How Art Transforms Learning at the UCLA Lab School

Primary Classroom 8-10

Playful Learning


Take a walk through the UCLA Lab School at the culmination of this school year and you will be transported into an underwater ecosystem. Primary students (1st and 2nd graders) have spent the past few months learning and creating an immersive kelp forest art installation. Blue waves float above your head and against the wall entangled with a variety of different types of kelp. It doesn’t take long to realize the species richness in this part of the school as you see a flying fish and seal hanging above and a garibaldi fish peeking from its cave.

The kelp forest installation at the Lab School is a remarkable collaborative project that has engaged primary students on an exploration of kelp forests. The installation, spanning across all six primary classrooms, showcases the creativity and knowledge the students have acquired throughout their deep dive into this marine ecosystem this past semester at school.

The creation of the installation began with the students immersing themselves in the world of kelp forests. They embarked on researching and investigating the kelp forest food web, visiting an aquarium to observe live kelp, reading books, and engaging in discussions about the various components and functions of this ecosystem.

Each primary classroom contributed to the installation, resulting in a comprehensive representation of a kelp forest. The students employed various artistic techniques and materials to construct different elements of the ecosystem. Each classroom also crafted their own interpretation of kelp using a variety of different materials, paying careful attention to the structure and appearance of the kelp. They also worked to create posters and videos advocating for the protection of marine ecosystems and emphasizing human impact. These videos were then placed around the installation as scannable QR codes detailing information about each organism and actionable steps to protect our ocean.

The process of creating the installation allowed the students to apply their scientific knowledge in an artistic context. They had to consider the relationships between different organisms within the ecosystem, the structures and functions of the animals they were representing, and the environmental factors that influence the kelp forest. The result was a visually appealing and scientifically accurate representation of this unique marine environment. Through the creation of the installation, the students developed their artistic skills, honed their understanding of scientific concepts, and cultivated their creativity and critical thinking.


Structure & Function in Students’ Artmaking

One remarkable aspect of the kelp forest installation is how the students incorporated their understanding of structure and function into their artistic creations. They demonstrated their knowledge of marine organisms by thoughtfully representing their physical attributes and behaviors, emphasizing the intricate relationships within the ecosystem. They did this by getting into small groups that focused on individual organisms from eels, leopard sharks, jellyfish, to phytoplankton. After careful research on the organism, students transformed their learning into making their art pieces.

For example, when crafting the sea otters, the students had many discussions around what position should the otter be in, how is it interacting with its environment, and what scale should everything be. To create the model, students considered the otters’ unique adaptations and behaviors. They considered the otters’ feeding habits and accurately decided to depict the otter laying on its back, munching on sea urchins. They paid special attention to the positioning of the sea urchin, keeping the soft side of the urchin close to the mouth. The inclusion of kelp wrapped around the otters highlights their use of the environment to anchor themselves while they sleep. The students even made sure to accurately depict details such as large webbed feet, smaller front paws, a strong tail, and closable nostrils, showcasing their precise understanding of otter anatomy.

In addition to larger marine animals, one student chose to explore the world of phytoplankton as her research organism. This presented a unique artistic challenge since phytoplankton are microscopic and cannot be seen by the naked eye. The student grappled with how to visualize something invisible without misleading the viewer. After contemplation, she decided to create magnifying glasses hanging near the phytoplankton, symbolizing their small scale in comparison to the rest of the exhibition. The placement of the phytoplankton near the skylight further emphasized their photosynthetic nature, connecting their role in the ecosystem to sunlight.

How Art Advocates for Social Action within Lab School Community Members

By delving into the intricacies of structure and function, the students were able to create meaningful representations that not only captured the essence of the organisms but also conveyed scientific concepts to the audience. Thus, students’ artistic choices were informed by their scientific understanding of the kelp forest ecosystem. This integration of art and science allowed the students to deepen their comprehension of the subject matter while unleashing their creativity.

Art has the power to go beyond aesthetic enjoyment and serve as a catalyst for social change. The creation of the kelp forest installation provided an opportunity for the students to delve deeper into the importance of preserving marine ecosystems and the threats they face. Through their art-making process, the students not only learned about the scientific aspects of kelp forests but also developed a sense of empathy and responsibility towards the environment.

