Design Thinking in Preschool

The following post is written by Liz Aull, a teacher at Mount Vernon’s Early Learning Center, a designer, leader, educational researcher and design thinking enthusiast. 

I suspect that anyone who knows anything about design thinking wonders how young children can do it. I also suspect that everyone who works with young children incorporates aspects of design thinking into their classroom, whether they realize it or not.





These are all natural aspects of a high-quality early childhood curriculum. Young children should have multiple opportunities to discover new ideas. Their teacher should also provide ample ways to explore something new – materials, other people, emotions, senses, experiences. In addition, part of the classroom experience includes moments to empathize with others so that they can learn how to be in community with others. Finally, really, what child doesn’t want the opportunity to experiment and create something? Crayons, clay, paint, scraps of paper – all of these beg for a child’s hands and imagination.

The key is to put all of the pieces together into a one project. In the preschool, we have found that we can build design thinking experiences around an idea or topic in which children have already demonstrated an interest.  Weaving together aspects of design thinking with the work of Judy Harris Helm and Lillian Katz around the Project Approach, and inspired by the schools of Reggio Emilia, we incorporate design thinking into our emergent curriculum planning.

How do we do it?


First, we know we have to get down on the floor with the children and interact with them. We have to pay attention to their interests, add provocations to the classroom, and help them learn how to empathize. Part of the way we help them build their empathy muscles is to model for them what it means to be empathic people. Empathy doesn’t come naturally. It’s definitely a learned skill. We ask them lots of questions about how they feel in certain situations. Then we ask them how others might feel as well. It’s a lot of role-playing on the part of the teachers. It also involves a fine balance between planning (adding provocations to the classroom) and letting the project flow naturally. We listen to what they tell us, we observe how they interact and play with each other, and we listen to their conversations around the classroom. What interests them? What do they want to know more about? Where do they see a problem that we might not notice? What new materials can we add to the room to expand their interests and invite curiosity and questioning?


Spidea Web

The aspects that make design thinking, design thinking, are also what make a good early childhood classroom. It’s just a matter of finding the developmentally appropriate level. For example, we have tools in our DEEPdt playbook that work so well with the little ones. During the discovery and exploration point of a project, we can use the “Know and Need to Know” page to uncover their questions and curiosities, and we can use the “Spidea Web” as a tool to brainstorm about a certain topic. Inviting these little ones into the project by having them generate questions and pathways to explore is a great way to get them engaged in a project they truly care about. For example, last year during the Shiny Baby-Toy Project, the two-year-olds used the “Know and Need to Know” page to compile their observations and thoughts about the babies. We listed our observations, such as how the babies loved shiny objects. Then we figured out that the babies did not have many shiny toys. That became the springboard for our design thinking project.



Screenshot 2016-02-16 15.09.30

How incredible that we get to position these young toddlers not just as problem solvers but as problem seekers. They were the ones who discovered the problem that the babies didn’t have enough shiny toys to play with. And they were the ones to generate ideas for solutions. Our aim as educators — regardless of the age we teach — should be to nurture creative problem solvers. Design thinking processes, tools and methodologies help us set the condition for even our tiniest explorers to realize they have the capacity to make the world better for someone else.
Design thinking is not just about crafty projects. It’s about helping people see themselves as problem solvers. And for us, it’s about assuring two-year-olds that they can make a difference. It’s about building empathic, caring and resilient little people. Toddlers and preschoolers are naturally curious. They wonder about everything and their ways for problem solving are certainly unique and creative. By inviting these little people into the world of design thinking we are equipping them with a mindset that says go ahead, take a risk. Try out your ideas. Why wouldn’t we want to instill that kind of thinking into our youngest learners?

2 thoughts on “Design Thinking in Preschool”

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *