School teacher Rich Pickering of Saco found a way to inspire students in his third grade writing classes by using an old bench he found at the local transfer station. As it turns out, the bench is actually a kindergarten table, manufactured by the Milton Bradley Company in the 1890s. Bradley was born in Vienna, Maine. Tammy Wells Photo

SACO — Rich Pickering was dropping off some items at the Saco transfer station one day, when he noticed someone had left a wooden bench there. He noticed the legs folded in, and seemed to be working. The top was painted brown.

Pickering thought it might look nice in a spot near the river at his rural Saco home, so he took it home. And there it sat in his garage, for months.

Fast forward to the spring when school teacher Pickering found himself working from home, instructing his third-grade students at Sanford’s Willard School using distance learning and looking for ways to inspire them in their writing classes.

When he wasn’t working, he took the time to clean out his garage, and loaded the bench back into his vehicle — for a trip back to the transfer station.

And then he decided not to take it, to clean it up, and go from there.

The initials on the folding mechanism on a table used to inspire students in the 1890s – and today – show it was made by the Milton Bradley Company of Springfield, Massachusetts. Tammy Wells Photo

The old bench, as it turns out, has a connection to education from its early beginnings, when it was first patented on Dec. 12, 1893. And it now has a connection to today’s learning, helping students with their writing skills.

Pickering learned the bench, which was sporting three layers of paint — brown, tan and green — was patented as a kindergarten table by the toymaker Milton Bradley.

Bradley, who was born in Vienna, Maine, but raised in Massachusetts, made his way from his home in Lowell to Springfield where he worked as a lithographer, said Pickering, who did some research as he was cleaning the table, carefully removing all the layers of paint, and making sure the grid remained intact.

In 1860, according to the New England Historical Society, Bradley created a game board called The Checkered Game of Life. From there, he went on to create several more as founder of the Milton Bradley Company.

Through his research, Pickering learned that Bradley had a keen interest in early learning and the concept of kindergarten, which had been developed in Germany.

“He bought into that and came up with a bench,” said Pickering. The folding legs meant it could be stowed away after classes.

Pickering said he’s found the bench, or table, to be useful in engaging his students in writing assignments made difficult with distance learning, put into place when the coronavirus began making its way to the East Coast.

“In the classroom, you can meet in small groups,” he explained. Distance learning changed everything, and as well, students in third grade don’t always have a lot of keyboarding skills, he pointed out, and they’re trying to type on an iPad.

So, he thought about what might interest and motivate the youngsters. And, he pointed out, the students were embarking on an assignment about paragraph writing, so it came at the right time.

“I’d post parts of the project, the top, legs, and asked them to describe what they were seeing,” said Pickering. “I called the assignment “What is it?” Some said a table, some said a bench, some had no idea.”

The students would look at his photos, and make a guess, and write about it. Pickering would reveal a bit more as the assignment went on.

Then, he posted an article about Milton Bradley and the company and asked the students to look it over.

According to an online history of the Milton Bradley Company, Bradley’s fascination with kindergarten prompted him to produce educational materials for the kindergarten movement, and he gifted many of them to classes in Springfield. Bradley is also said to have founded and taught at a kindergarten in the city.

These days, instead of being placed outside near the river, the kindergarten bench, which figured in an assignment for his own students, has a special place in the Pickering home.

And who knows, in the next century, it might help inspire another group of students, just as it did in the 1890s, and in 2020.

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