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, June 17, 2017

A rich space for thinking

In 2014, I built an apparatus I called the Box Peak.   I removed one side of a big narrow box and set it up over the sensory table in such a way as to create two large, open inclines. 
To make the whole structure stable, I embedded a box tower that supported the middle of the structure.   
I built it so children could experience pouring sand down a wide incline.  I had done other big inclines, but not this wide and not this open.  I cut a hole in the bottom of each incline for the sand to exit through the bottom of the apparatus and drop into tubs resting on the floor underneath the holes.  However, the holes I fashioned were much smaller than the width of the incline adding an additional challenge for the children to direct the sand into the holes.  

The reason I want to revisit this apparatus is because I want to demonstrate how the sensory table is a thinking space for both me and the children.   I have already offered my initial thoughts on the apparatus.  After watching the children engage with the space and materials, I decided to change the apparatus.  On one side of the apparatus, I installed a cardboard box that formed a chute for directing the sand into the hole at the bottom.
I cut two holes in the top of the chute, but purposefully kept its closed nature in contrast to the openness of the large box incline.   The closed nature of the chute also added an extra challenge for the children to track the sand traveling through the chute.  I also wanted to provided a second path for the children to pour the sand through the hole at the bottom of the apparatus.  The child in the video below illustrates the two paths quite nicely.

Putting sand in the hole two different ways from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

She seemed very methodical in her operations.  She filled the pink cup two times.  The first time she poured the sand directly into the hole at the bottom of the apparatus.  The second time she poured the sand indirectly into the hole at the bottom of the apparatus because the sand had to first travel down and out the chute.

Next, I added a horizontal chute onto the top of the apparatus.  Much like the inclined chute, I cut holes on the top at the two ends.  One hole emptied into the box tower and the other one emptied into the top of the inclined chute.
My idea was to have the children figure out the path of the sand from the top of the apparatus to the bottom of the apparatus, again adding an extra challenge for the children to track the sand going through two chutes.

Once they had figured out the path of the sand, they came up with their own self-appointed task: to modify the path of the sand.  One child found a clear plastic tube and inserted it through the hole in the bottom of the apparatus up into the inclined chute. 

When they were satisfied that the tube captured the sand coming down the chute and directed it through the hole at the bottom of the apparatus, it was time for another change in their thinking.  What would happen if the tube rested in the sand at the bottom of the tub next to the sand table?

That led to a more articulated joint endeavor: filling the tube with sand through their modified path.   
Using that one loose part and the affordances of the set up, the children changed the apparatus to fit their own evolving ideas.

My thinking begins with an idea of something I would like to build.  Once the apparatus is built, I turn it over to the children for their thinking.  Their thinking is doing; it is playing with ideas that surface in their actions.  Once I observe how the children think in this space, then I come up with new ideas that I try to realize.  Then it is the children's turn again, and so the thinking continues.  There is not script.  Ideas bounce around that emerge from our actions with others and with the materials and the setup.   In other words, this is a rich space for thinking for me and the children.

Friday, June 9, 2017

My first box tower

I have been looking over old pictures that I took at the sensory table.  I found a set that documents the first box tower I ever installed in the sand table.  The photos are at least 28 years old.  For this first box tower, I used an empty box that had held a thousand drinking cups.  The box is a good size to begin with, but appears huge in the 2' x 2' yellow sand table.   To make the box tower stable, I taped the bottom of the box to the bottom of the table.  I also taped the box to the side of the table near the bottom using strips of duct tape pulling the box horizontally to the table. 
I embedded a large diameter PVC pipe through the apparatus.  I also embedded plastic containers---I think they were Cool Whip containers---into the sides.  However, those containers did not traverse the width of the box.  Instead, they acted as shelves into which the children could transport the sand or hold other, smaller containers.  Below is a picture from the other side of the box tower.  In that side, I embedded a larger container, a plastic ice cream bucket. 

When I looked at these pictures, I wondered why I set up the box tower with the box upside down.  All I can think of is that it was not one of the features of the box I was paying attention to.  I guess I passed up a literacy opportunity on that one.
The picture below shows a toddler putting sand in the ice cream bucket that is embedded in the box.  Since there is sand in all the containers, it looks like the children have used all the embedded containers for their sand operations.

