The preschoolers gather around the water table Monday morning.
It’s a wondrous contraption, two tables fashioned into one long one and stacked with accessories like swimming noodles and coffee filters.
The children don’t know it, but the guy who made this wonder — their teacher, Tom Bedard, at the Homecroft Early Learning Center in St. Paul — is considered a sort of preschool MacGyver (that classic television character who made extraordinary things out of ordinary objects).
“I go through the hardware stores and think, ‘Huh! What can I use this for?’ ” says Bedard, 65½, of St. Paul. “I’m known for my sand and water tables. I build in and around the tables to make them unique spaces for the kids to play and learn. It’s a great invitation for them, it draws them in to experiment and explore.”
Bedard, who will retire from his job when the St. Paul school year wraps up in June, recently took some time to look back and look ahead at the career he considers a calling.
‘IT ALMOST FELT LIKE A CALLING’
As a young man, Bedard didn’t initially plan a career in teaching.
“I thought I would get a science degree,” Bedard says. “But, my first semester, calculus and physics didn’t go so well. I started taking psychology classes instead and really liked them.”
He had already put psychology into action — literally.
“I had been a tennis instructor in my former life,” he says. “I’d be the one to do the kids’ classes. No one else wanted to, but I found I had an affinity for working with kids.”
“I think they’re better learners,” he says. “First of all, they’re very busy, always moving. If you set up a structure to keep them moving, they’re great learners.”
Bedard ended up getting a degree in child psychology (later, he earned his master’s degree in early childhood education).
“I applied at child care centers and I got hired,” he says. “It almost felt like a calling.”
An unusual one at the time — the 1970s — for a male.
“I grew up in Brainerd, my parents were very conservative and here their son was taking a job in a child care center,” says Bedard. “What’s that all about? They didn’t understand. At first, my mom would tell her friends that this was a temporary job, until I got a ‘real’ job.”
What was a real job?
“Anything else,” says Bedard, laughing. “It was very touching, though, my mother actually did come around: In 2009, when I was up for Teacher of the Year here in Minnesota — the first time an early childhood teacher was a finalist — she was very proud.”
It wasn’t a lucrative career choice.
“Coming out of college, I remember saying, ‘I won’t take less than $4 an hour,’ ” he says. “I got offered a job that made $3.64 an hour, with the idea that within six months it would be $4 an hour. And it was.”
Bedard eventually moved on from that small child care center to a larger one.
“Money was an issue by then — I had three kids, a wife, a house — so I got a job as a director of a bigger center, a staff of 25,” he says. “It was a lot of work — the hardest job I’ve ever had.”
He hadn’t gone into the field to be an administrator, after all.
“Then I heard about ECFE (Early Childhood Family Education),” he says. “And I thought, ‘That’s the place I want to be.’ I applied three different years before they hired me.”
Why was the third time the charm?
“I don’t know why, but I do know that’s what allowed me to stay in the field,” Bedard says. “In St. Paul, we’re on a teacher’s salary, which is not true in a lot of districts.”
ECFE is a program for all Minnesota families with children between the ages of birth to kindergarten. The program is offered through Minnesota public school districts.
ECFE helped connect Bedard to what would become his specialty within early childhood education.
MAGIC OF CARDBOARD
“When I was first in child care, I never had a sand and water table,” Bedard says. “Not until I got to ECFE, when I inherited one.”
It was fun, but …
“Scoops got pretty boring,” he said. “I wanted to jazz it up a little bit.”
It all started with cardboard.
“One of the first big changes I did was put in cardboard dividers,” he says. “It divided the table into four little compartments. The reason I did it was the squabbling. I partitioned the table, but I didn’t cut off social play. I cut windows into the cardboard for that. What surprised me was while it cut down on squabbling, it also enhanced the social play in ways I couldn’t have imagined.”
Since then, he’s used a lot of materials to show kids about the art of creative recycling: Right now, for example, the water table in his classroom has a waterfall feature fashioned from an old toner cartridge (where children pour the water) and a piece of a rocking chair (the ramp where the water runs off into a plastic tub below).
The children and Bedard gathered there recently.
“Here goes!” said Bedard as he used one of the measuring cups to pour water into a planter affixed to the table. “Want to catch it?”
He peppered the play with observations:
“Did you plug it up?”
“I hear it!”
“Oh! It’s a flood!”
“Where does it come out?”
“What do you think — want to try it?”
“Watch this one.”
“Works pretty well, doesn’t it?”
BREAKING BLOGGING GROUND
It’s not only children who learn from Bedard’s tables — grown-ups do, too, especially since Bedard started blogging in 2010.
He believes he’s the only sand-and-water-table blogger out there, actually.
“It’s a niche blog,” Bedard says.
His blog, unlike commercial sites that sell the tables, is all about how to help other educators (including parents) make and use the tables.
His posts have titles such as “More Concrete Tube Apparatus,” “Hodgepodge and Doohickies” and “Scientific Inquiry: Measuring Space.” There are videos, too. Subject labels include “children’s right to play” and “plungers” and “joy.” His commenters are international: “You have been such an inspiration to teachers all over the world,” wrote “Henrike” in January. “I teach Kindergarten in the Netherlands and have always loved your blog and your fantastic ideas.”
Tom Bedard, ECFE teacher in St. Paul, always reads “That’s Good! That’s Bad!” to kids at the end of the school year.
His ideas will continue: He might be retiring from the classroom, but he will serve on the board of directors of the Minnesota Association for the Education of Young Children (MnAEYC) and the Minnesota School-Age Care Alliance (MnSACA); he will continue to blog; he will have more time to travel and speak to educators at workshops and conferences. He will have more time to play.
He ended his session with the kids by reading a book: “That’s Good! That’s Bad!” by Margery Cuyler.
It tells the story of a little boy’s adventures — misadventures? — at the zoo.
“I always read it at the end of the year,” Bedard says. “Because there’s always a little good and a little bad in everything.”