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Design thinking is a lifelong skill that children may use to tackle complex problems throughout their lives and is a valuable skill to learn early in life.

In early childhood education, most parents are aware of the importance of teaching key academic skills such as early literacy and mathematics skills. Recent research also suggests that problem-solving is an equally important skillset to teach young children.

While the design thinking model is implemented in K-12 education, it is relatively new in early childhood education but highly effective.

What is design thinking? 

Design thinking is an iterative process used to solve real-world problems. At its core, design thinking has several steps: Identify a problem, design potential solutions, test the solutions, redesign as needed and share the solutions with a wider audience.

Design thinking is used regularly in many fields (engineering, business, IT, health care, etc.) and has recently gained wide popularity due to the effectiveness of this problem-solving approach.

Why is design thinking important? 

As paediatrician Laura Jana notes in her book, The Toddler Brain, 65 per cent of today’s children will face as yet unknown careers and problems when they are adults. Children will always need to solve problems throughout their lives and the difficulties they face will grow in complexity as they mature.

Design thinking is a lifelong skill that children may use to tackle complex problems throughout their lives, so it is a valuable skill to learn early in life, particularly within the first five years.

According to Dr. Jana, there is a direct connection between early skills and workforce development. The 21st century competencies valued by today’s business world are one and the same with the core social, emotional, language and executive function skills that can be fostered in early childhood.

Forbes explains that design thinking is a way for businesses to increase productivity, foster innovation and eliminate wasted time and money on guesswork-based development by empowering front-line workers to collaborate on diverse teams and explore new ideas.

Design thinking helps children build a resilience-focused mindset and teaches many of the 21st century skills, such as the four C’s: creativity, collaboration, compassion and confidence. These are skills children can use to address increasingly complex problems throughout their lives.

What skills are taught through design thinking experiences? 

In addition to the four C’s mentioned earlier, design thinking teaches empathy and perseverance or as Paul Tough (2012) says, grit. STEAM (science, engineering, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics) are also skillsets young children learn through design challenges.

As children use the design thinking process, they begin to empathise with complex problems as they examine the issue from many angles. For example, school-age children might interview local charitable and community organisations to examine real-world problems.

Next, children learn about perseverance and grit as they design potential solutions and try out those solutions. Failure is an important part of the process as children are taught to embrace critique and redesign solutions based on feedback. Finally, children develop leadership and communication skills as they share their final solutions with a wider audience, such as local charities and community groups, which strengthens their understanding for overcoming obstacles that will benefit them for life.

Why is design thinking developmentally appropriate for early childhood education?

Young children are natural problem-solvers Copple and Bredekamp (2009). If you have ever watched a toddler explore toys, you will notice the perseverance and curiosity are already there. For example, as a child attempts to stack blocks and fails repeatedly, they continue to try in new ways until they finally reach a solution.

Young children are hands-on learners—they learn by actively exploring objects. In addition, young children learn through integrating content areas—they do not master concepts in isolation (Copple and Bredekamp 2009; Donovan 2015; Linder 2015; Green, Trundle, and Shaheen 2018). They do not have the developmental capability, or the need, to separate domains of learning and development.

Young children learn best in the context of real and meaningful experiences, which overlap the academic domains and areas of development (Piaget 1929; Copple and Bredekamp 2009). Design thinking aligns well with an integrated approach to learning by providing a structured approach to problem-solving which can be scaffolded to increase challenge each year as children learn more complex problem-solving skills.

Just like children, the world is changing at an alarming rate. New technology, an ever-changing economy and the complex environment all display the importance of innovation skills. By introducing design thinking to young children during their first five years of life, we are preparing the next generation for lifelong success.

Dr Maria Shaheen, Senior Director of Early Childhood Education