Reopening: Moving Toward More Equitable Schools
Header image

Curriculum Q & A Blog, Question 18

  • Date

  • Author

    Katie Shenk

Do you have questions about teaching the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum? We've got answers!

Come back every week for the latest from the Curriculum Q & A Blog.

Question: How can I manage space, students and materials during K-2 Labs to maximize student learning, engagement and independence?

Part 2: Supporting Students in the Labs Block

In Part 2 of our blog about the K-2 Labs, Heidi Batchelder, kindergarten teacher at The Odyssey School in Denver and Kelly Fernee, kindergarten teacher at West Park Elementary School in Leadville, Colorado, share strategies for supporting students in the K-2 Labs, including how they establish and reinforce expectations, foster independence, and modify Labs to best meet the needs of their students.
 To learn about classroom set-up and materials management, take a look at Part 1 of this two-part post. You can also find more general information about the K-2 Labs block in the Part 1 post. 

 EL Education: How do you set expectations for students’ use of materials, rotations and work time during the Labs?

Heidi: Before rolling out Labs, we spent a lot of time exploring what it looks like to take care of each of the materials we would be using. This approach comes from a Responsive Classroom® framework. For example, I did not just put out a bin of dolls for the Imagine Lab and expect kids to know how to care for them and play with them safely.

Instead, we first explored these materials as a whole class through a Guided Discovery. During this time we discussed and then modeled what safe and unsafe play looks like and sounds like. Then, students got to practice and reflect together on how this supported them in playing cooperatively. Finally, I began to include the dolls in the rotation for the Imagine Lab. Because the students now consistently use the dolls safely and appropriately, I can focus on supporting them with the Speaking/Listening standards rather than serving as a referee. 

With rotations between Labs, it was a bit of trial and error at first. For the first few weeks of Labs, I called the kids back to the front carpet between each of the two rotations to reflect. After a few weeks we spent time brainstorming what a smooth transition between Labs (without regrouping) would look like/feel like/sound like. We worked together to develop a plan for rotation directly from Lab to Lab and designated 4 spots in the room where the groups line up after rotation #1 clean up. With the plan in place, we spent a few minutes at the start of Labs for three days just practicing the silent switch. Now, a week into this new routine, the kids line up really quickly. We are able to start the second rotation much more quickly, which leads to more time playing, building, and exploring.

Kelly: During the first module in Kindergarten, students and I co-created two essential anchor charts that support their work and play in Labs. The “Commitments for Playing Together” and “Ways We Take Care” anchor charts lay a strong foundation for expectations. And because students contributed to the content of the charts, they understand what’s expected of them and hold each other accountable.     


The Commitments for Playing Together chart supports students during their work in Labs. 

We also use our school’s framework for Habits of Learning to anchor our work in Labs. One of these habits is responsibility. I constantly reinforce these habits before, during and after a Labs session. For example, before students rotate to a new Lab, I’ll do a habits check-in that might sound like “How did you show responsibility during your first  Lab today?” Students engage in a quick partner share, make a goal for the second Lab, and then rotate. I offer positive reinforcement and praise throughout Labs to help students notice, name and demonstrate our habits.

EL Education: How do you support primary students’ independence during the Labs?

Kelly: It’s important to build systems and structures that foster independence as early as possible. During the initial Labs sessions, we brainstormed resources students can use to be a problem-solver. They suggested ideas such as “ask a friend” or “use an anchor chart.” When there’s only one teacher in the classroom, I’ve found it essential to help students understand that relying solely on me when they’re stuck is neither the most effective nor most efficient strategy to solve a problem.   

In the beginning of the year (and throughout the year as we encounter bumps in the road), I devote significant time to modeling procedures and inviting students to  practice. When our routines start to fall apart, we pause, I model again, and students practice until they get it just right.

Heidi: I didn’t just jump into all four Labs at once, but worked to build independence one Lab at a time. I also gave myself permission to change things along the way if something wasn’t working for kids. This approach supported us along the way, and we now have all four Labs in motion. 