As part of the project, the entire Lab School community was invited to visit the installation and engage in discussions about the role of art in environmental advocacy. Parents, teachers, and fellow students were encouraged to reflect on the impact of human activities on marine life and talk about ways to contribute to conservation efforts. By sharing their knowledge and artistic interpretations, the students became ambassadors for the kelp forest ecosystem, inspiring others to take action and make environmentally conscious choices.

The Power of the Arts in Education

Throughout this quarter, I witnessed and learned about the powerful intersection of art and education. Students not only gained a deep understanding of kelp forests and marine life but also developed crucial skills such as critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration. They were able to explore topics such as complex food webs and keystone species, different animal adaptations to their environment, how humans impact that environment, and the interdependence of it all.

Art provided a means for the students to express their scientific understanding, bringing the intricate details of the kelp forest ecosystem to life. The process of creating the artwork allowed them to make connections between art and science, reinforcing the idea that these disciplines are intertwined and can enhance one another. Moreover, it fostered a sense of environmental stewardship, empowering students to raise awareness about the importance of preserving our natural resources and inspiring others to take part in conservation efforts. By embracing art as a tool for learning and advocacy, students demonstrated the transformative power of creativity and its ability to shape young minds and inspire positive change. The kelp forest art installation stands as a testament to their passion, knowledge, and commitment to making a difference in the world around them.

Worldbuilders and Storytellers: A Creative Play-Based Approach for Literacy Learning

Playful Learning


Magical Green Forest–a world where rivers and flowers have magical healing properties; Death Water Rainforest Shell Planet — a magnificent two-story territory where “super kelp” grow indefinitely; Magic Korea/Boston — a snow filled landscape where friendship, bunnies and carrots abound.  These are the enchanting worlds imagined and created by an ECII classroom.

It is no dispute that creativity plays an instrumental role in children’s intellectual and socio-emotional development, especially in their early childhood years. It often takes place throughout everyday moments of play, when children can personally explore their own curiosities to make sense of the world around them. In line with the school’s commitment to keeping education dynamic and student centered, the teachers and researchers at the UCLA Lab School – Demonstration Teacher Kelly Peters and CONNECT Research Associate Dr. Christine Lee – have designed an innovative play-based learning unit to celebrate students’ inventiveness, encourage collaboration, and support literacy development.

After the class split into three groups, each group brainstormed an entirely novel community of their own by defining their community’s unique qualities and drafting 2-D conceptualizations of what they envisioned their community to look like.


Students afterwards had the opportunity to bring their enterprising visions on the paper to life. Apart from building the physical landscape of the communities, students made their own personalized ‘‘creature’’ and a ‘‘shelter’’ to serve as their native creature’s place of residence within their formulated realm.

With free rein over an abundance of materials – including colored paper, aluminum foil, toilet rolls, cotton balls, colored tape, popsicle sticks, newspaper, pipe cleaners and more, students worked collaboratively to assemble 3-D iterations of their planned communities. The rich materials provided endless possibilities for stimulating children’s creativity: for instance, a pipe cleaner was used by one child to represent the eggs laid by their creature, and used by another to symbolize the creature’s wings.

I have a core memory from the first time I stepped into the classroom: as soon as Ms. Peters announced the start of the construction time, all of the children excitedly ran to their respective stations to get to work – grabbing materials, pasting items, wrapping tape, drawing diagrams and folding paper all on their own accord, without any didactic direction. As facilitators, we were not there to tell the children exactly what to do. Instead, we were there to observe and probe their thinking through open-ended questions like ‘What are you making?’, ‘What is the purpose of this?’ or ‘Where should this go?’ Keeping this a child-led activity allowed students to spontaneously explore, experiment, problem-solve, and glean new takeaways like how different shapes best fit together, or the best method for stabilizing a tall structure. This idea of guided play – a combination of child autonomy and adult guidance – helped us to support children’s learning while ensuring they were still actively engaged

          Students engaging in free play and bringing their creatures to visit other communities

The children’s artistic production furthermore provided an excellent opportunity for students to hone their writing skills. Full of inspiration and ideas from their playful construction process and play, students were given the opportunity to express their creativity through both expository narratives and adventure tales about their invented communities.


