Design Thinking in Preschool

A guest post by Erin Carey, Preschool Head of Learning and Innovation, Mount Vernon Presbyterian School

So, you’ve heard a lot about Design Thinking, right? Well, have you ever thought about what that looks like with different groups of people? Specifically, what might that look like with young children, and the teachers that work with them every day?

Here in the Preschool at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School, we utilize the principles and practices of Design Thinking through Project Work done with our children, in curriculum planning, in the plans for environment, and many other ways. This year, two of our amazing Preschool teachers, Anne Riley and Liz Aull participated in grant work funded by MVIFI. The purpose of the grant was to better understand MVIFI’s new design thinking model, The Compass as well as the Design Thinking tools in A Field Guide For Design Thinking.

The Compass Helps to Keep the User at the Center

The Compass has helped us reimagine how we see our Design Thinking Process: The user is always at the center and each stage of the process (Discover, Define, Design, and Deploy) can be a place of entry, a point along the journey, or the final destination. The inner ring has helped us to convey our passion for creating more than just a Maker Space but a Maker Mindset in all of our learners, from Preschool to our Faculty and Staff.

Hacking the Compass

the project approach


Anne and Liz knew that they wanted to create a tool for the Preschool Faculty to more easily incorporate Design Thinking in everyday practices. They dug into each layer of the Compass and realized that there needed to be terminology and process connection related to how our Preschool faculty teaches using the Project Approach (curriculum focused on deep investigations of topics that are of interest and value to the students).

Through their work, Anne and Liz realized that while the planning of a Project is very linear in structure the methods and ideas used in the classroom are more fluid.  This fluidity in the “real-world” lends itself easily to the Thinking Modes and Design Approaches of the MVIFI Compass. Therefore, they took the original Compass and added another layer or “Third Bezel.”  


design thinking compass and project approachBy adding in the steps and processes taken during the planning of and execution of Project work, Anne and Liz were able to put these ideas into one single place. The low-resolution prototype to the right was presented to the Preschool faculty for experimentation and feedback in January 2019.

Each classroom teaching team had the opportunity to work with the prototype in their classrooms and test it for future project planning use. All teachers committed to trying the prototype and documenting their feedback to be presented for further iteration.

After introducing this work, Anne and Liz reminded the Preschool faculty that they, too, can use design thinking practices in their planning, organization, and room arrangement. By providing examples of The Field Guide tool usage (specifically Four Corners, Empathy Map, and Adventure Grid) faculty members had the opportunity to practice a lap of designing for their users: their students. One particular example was shared by Anne as she and her co-teacher, Kate Canady, sat down to re-imagine the creativity center into a bookmaking center. They discussed using the prompts from the Four Corners exercise:

Things I like most
Things that could be improved
Things I don’t understand
New Ideas to Consider.

Where will the Compass take you?

design thinking tool four corners

After sharing these examples, Liz and Anne asked the Preschool faculty members to break into their classroom teaching teams. Their task was to choose one of the highlighted tools as a way to organize their thoughts on how they might want to redesign their classroom environment, curricular focus, or individual child interactions. It was discovered that this was a great way to get people energized about using design thinking tools in the process of re-energizing their practices.

Throughout the afternoon and into the rest of the week, many teachers provided positive feedback about their experience and the amount of design thinking between faculty increased greatly! I am excited to see how this continues to build as the Preschool faculty utilizes these tools, grows in their Design Thinking practices, and works together in their own understanding of the Design Thinking Process.

To see an example of a complete Design Thinking Challenge done by Preschoolers, click here.

One thought on “Design Thinking in Preschool”

  1. I love The Compass! My constituents and I have spent the last six years gently flowing from Stanford’s d.school terminology to Mt. Vernon’s DEEP and back again, often changing “the rules” as we go in order to fit specific projects. (I attended your FUSE conference all those years ago.) The Compass perfectly gives form to our organic way of approaching design thinking. I’m trying out two small changes to the inner ring (hacking, yay!), changing Idea Exchange to Brainstorm, and Craftsmanship to Refine, for the simple reason that it makes all four points on the inner ring verbs! Can’t wait to laser cut my own Compass! Thank you for sharing your processes and prototypes. And thank you for keeping the bigger vision in sight: Building a maker mindset. Keep up the good work.

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