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.    

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!