5 Ways To Practice ‘Design Thinking’ With Young Kids (And Why It’s So Important)

At smallbooks, we are big fans of 'design thinking' and we try to encourage building this mindset in all of our activity and sketch books. We think it's one of the best tools we can equip our kids with to help them be open, inquisitive, and engaged big people.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a process for creative problem-solving. It is a tool that uses empathy, observation, tenacity and openness to change. And because design thinkers don’t believe in just one right solution, they are continuously generating and testing ideas. It’s a theory and process that revolves around a deep interest in understanding people and helps us in the all-important process of questioning: questioning the problem, questioning the assumptions, and questioning the implications. We think questioning is one of the cornerstones of an active, engaged mind and a healthy approach to life.

Why design thinking is great for raising resourceful, adaptive kids

So, why is design thinking important?

Well, it looks like future generations (ie. today’s kids) will be called on to solve some of the most challenging problems our world has seen. These kids will have to envision and implement multiple solutions for addressing the complex challenges we’re facing, including renewable energy, rising human population, diminishing resources, dramatic climate change, global pandemics, and ultimately, the design of a more sustainable, livable world. They must also possess the compassion to help create a global community that is inclusive, rather than exclusive. We know, we’re getting a little serious here (we’ve been reading a lot of Yuval Noah Harari).

The theory and practice of starting design thinking activities early on in life supports little ones in developing that all-important growth mindset and the crucial problem solving, analytical and spatial thinking skills that will help them adapt to a rapidly changing world, both now and when they’re older. Thinking creatively, using a set of tools and experimenting with things that work (and things that don’t) will set them up to be resilient and adaptable, two of the best assets any person can have.

“One of the great things about design thinking is that everyone can do it … think of creativity as a muscle instead of a trait. You can train it, get it into shape.”

- Shelley Goldman, Professor of Education at Stanford University

What is design thinking used for?

Ok, let’s get back to what it is. Design thinking is for everyone, not just designers. All great innovators in literature, art, music, science, engineering, and business have practiced it. And it works in our relationships as well, think about how you’ve probably already used it as a new parent - trying new tools and techniques to get them to eat carrots, or into the bath or to fall asleep before midnight. Please, please tell us if you figure any of these out.

The term ‘design thinking’ has been embraced by businesses in the last decade, as a protocol for solving problems and discovering new opportunities. Companies like Apple, Google, and Nike are all implementing design thinking to drive innovation and growth (read more about a them and a whole slew of others who are doing it too) and it’s being taught at universities around the world, including Oxford, Harvard, and MIT (Roger Martin at the University of Toronto wrote this leading book on Design Thinking for Business back in 2009) . In this ‘grown up world’ context it typically follows 5 key stages: empathize, define the problem, create and consider many options, refine the selected directions (repeat this as many times as needed), and then pick the best option and execute.

Story time break!

Years ago, an accident happened involving a truck driver who tried to pass under a low bridge. But he mis-judged, and the truck was lodged firmly under the bridge. The driver was unable to continue driving through or reverse out. The story goes that as traffic began to pile up, emergency personnel, engineers, firefighters and truck drivers gathered to devise various solutions for dislodging the trapped vehicle. Each suggested an idea which fitted within his or her respective level of expertise, including dismantling parts of the truck or chipping away at parts of the bridge.

Image Copyright holder: Wystan, Flickr. Copyright terms and license: CC BY 2.0


A boy walking by and witnessing the intense debate looked at the truck, at the bridge, then looked at the road and said nonchalantly, "Why not just let the air out of the tires?" to the absolute amazement of all the specialists and experts trying to unpick the problem. When the solution was tested, the truck was able to drive out with ease. The story symbolizes the struggles we face where the most obvious solutions are sometimes the ones hardest to come by because of the self-imposed constraints we work within (and this is design thinking in action!)

So, here are 5 ways we can practice design thinking with little ones:

Teach kids to create.

Drawing is the single best way to introduce design thinking to children. Keep lots of drawing supplies on hand - different pencils, crayons, paints, and of course sketchbooks. And then very importantly, give them some initial direction (like we do in our activity books), to get them started. Ask them to draw something that interests them - it can be tangible like dinosaurs, hearts, space ships or houses, or more abstract like how they feel in the morning or what being cold looks like. Once you’ve started them on a path we usually find that this leads to more idea-generation coming directly from them, and of course then they start telling YOU what to do:)

Don’t know all the answers.

Good designers adopt a beginner’s mind-set and stay open to possibilities. “Everything changes — both in our relationship with our kids and in the way we engage the world ourselves — as soon as we become learners alongside our kids rather than trying to be their teachers.” says Erin Cohn, a senior partner at Leadership + Design, a consulting company that works with schools. When children ask questions you can’t answer, make finding the answers a joint project.

Quit for a bit.

When chatting with a well-known architect once, he told us that he loved it when his staff went for a cigarette break during their workday. He said it was the most creative thing they could do, and they’d always come back with renewed energy and maybe even a new idea to a problem (to be clear, we’re NOT saying your kid, or anyone, should smoke cigarettes or anything else for that matter, to keep inspired:) On a kid level, child development experts say that, on average, a 4- or 5-year-old may be able to stay focused on a task for two to five minutes times the year of their age. That means young kids might be able to focus between 4 and 20 minutes, possibly more, depending on the task, time of day, how many snacks they’ve had (we know this is likely the most important variable). So take a break! Go outside, hang upside down, chase the cat, anything that refreshes the mind and body.

Mess it up, a lot, and then try again.

Try something out, and if it doesn’t work, try something else! This may seem obvious but lots of kids get frustrated and stuck when they can’t do something perfectly the first time. Show them that you make mistakes too ‘wow, this dinosaur I drew looks more like a chicken!’ and that it’s ok (and even good) to try again, and again, and again. It builds resilience, opens up questions and hones skills. This is why we have a LOT of blank pages in our activity books, and why we also make sketchbooks - you need space to test ideas, try things out, see what works and what doesn’t. Maybe that chicken will turn into something great.

Relax (or try to).

Getting outside our own rigid ideas of what works and what doesn’t might open up a bunch of possibilities to bond with your kid and help build communication. When children feel heard and understood (adults too), they’re more likely to engage and cooperate. From our own experience, sticking to a schedule works for our family, but sometimes when we ease up on our own agenda and let our kids lead the way (is the world going to explode if our little one goes to bed 30 minutes later or eats only cheese for dinner one night?) we actually all feel less stressed and more open to new ideas, possibilities and creativity.

Still interested?

There’s a SUPER interesting podcast here with Goldman, author of the recent book Taking Design Thinking to School, along with GSE Dean Dan Schwartz and Senior Lecturer Denise Pope (all at Stanford) talking about why design thinking is such a powerful skill for students to develop and how K-12 teachers can incorporate it into classroom learning (27 minutes long, but if you need to leave early we won’t tell anyone.)