To support students in their creative writing, Ms. Peters and Dr. Lee cultivated students’ spatial awareness like perspective-taking. They taught lessons by using media to showcase scenes from various points of view to encourage students to step into the shoes of their own creature when authoring their stories. Additionally, adventure stories and wordless books were closely read and examined with the class to build students’ vocabulary and to encourage the use of prepositions for describing how their creature moved within the story

In the end, some of the children’s stories highlighted distinctive elements of their communities, like the fast-growing kelp or the mysterious heart of the magical forest, which arose from children’s initial worldbuilding discussions. Other writings detail children’s fictional accounts about the brave escapades their creatures experienced in their world, which could have emerged from the times children spent playing with their ‘‘creatures’’ and interacting with one another in the different communities.

Left: ‘’The water of the forest can make you have a longer life but you will have a cursed life.’’

Right: ‘’The leaves help when your creature gets sick. The rose is for smelling and eating when there’s an emergency.’’


A poem a student wrote about their house they built (pictured left) in their community. Right: ‘’My house is not perfect, not small, not fat, not big, not too small as a mouse, not too big as a bear, and not like a bunny, just a tall house.

In the class’s final debrief, a quote by one child really stood out to me: ‘‘I like that you don’t have to always make something real; you can make something that is not real that could become real.’’ Indeed, this play-based project empowered our young kindergarteners with the agency to embrace teamwork, express themselves artistically and linguistically, and most importantly, generate their own learning opportunities in fun, meaningful and otherworldly ways.

Counting Collections at Home: Supporting Young Mathematicians in the Remote Learning Context

(Primary/6-8 year olds)

CGI Math, Remote Learning

Our school uses Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI) to teach mathematics. At the beginning of the school year, one of my goals is to learn about students’ mathematical thinking and experiences. I typically begin the year with counting collections to observe, as well as to provide students with opportunities to learn and discover, one-to-one correspondence, how to skip count, and ways to group numbers to be able to count more efficiently and accurately. Counting collections lays the foundation of the base ten system and helps students make sense of number operations (e.g., addition, subtraction, multiplication and division). Students count a collection of objects. They may count these objects one at a time, or they may decide to group objects. Once students have counted and organized their collections, they record their counting. I conference with students individually or in small groups to understand their thinking and strategies, and if need be, focus on any areas of struggle. Students explain their thinking in partnerships, small groups, and whole-class discussions. The students and I learn from one another in this process.

For the 2020-2021 school year, I had to consider how to adjust this learning activity for the remote teaching and learning context. I often prepare collections for students in the classroom and vary the amount of objects that students will count. I teach in a multi-age classroom with students who are ages 6-8, which means that I need to differentiate the collections. Mathematicians in my class may work with collections of different sizes and experiment with a variety of counting strategies. When our school transitioned to remote instruction, I realized that finding “just right” collections could be a challenge. I needed to be able to teach with collections that students could find in their homes. In the remote classroom, I also had to figure out how to see what the students were counting, how they were counting, and how to facilitate collaboration among students. Partnerships often have discussions over how to organize a count, what to count first, and what tools and strategies may be best. Students learn so much from one another in the classroom from counting together and discussing what and how to count.

I decided to start the counting collections unit with images of collections, and I chose images to spark discussion of what or how to begin counting a collection. I would share the image and ask students: “What do you see?” “What do you notice?” “How many?” “How do you know?” “How did you count what you see?” “Are there other ways to count?” Below is an example of the kind of image that I used with my mathematicians who are new to counting collections. I took a picture of some mini snowflake erasers I had at home. I would display this image on the screen and ask: “How many?” Students may respond with: “ 13 snowflakes,” “10 blue snowflakes,” “3 green snowflakes,” “1 picture”, or they may try to count the lines in the snowflakes. Then I would ask them: “How did you count?” Students might say: “I counted one at a time.” With Zoom, I could also ask students to annotate the picture to show how they counted. They might skip count or count in groups.

