientific inquiry at the water table.  Seeing the descriptions of other sessions on scientific inquiry and looking at the science curricula offered by numerous vendors (think STEM/STEAM), an age-old question of mine resurfaced: What constitutes science and scientific inquiry in an early childhood classroom? 

What I saw most often were science experiments that were planned and set up by the teacher to teach a scientific concept. The experiments varied in terms of how much the children participated and how much they observed.  They also varied in terms of opportunities for further inquiry.  Much of the time, the experiments were chosen for their dynamic effect, often bordering on magic.  Of course the idea was to have children think that science is cool and exciting.

To understand what constitutes science in early childhood education, I would like to invite you into a space of inquiry.  This is not quiz for which there is one "right" answer.   In this space, we are looking for ideas and perspectives that will shed some light on how children see and do science in the early years.

To invite you into that space of inquiry, I will present a video of children playing around the apparatus at the sand table that is pictured below.
The video clip focuses on the children's actions as they try to move the sand through just one of the cardboard chutes.

After viewing the clip, I will pose a couple of questions that will hopefully encourage a dialogue about science for young children.  Here goes.

Tapping the chute from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

What assumptions do you have about what constitutes science education for young children?

How does this episode confirm or not confirm your assumptions?

Feel free to comment---or not.  And again, I am not looking for a "right" answer.  I am interested in how others in the field think about the nature of scientific inquiry for young children and what can it look like in the classroom. 

Just to let you know, my son is a scientist and he does scientific experiments as a job.  For him, a scientific experiment consists of isolating and controlling variables to find out as clearly as possible cause and effect.  The process is clearly defined and so is the expected outcome. When I show him an episode like this, we always discuss whether the children are playing or doing science.

Thank you in advance for joining the conversation. 

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Juncture points

The building process for me often starts with a box and a quick idea about possibilities.  Recently, I was walking through my alley and I saw a large box that offered many possibilities for the building of an apparatus.  The box was 5 feet tall with a width and depth of 14" X 16".
The first thing I thought about with the box was orientation.  Do I set it up vertically, horizontally or on a slant?  I decided on a vertical orientation.  With a vertical orientation I could drop a tube down the box to exit into a tub next to the table. I could also embedded a cardboard channel horizontally through the box, again to empty into a tub next to the table.  Below is a crude drawing of my idea. 
The box sits inside my invisible sensory table.  Actually, drawing the table would have been too much of a stretch for me. The tub---tubs in my world have odd shapes---is on the floor next to the invisible table.

The box was too high for the sensory table, so I cut it in half.

At this early juncture, I decided to change the construction just a bit.  I decided that I wanted to embed a smaller box into one side of the big box.  To do that, I traced around the small box to make an outline for the hole I had to cut. 

Before I inserted the box in the hole, I trimmed the flaps of the small box so they would not hang over the edge of the big box.  I wanted to keep some part of each flap so I could securely tape the smaller box into the the larger box.

I eventually decided to embed two boxes of different sizes across from each other.  One was deeper than the other and one was longer than the other.
I made sure, though, that they were both embedded three inches from the top of the box because they were going to be the support for a piece of cardboard that was going to be the top of the apparatus.  The top I wanted to put on already had some holes.  It did not fit perfectly, but I could seal any unwanted holes in the corner with tape.
I did not tape the top down, however, because I knew I needed to cut holes in the box for the channels and the tube.  If I could still reach inside the box, that would make that so much easier.

At this juncture, I thought it might be easier to embed a cardboard tube horizontally through the big box.  In looking for a suitable tube, I changed my mind and thought that I could embed a planter tray instead.  I made sure I cut the hole for the tray 9" from the bottom because I wanted it to rest on the lip of the table.  That way I could tape it securely to the table.

I did not tape the planter into the box so I could drill holes in the end that would be over the tub.  I used a hole saw to drill two holes.
Another reason I did not tape the tray into the box was because it would be easier to transport if I could pull the tray out so the apparatus would fit in my small car.

At this juncture, I abandoned the idea of embedding a tube through the big box.  Instead, I found a plastic chute that I could embed that would empty into the planter tray.

I was able to embed the chute through the box between the two smaller boxes that were already embedded in the big box.  I embedded it in such a way that it would traverse the box under the top of the box.