For example, I initially included hand-and-rod puppets that we created as a choice for the Imagine Lab. But, I found that the kids were not using the puppets safely and it all resembled a scene from a fictional show: When Puppets Attack. In retrospect, I realize that I hadn’t fully supported the kids in learning how to use and play with the puppets. Since I wasn’t able to support the kids in the moment (as I was introducing the Engineer materials and storage system), I put the puppets on hold for a few days and got out other Imagine materials kids have practiced using. Now that the Engineer Lab is running self-sufficiently I can return to the Imagine Lab and support kids with puppet play. Through the puppet adjustment I was reminded that I need to teach the kids what I’m looking for as they work towards independence and not make any assumptions.

Students in Heidi’s class created their own puppets to use throughout the year in the Imagine Lab.

EL Education: Was there anything special you did at the start of the year to get Labs up and running successfully? Or any obstacles that you had to troubleshoot early on?

Kelly: At the start of the year, I prepared bulk materials that we’ll need in large quantities. For example, I collected and cut cardboard at home because I know students use this in multiple Labs throughout the year. I also gathered materials from the natural world that might not be readily available once winter weather descends upon the Rocky Mountains (e.g twigs, pebbles). I’ve found it helpful to think about the materials students will need ahead of time and proactively plan.*

Heidi: I have a three-step process for helping the kids manage their time during Labs and during the clean-up procedure. First, I always use a visual timer. The timer shows how much time remains within the 20-minute rotations, and then it beeps at the close of the Lab. Second, kids freeze at the beep (putting down their materials and giving themselves a hug) and listen for a direction.

Finally, I start the clean-up song. This is the signal to start cleaning up so the kids know how long they have to get things put away and get ready to rotate (at the close of the first rotation) or return to the carpet at the front of the room (at the close of the second rotation). I got a song recommendation from another Kindergarten teacher friend—ABC by the Jackson 5—and the kids love it. As the as clean-up comes to an end I start to lower the volume. We then count by 10s to 100 and the kids know they need to be ready with voices off by the time we get to 100. We can then quickly transition to Lab #2 or start our closing reflection. 

EL Education: What modifications, if any, do you make to Labs to better meet the needs and interests of your students?

Kelly: During the Kindergarten Module 3 Research Lab, I modified the content so students could engage in research about local trees. We have interesting trees in Leadville and students were curious about them. I designed the Research Lab to give students a chance to focus on the characteristics of each tree, as well as the animals that depend on those trees. I gathered library books about lodgepole pines, aspen trees, and animals local to our area that depend on those trees. We also took students outdoors to do fieldwork during Lab time, so they could observe lodgepole pine and aspen trees.

Our art teacher Katie Anderson led them through the process of making a tree collage that reflected their Lab research.


Students created beautiful collages to showcase their learning about local trees.

Heidi: My students love to build, and I wanted to include a Lab that was focused on working cooperatively with a classmate to create something new. So, I replaced the Mystery Toy Explore Lab with a Lab with a learning target of “I can share building toys to create something new with a friend.” Our reflection for this Lab is centered on how working together makes the experience richer. It’s amazing to see what the kids create and to listen to how collaboration strengthened kids’ initial ideas.  

EL Education: Is there anything else you’d like to share with primary teachers that would support their planning and implementation of Labs?

Kelly: I’ve learned to be creative in how I use and gather materials for Labs. I connect with my school and local communities to find resources for free or cheap. Unwanted items often become Labs block treasures!

Heidi: I think it’s important for teachers to recognize that implementing Labs does have a learning curve, and we need to practice self-compassion and be patient with ourselves as we roll it all out.

Leap In, Get Stuck, Push Through

The motto of the Odyssey School where Heidi teaches is “Leap In, Get Stuck, Push Through.” This phrase feels particularly apropos in regards to the K-2 Labs, especially at the start of the year.  There are myriad decisions that teachers must make about classroom space, materials organization, and routines and structures to support students. There may be times when teachers feel stuck, but we are confident they will push through when they experience first-hand how much the Labs block fosters engagement, learning and JOY in primary classrooms.

For more general information about our curriculum, check out our website or our book Your Curriculum Companion: The Essential Guide to Teaching the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum. If you have questions related to this blog, please email us at:

*Schools may also procure K-2 Labs materials kits from Open Up Resources.