During these whole-class conversations, I would listen to the students’ ideas. The conversations were an opportunity to validate my mathematicians’ thinking. If a student said, “one picture,” then they were right. It’s a creative response. I hadn’t even thought of that. For me, that’s really interesting. Our conversations about the images were an entry point for all of the learners. Everyone has an entry point. It builds identity. All students come to us having knowledge of mathematics. Sometimes students will come up with counting strategies that I hadn’t even thought of when I chose the image. These conversations allowed me to learn about the ways students were thinking about counting. My students were also able to hear how their classmates were counting. I want students to be able to apply these counting strategies when they’re counting on their own.

Initially, I wanted to show students a lot of images that they could count. Below are more examples of photographs that I used. These photographs sparked conversations about how mathematicians can organize their collection. I showed these three images in the same lesson.

After showing these images, and having a class discussion, students would go into breakout rooms on Zoom to count a collection of items that they had at home. We asked parents to make sure that their children had objects to count, and we listed a variety of options (e.g., beans, pasta, hair clips, legos). We did not give a number or range of objects that students would need. That was part of the exploration. For example, one student brought two bags of pinto beans, and we had a discussion of how they would count the beans. Maybe they would just count a handful or two handfuls of beans. Maybe they would pour some beans in a bowl and count what was in the bowl. Maybe they wouldn’t finish the counting collection by the end of math. In that situation, I might say, “Wow, you’ve counted to 40! I don’t want you to lose your progress. What could you do so that you don’t have to recount over again?” Maybe the student would put the 40 items in a bag and label it. I didn’t limit them. Students decided what was a “just right” collection for them. If they got tired while counting, maybe it wasn’t a “just right” collection for right now. If I set a limit on the size of the collection, I would also be limiting the math conversations that we would be able to have.

I found that it was best to have students count their collections in the breakout rooms, which was similar to asking students to work in small groups during in-person instruction. There would be a teacher or teaching assistant in each breakout room. The teacher or teaching assistant paid attention to what and how students were counting, and they answered any questions that students had. As much as we could, the teachers and teaching assistants tried to listen to individual students’ counting by unmuting one student at a time in the small group.

After students completed their count, they would take a picture of the collection and upload the picture to our learning management system. Students audio recorded an explanation of how they counted their collection, and they annotated the picture as they explained their process. By recording their thinking, students had an opportunity to rehearse their explanations. I listened to all of their recordings. As I listened to their recordings, I thought: “What can I learn from this mathematician? How might we learn together?” I replied to their recordings with validation, questions, and suggestions. Students then responded to my comments and questions. It was an incredible opportunity to hear each of my students’ thoughts and engage in dialogues with them about their work. When we return to in-person instruction, I plan to continue using the same learning management system so that I can have these dialogues with every student.

I would select one or two examples of student work to share with the class the next day. These examples might be either something that I observed in a breakout room or an example of a students’ recorded assignment. (I always asked the students for permission to share their work beforehand.) I shared the image or recording and asked the class what they noticed in the example. The mathematician was there to answer questions. Students learn a great deal when they have opportunities to discuss their thinking and counting. By listening to students’ thinking and questions, I also learned how to adjust future lessons to support students’ growth and mathematical understanding.

Connecting Primary Sources, Children’s Books, and Social Studies

Intermediate: 9–10-year-olds


Nine African-American women posed, standing, full length, with Nannie Burroughs holding banner reading, “Banner State Woman’s National Baptist Convention” (1905-1915). Library of Congress, Lot 12572,

As Harvey Daniels and Sara Ahmed say, When the world hands you a curriculum, you run with it. This year was an important election year that occurred during a time of increased social justice activism. Our school was teaching entirely remotely and we wanted to respond in our digital classroom to this context. It was an opportunity to help students make sense of these times and find ways to express their own questions and ideas about why voting matters.

A team of teachers from the Intermediate Level (multiage classrooms with 9- and 10-year-old students) and our school librarian began to plan across five classrooms about how to launch our social studies investigation in this context. We knew students were aware of both the November presidential election and the social justice protests earlier in 2020. We wanted those with strong feelings and opinions to be able to share them and to engage others so they could come to their own conclusions as well. Our school is committed to using an inquiry approach to teaching and learning, and we know that inherently primary sources offer opportunities for students to observe closely, consider evidence, express their thinking, use their background knowledge, gather new knowledge, wonder, and ask questions.

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