Design Thinking in the Early Childhood Classroom

13 Mar Design Thinking in the Early Childhood Classroom

At Montclare Children’s School we are always looking for ways to inspire, motivate and, most importantly, prepare our students for future learning. My colleague, Jenny Bruce, and I attended the FETC conference last year in Orlando, FL. Interested in introducing coding and addressing 21st Century learning skills, we focused our attention primarily on finding screen-free technology and we were not disappointed.  However, in our exploration, it surprised us how often the terms technology and innovation were used interchangeably. Interested in further distinguishing between the two, Jenny brought up Design Thinking which she was studying at Teacher’s College, Columbia University.

Originally, adopted by corporations to innovate and improve existing products and develop new ones, Design Thinking is a process for innovative problem-solving and abductive reasoning. Through the Design Thinking lens, in recent years, we have seen notable innovations in the service industry with companies like Netflix, Uber, Task Rabbit and GrubHub. By turning conventional thinking upside down, these “disruptive” business models aim to improve customer experience by creatively solving problems.

As an educator, I asked myself, how does this new way of identifying and addressing problems influence how we might educate our children? Without using technology, how could we thoughtfully address the four “Cs” of 21st-century skills; creativity, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking?

Inspired, we returned to Montclare, where we set out to create a curriculum that would encourage our teachers and children to think and most importantly, learn outside of the box.  I was excited to develop lessons that incorporated the stages of Design Thinking with project, inquiry-based learning. The stages of Design Thinking include: empathizing, defining, ideating (brainstorming), prototyping and testing (or as we refer to it in early childhood assessing).

In our four-year-old classrooms, we presented the children with posters of visual illustrations of “problems.” Some examples of problems are; needing to cross a river, saving a cat from a tree, catching a mouse, and building a shelter in a storm.  We encouraged the children to talk about how the people and animals in the various scenarios might feel with a focus on empathy.  The children then built consensus and agreed upon the problem they would address.  When we began the process of brainstorming, the real excitement kicked in!

We encouraged the children to throw out any and all ideas. No idea was wrong or right.  Without teacher input, the children began to build upon each other’s ideas.  We separated the children into groups began to prototype with a variety of supplied, simple materials (including cardboard, tape, paperclips, and playdoh). It was inspiring to see their imaginations at work and no two designs were the same! Once their prototypes were completed, each group presented their design, explaining their unique and creative solution to the problem.  The final stage of Design Thinking is “testing” which we chose to replace with an assessment of the children’s most important takeaways from the lesson.

It shouldn’t be surprising, but preschoolers are born innovators! Their creativity is boundless!  Thinking outside of the box comes naturally to young children and our role as educators is to nurture that curiosity! There are many opportunities in an early childhood classroom to try out one or more phases of Design Thinking, from designing the layout of the classroom to coming up with classroom rules and procedures.  The process gives everyone a voice and provides students with a sense of ownership over their own learning, leading to a more authentic pathway to inspiring lifelong learners.

Coming full circle, we submitted our work to FETC as a proposal for an early childhood workshop and we were accepted! It was such a thrill to share our ideas with other like-minded educators and school administrators at the Orlando Conference this year! We received helpful, thoughtful feedback and we look forward to continuing this initiative!  We are so excited to be presenting at Teaching with Technology 2019 Conference (TWT19) on April 22, 2019, at Léman Manhattan next!


By Sasha Wilson, Montclare Educational Director and Jenny Bruce, Montclare Director of Communications.