Since I no longer needed to reach inside the box for building, I placed the top onto the small embedded boxes and taped it down.
The top of the apparatus was now three inches below the top of the box to help contain the mess.  Holes in the top of the apparatus were now set up to empty either into the plastic chute or the bottom of the box.

At this juncture---have I said that before?---I decided to cut windows in each of the smaller embedded boxes on the two sides of the apparatus across from each other.  The idea was to offer a opportunity for the children to dump whatever they wanted down some more holes.  It would also offer the children the possibility to play peek-a-boo through the windows across the apparatus.

Below is the apparatus actually installed in the sensory table.  I cut two large holes---one in the foreground and one in the back---at the bottom because pellets would fall through the top of the box into the bottom.  In addition, the holes offered another level and space that the children could use for their operaions.
Once the apparatus was in place, I taped the planter tray and the chute to the box.  I taped the bottom of the box to the bottom of the sensory table.  Now that the planter tray was taped to the box, I taped the tray to the lip of the table.  That really added stability to the whole apparatus.

Why did I not build what I had originally planned?  I only kept the vertical orientation while changing every other feature.  So why?  I think the operative phrase in the building process was: "at this juncture."  At this juncture always meant that at that point in the building process I had a choice.  Where did the choice come from?  The choice came from being faced with multiple possibilities.  Oh, I have a smaller box that I can embed into the the side of the larger box to create shelf that the children can use for their operations.  Oh, if I embed a box on each side, I can create support for the top of the box.  One decision led to another and at each juncture, there were many new possibilities.   I have only highlighted the main juncture points.  There were also a multitude of smaller juncture points.  Once I decided to use a planter tray, the questions arose: What size planter tray do I use and how far do I embed it in the box? 

For me, the building process is a dynamic process.  It is not unusual for an apparatus I build to look different from the original plan.  It is in the building, in handling the materials and constantly playing with possibilities that an idea takes physical form.  Children operate the same way.  As the children make an apparatus their own and explore the possibilities, there are always juncture points that offer them multiple possibilities.  One decision leads to another. It is within this dynamic process of constantly making choices that their play keeps shifting and taking multiple shapes, more often than not, unpredictable shapes.   And in that process, surprises and joy abound. 

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Another oldie

A few weeks back, I wrote that I got a new toy.   It was a scanner that now allows me to see and scan pictures pictures I took a couple of decades ago when I first started building apparatus for the sensory table.   It is not perfect because it is hard to get the color right, but it is still fun to play with.

Here is an apparatus I built over 20 years ago.  Like many apparatus, it started out as a box that caught my eye.  The box was big compared to my small sensory tables so I did not want to fit it inside either table.  Instead, I decided to place it in between the two tables.  That looked pretty promising. 
I did not want a closed barrier between the two tables so I looked for a way to connect the two tables.  I had some scrap culvert drainage pipe that I decided to embed through the box.  The polyethylene pipes were sturdy so the ends did not need to be supported.  Interestingly, that gave the impression that they were somewhat suspended in midair.
To make it easier for the children to pour the sand into the pipes, I cut away pieces from the top of each pipe.  For the longer piece of pipe, I cut a piece that went all the way through to the other side of the box so the children had a peek at the sand falling through the pipe on the side with the yellow sand table.  Below you can see the child dumping the sand into the pipe through the top piece that was cut away.

Besides being stiff, the drainage pipe had another unique feature: it was ribbed.  As a consequence, sand would get caught in the ribs as it was poured into the pipes.  That also meant there was a little delay from when a child poured sand into the pipe and when it came out the bottom.

One thing I noticed about these old pictures is that the children seemed to enjoy working on the lowest level for their play.  They knelt because the sand table is low, but kneeling also required them to use different muscle groups for balancing and doing other operations.

When I first started to build apparatus for the sensory table, I took pictures to record what I built and how I built it.  Because I was doing it to record what I built, I did not take a lot of pictures documenting how children made it their own.  Part of the reason was that film and the developing of the film was too expensive to take gads of pictures.  More importantly, though, I did not have the mindset that challenged me to do more than just record.  

I am glad I was able to record.  We all have to start somewhere.  However, I find myself a bit empty when I try to make meaning from these old pictures.  Children are competent and they are always thinking but with so little documentation with this apparatus, I cannot speculate on the meaning of their play.