Kelp Forest Project Explores Impact of Play on Learning and Engagement

Student “shark” with teacher Ms. Cárdenas and fellow “sea urchins.”

The Primary students in UCLA Lab School Rooms 9 & 10 are playing deep underwater in kelp forests to better understand ecosystems and the role of each element in maintaining them. Students are in their fourth week of participating in a research-practice project called “Impact of Play on Students’ Learning and Engagement,” a collaboration between Dual Language Program demonstration teachers Gabriela Cárdenas, Olivia Lozano, and Rosie Torres, and postdoctoral researcher and former CONNECT fellow Christine Lee. The students have been introduced to the kelp forest and chosen their play roles, created their costumes, and are prepared to explore the systems during play.

A goal of the project is to support students’ understanding of what an ecosystem is, and why every part of the system is needed. In an earlier discussion on ecosystems, a student surmised that an ecosystem is a community of animals that live in a certain place. Afterward, the children played together in their underwater kelp bed and as the play session ended, another student modified the definition by saying that he thought the ecosystem could be described as one where animals and plants need each other to keep balance in an ecosystem. By the end of the play activity, students began drawing on the concepts that not just animals (such as sharks or fish) matter, but also plants, phytoplankton, and sea urchins were all important to maintain a balanced ecosystem.

The students made their own costumes to depict underwater inhabitants such as plankton, kelp, whales, sea urchins and sea otters, and they learned what the roles of their various choices would be in an underwater kelp forest so they could become them in their play. While creating their costumes, students thought about what each creature needs to survive. For example, sea urchins have a spiny outer layer to protect themselves from predators, hence the bottles pointing out from their “hats.”

The project’s goal is to help inform the field of education about why and how play should be a valued part of education. Not only does the study aim to show how play can help students learn about science and math concepts around the marine ecosystem, but it can shed light on how play can lead to student agency and engagement. The study continues for two more months during ongoing instruction in the classrooms’ planned science and math curriculum.

Teachers Ms. Lozano (standing) and Ms. Torres (seated) discuss the underwater kelp forest with Primary students. In the foreground a student “kelp” wears a costume that includes representation of the gas bladders that are necessary for the kelp to float! 

Students concentrate on making their costumes for their roles in the underwater kelp forest.

Students concentrate on making their costumes for their roles in the underwater kelp forest.