Design Thinking For Kids

Design Thinking For Kids

Intuition sometimes stands at odds with empirical data. While you may be at home with your children wondering if they will ever catch-up in school – research shows that the home can be an ideal environment for learning – a notion which UDL (Universal Design for Learning) and principles of concerted cultivation (1) both speak to. Utilize this opportunity to instill these invaluable learning benefits on your children – they’re unlikely or unable to ever experience them in their school settings. And if you really want to be an overachieving parent-teacher, and impress your children’s classroom teachers upon their return to school, use your time together to teach your kids the design thinking methodology. This will bestow them with a “super-power” in the creative economy, and the 4th Industrial Revolution, both of which are upon us now. (2) Practicing design thinking stimulates engagement, creative confidence, problem-solving, and empathy, all the while equipping students with 21st century workplace skills which will prove useful throughout their lives. For help keeping your home-learners engaged throughout their Design Thinking lesson, refer to UDL’s action and expression strategies.

Design Thinking is a methodology that most people in creative industries are familiar with, and it’s not necessarily synonymous with classroom learning. However, there is evidence that design thinking aids students in core subject areas while building cognitive and social skills, an assertion that is supported by our research at STEAM Studio. A data set of 170 students and their teachers suggests that the design thinking framework was one of the most valuable take-aways for the students, with life-long learning benefits. And, according to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, innovation, creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, communication and collaboration are essential to prepare students for the future – all of which are fostered through the design thinking methodology – yet design thinking isn’t often taught in a traditional classroom. (4) Take this opportunity to teach your kids a critical thinking methodology they likely aren’t learning in school. Despite your child’s age group, they’ll follow the same process: Interpret, Plan, Build and Test, Evolve, and Pitch and Share. (5)

As indicated in the sample exercises below, the design thinking framework aims to solve problems for which the solution isn’t readily evident – leaning into kid’s given affinity for thinking outside the box and being creative. Creativity is a “muscle” rather than a trait and it can be developed. Contrary to traditional learning in which there is often a right or wrong answer, design thinking leans into a multitude of possible solutions to a problem from the perspective of the end user. It also allows kids the opportunity to think through real problems in their communities and to develop actionable pathways forward – a personal connection which by default stimulates engagement and fosters creativity. Statistically speaking, creativity in children tends to decline the longer they are in school – so support their young, creative minds with a design thinking pedagogy.


  • For your kindergarten student, the book If I Built a House is a great resource and starting point for a design-thinking learning task. Read the book aloud and then ask them to build their own dream house where each room has a purpose for the members of their family. During the interpret stage, you’ll discuss the book with your child and get them to ask questions and make connections between how the boy in the book made design choices on how he would like to live and how they would design their own home. Next, is the plan stage: give your child paper and pencils to sketch out their ideal home – this planning part is the precursor to the build and test stage. Next, give your students legos to build their house and try out their ideas in a 3D form. For the evolve stage, talk with them about their design, ask them about their choices. Finally, set up a time to pitch and share their work with the rest of the family.
  • For a 1st – 2nd grade student interested in science, try this exercise of being an entomologist for the day. During the interpret stage, have them use their existing knowledge of insects to create a new species of an insect by choosing two of their favorite bugs. Have them draw and color their favorite bugs. Then ask them to list 3-5 traits such as the color of their bug, the size, what they eat, etc and ask them to circle at least two of their favorite traits from both insects. During the planning stage have them design their own Mega Bug by combining the circle traits of their favorite bugs/insects. (Example, if a student first chooses a ladybug and a butterfly they might create a ‘Butterbug’ that looks like a Butterfly but has the spots/coloring of a ladybug). Once students have designed their Mega bug, they move onto the build and test stage and start to create a model. Craft materials, like small paper cups, pompoms, pipe cleaners, googly eyes, etc. are great for this project. Use what you have! Once your kid has built their model, talk about it with them – or if they have siblings around the same age – have both siblings do the exercise to they can say something they like about it, give feedback, and ask for clarification during the evolve and feedback stage. Finally, have them present their work to the family.
  • For a 3rd – 4th grade student, ask them to build a new version of a common board game. You will choose a common board game and change something or add something that changes the gameplay, the way the game is played. During the interpret stage, have them ask and answer questions: What types of board games are there? What is Gameplay? What would be considered a drastic change? You can do this with board games you have at home, or you can search different board games on-line. Then, have your child review the rules of the game, and decide on which ones they would like to change. During the build and test stage, have your student make a working model of the game. Finally, for the evolve and feedback stage, ask your child to explain their game and play it together as a family – and give feedback. 