Here is the same child putting sand in the PVC pipe with his green spoon.  He has transported his sand from the table, to the ice cream bucket and then to the PVC pipe.  

The picture below is of very poor quality, but informative.  It shows the child bending down so he can look through the PVC pipe.  In other words, he uses the hole through the box created by the PVC pipe to change his perspective of this micro-world. 

An integral part of this setup is the five-gallon bucket next to the table.  The bucket offers the children another invitation to transport the sand at this apparatus.   Since children always want to take the sand out of the table, the bucket gives them a constructive outlet for them to do that.  In other words, the placement of the bucket next to the table means less sand on the floor---and that's a good thing.

Just a side note:  I will be one of the presenters for the Fairy Dust 2017 Virtual Summer Conference.  The conference begins on July 10th and runs for five days.  With the virtual conference, however, you will be able to access the conference any time you want and as many times as you want.  The line up for the conference includes two Teacher Tom's: Teacher Tom from Seattle and myself, tomsensori Teacher Tom.  That means you get two Teacher Tom's for the price of one. 

If you are at all interested, you can save $100 on registration by signing up for early bird registration by tomorrow July 10th.  Again, you can check it out here:  Fairy Dust 2017 Virtual Summer Conference.

One final side note:  I just learned that I will be giving a version of this presentation in November in Atlanta as one of the featured presentations at the NAEYC annual conference.

Saturday, June 3, 2017


For me, funnels are indispensable at the sensory table.  They are items that work with both wet and dry medium.  I installed them as an integral part of the apparatus and I provided them as loose parts for the children's operations.

Here are two examples of funnels I used as part of an apparatus.  For the first example, I taped clear plastic tubes to the bottom of the funnels and then I threaded the tubes through the crate so water poured into the tubes exited at different points around the table.  In addition, I taped the funnels to the crate so the children could not manipulate the funnels.  I wanted a stable apparatus in which the children could track the water flowing through the clear tubes.

For the second example, I taped funnels to connectors that emptied into a large PVC pipe.  The pipe was set on a slight incline so when the children poured water into the funnels, the water exited on the end over the grey storage bin.  Again, I wanted a stable apparatus, one that used funnels to capture all the water the children poured from their different size containers.

Sometimes I set up funnels in such a way that they were an integral part of the apparatus but did not get tape down.  
Without the funnels, it would be more difficult to get the water into these pool noodles without a lot of spillage.   For some reason, the children rarely pulled out the funnels.  But they could if they wanted to.
Besides showing that a child could remove a funnel from the apparatus, this picture gives a hint at the variety of funnels I have found.  There are two funnels that came with hoses already connected to them; the black funnel is tall and narrow (I found it in an automotive store); and the red one comes from a surplus store and is the biggest one I have ever found.

Even if I made them an integral part of an apparatus, I always provided more funnels as loose parts.  On shelves next to the sensory table, the children always found funnels to be used with either wet(left) or dry(right) medium.

As loose parts, children used the funnels to find ways to put their own stamp on an apparatus.  For instance, the child pictured below used two funnels to change how sand flows through a vertical tube embedded in a box.   He placed a funnel on top to collect the sand going down the tube and he placed a second funnel in a bottle under the tube to gather the sand coming out and direct it straight into the bottle.  Ingenious!


Children often used the funnels for building or making novel creations.  On the left, the child has taken containers and funnels from the shelves to build a little tower inside the black funnel.  On the right, the child has created a new musical instrument using two funnels and a plastic syringe. 

In the video below, the child shows how playing with funnels can lend itself to a unique literacy experience, one that involves playing with words.  He stacked three funnels on top of a vertical tube and as he poured the sand in the top funnel, he created a little mantra of "funnel on top of funnel on top of funnel."

FUNNEL WORD FUN from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

One of the more interesting uses of a funnel as a loose part was a child using it upside down to transport water from one container to another.

Funnel as tool from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

In essence, she made the funnel into a new tool with a new purpose.

Believe me, I have just scratched the surface for how I use funnels and how the children use funnels.  The fun with funnels never ends and knows no bounds.

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.