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Design Thinking in the 1st Grade Classroom

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First graders are often filled with enthusiasm and excitement for learning and life, jumping into projects “with both feet” (Responsive Classroom).

In my experience teaching first graders, many of my students thrive with hands-on projects.

Because of their enthusiasm – which is sometimes met with high energy! – I enjoy teaching students skills like problem-solving and developing a growth mindset through the Design Thinking process.

Design Thinking, a creative problem-solving approach, has made quite the buzz in education for a number of years now.

But despite its popularity, there aren’t too many resources available for implementing Design Thinking with our young learners in school.

In today’s blog post, I’m going to share tips and strategies for implementing Design Thinking into your 1st Grade classroom.

First, we’ll define Design Thinking. Then, I’ll share some tips for getting started with Design Thinking, followed by an in-depth project example. Lastly, I’ll share some additional project ideas to spark some extra inspiration.

What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is an iterative, human-centered, problem-solving process that involves five key steps: (1) empathize, (2) define, (3) ideate, (4) prototype, and (5) test.

Design Thinking sparks innovation, encouraging students to explore “wildly radical” ideas.

I don’t want to spend too much time defining “Design Thinking” in this blog post, so if you are looking for a complete breakdown on all 5 stages, you can check out another blog post here.

You can also view all my posts on Design Thinking here.

Getting Started with Design Thinking in 1st Grade

Tip #1: Start Small

My biggest advice for introducing Design Thinking to 1st graders – and all early elementary students – is to start small.

Instead of introducing all 5 stages to your students at once, consider starting out with just one or two stages. For example, I like to focus on the “Prototype” and “Test” stages with my 1st Grade students.

Maybe you will choose to focus on “Empathize” to help your students learn about empathy and compassion. Or, maybe you want your students to practice brainstorming, so you’ll start out with “Ideate.”

Start small.

Tip #2: Emphasize Process Over Product

Design Thinking can lead to some pretty amazing ideas and inventions.

At the same time, with my 1st Grade students, I find most success when I emphasize the importance of the Design Thinking process over the product.

Because so many students get easily excited by our projects, sometimes they might rush through the process to get to the final result.

I encourage students to really take their time with ideating, prototyping, and testing.

Tip #3: Teach Growth Mindset

Design Thinking helps students develop a growth mindset. And as a teacher, you can encourage students to use a growth mindset throughout the Design Thinking process by modeling different scenarios.

My students tend to need the most support during the “Prototype” and “Test” Stages. For example, when students are prototyping, they might have difficulty bringing their ideas to life through building. Or, maybe a student is struggling to get their prototype to stand up on its own.

As their teacher, you can support students to use a different strategy, rather than giving up. You can have conversations about how mistakes help us learn. These are real problems that inventors and engineers face everyday!

Design Thinking Project Example: If I Built A School

I love using read alouds as a method to teach Design Thinking. That’s another great tip for teaching 1st graders!

By using read alouds to launch a Design Thinking project, I’m able to teach students valuable listening and reading skills, alongside problem-solving and critical thinking. 

Let’s take a look at an in-depth project example for 1st graders using the book If I Built a School by Chris Van Dusen.

Starting with a Read Aloud

I would begin our lesson by having students sit on the rug in our meeting area. I would show them the cover of the book and say, “Today, we will be doing a Design Thinking project. We can use Design Thinking to solve problems. First, we will be reading If I Built a School by Chris Van Dusen. Next, we will use different materials to build models of our dream schools.”

As we read the book, I will ask students to make predictions about what will happen. I also might ask students to share observations or similarities they have with the main character.

Giving Directions for the Activity

After I finish the read aloud, I might begin with an essential question, such as “How might we build our own dream schools?”

I might start off the Design Thinking portion of the activity by saying, “Before we begin building, we will brainstorm ideas on a piece of paper. Draw or write ideas of what you want your dream school to have. Brainstorming ideas is sometimes called ‘Ideating.’ What ideas did Jack have in the story?”

I would write some of Jack’s ideas on the board.

Ideate and Prototype Stages

Once students have a better understanding of what “ideating” looks like, I will have them spend about 10min brainstorming ideas. They can draw or write on a piece of paper or in their notebooks.

Students might even have some time to share those ideas with a partner.

Once we have finished the “Ideate” stage, I might have us come together as a class again, and I might say, “Now we are going to use different materials to build prototypes of our own dream schools. Does anyone know what the word ‘prototype’ means?”

Once we have defined “prototype,” students would begin building their 3D prototypes of their dream schools. I might give students about 30-45min to build, but the time allotment is also up to you!

Materials might include paper cups, cardboard, straws, popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, tape, and scissors. You can choose to limit students to only use certain materials, or you can give them many options – this is also up to you!

Design Thinking Project Ideas for First Grade

If you are looking for additional Design Thinking ideas to use in your 1st Grade classroom, check out the ideas below:

Design Thinking Read Alouds for First Grade

Additional Design Thinking Ideas

  • Design a new school playground.
  • Design a gift for a friend or family member.
  • Design a habitat for an endangered animal.
  • Design a new sport.
  • Design a new board game.

Thank You!

Thank you for reading this blog post about Design Thinking in the First Grade classroom. I’d love to hear from you! What other ideas do you have? Leave a comment down below, DM me on Instagram @edtechclass, or email me at myedtechclassroom@gmail.com.

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