Students engaged in the design thinking process are naturally exposed to a wide range of learning strategies – the creative process necessitates it – increasing metacognition, or rather, learning how they learn. Furthermore, students retain 90% of the information they teach, whereas they only retain 5% of the information they hear in a lecture (6) – so be sure to always allow your kids to present their design solutions to you and teach you about what they learned.

For help keeping your students engaged throughout their design thinking exercises, lean into the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework. Research indicates that cultivating engagement strategies such as action and expression options – are some of the best way to keep your kids learning throughout the day – and can be implemented into your design thinking lesson. This is because there is a strong link between offering student’s choice and their intrinsic motivation for doing a task and willingness to accept challenging tasks. 2-4 choices is the ideal number of options. (8)

The design thinking lesson should lean into your child’s specific affinities and talents with respect to their specific learning styles – some kids are auditory learners, others are kinesthetic learners, and others are visual learners – your design thinking challenge can reflect that. Since you have the latitude to guide your children’s learning personally, look for ways to design lessons which are aligned with their natural strengths. For example, if your child shows an affinity for the outdoors, the entomologist exercise may be perfect for them. If your child likes to make art, design a challenge that involves using art supplies – like the board game exercise. These engagement strategies can act as a foundation for your at-home learning environment; an environment that is specifically suited to concerted cultivation – the act of parent-guided learning outside of the traditional classroom model known to significantly accelerate cognitive development. There is clear evidence that interest-based interventions (personalization) can lead to robust learning outcomes – such as transfer and accelerated future learning. (9)

During your time at home learning with your child, take solace in the life-long value that  your concerted cultivation will bring them.  This is a learning concept that looks at the cognitive development of children outside of their time spent in school. Children of varying learning capacities learn at very similar rates during the school day. But there’s an incredible difference in the cognitive development that continues in some children after school, during weekends, and especially over summer breaks. Children whose parents continue to support their kids’ learning growth beyond school are practicing concerted cultivation – their children’s cognitive development continues to grow. Measured over 12 years of education, the cognitive development between a child who experiences rich concerted cultivation, versus children whose parents leave their children’s education management up to the schools, is significant. If you feel under-qualified as an educator, know that by whatever means you’re supporting your children’s learning, you’re practicing concerted cultivation and helping them in great strides over the long run. This kind of support ultimately sets kids up for success later in life.

While you may be struggling with this new life as educator and WFH parent, the data-shows that this is actually the ideal time to instill the life-skills in your children that they just can’t gain in school. As we mentioned in our previous posts, “UDL Tips from a teacher,” your 1-on-1 learning environment is actually much better suited to learning then the traditional classroom. Start by utilizing engagement strategies to teach your kids invaluable design thinking skills. There is no time like the present to prepare your kids for the future, and no better time to lean into teaching your children what traditionally education cannot.




(1) Lareau, Annette. Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. University of California Press, 2011.

 (2) Martin, Roger. “Capitalism Needs Design Thinking.” Martin Prosperity Institute, 7 Dec. 2014,

(3) Finn, Jeremy D. School Engagement & Students at Risk. Distributed by ERIC Clearinghouse, 1993.

(4) K, Bittersweet. “Preparing 21st Century Students for a Global Society An Educator’s Guide to the ” Four Cs ” Great Public Schools for Every Student.”,

(5) Reid, David, and Mandi Sonnenberg . Unleashing Creative Genius, STEAM Studio’s Impact on Learning. STEAM Studio, 2017.

(6) “Learning Pyramid.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 11 Feb. 2020,

(7) Ainsworth-Land, George T., and Beth Jarman. Breakpoint and beyond: Mastering the Future–Today. HarperBusiness, 2000.

(8) Patall, EA; Cooper, H.; Robinson, JC. The Effects of Choice on Intrinsic Motivation and Related Outcomes: a Meta-Analysis of Research Findings. U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, 2008.

(9) Walkington, Candace A. “Using Adaptive Learning Technologies to Personalize Instruction to Student Interests: The Impact of Relevant Contexts on Performance and Learning Outcomes.” Journal of Educational Psychology, vol. 105, no. 4, 2013, pp. 932–945., doi:10.1037/a0031882.