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Design Thinking in the 2nd Grade Classroom

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I love teaching second graders because of their independence and eagerness to learn.

While all students are unique, I have noticed that many of my second graders are often self-focused but also crave structure. Many second graders enjoy making sense of the world around them (Responsive Classroom).

Many of these students also need and value order. I’ve noticed this in particular with my students who gravitate toward reading books in a series (in the right order).

In addition to their desire for order, many second graders also take time completing their work thoughtfully and carefully (Responsive Classroom).

Because of these characteristics, I enjoy teaching Design Thinking to this grade level, as I am often met with enthusiasm and interest.

Design Thinking is a five-step creative problem-solving approach that students can use to identify and solve problems.

In today’s blog post, I’m going to share tips and strategies for implementing Design Thinking into your 2nd Grade classroom.

First, we’ll define Design Thinking. Then, I’ll share some tips for getting started with Design Thinking, followed by a 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 2nd Grade

Tip #1: Provide Structure Upfront

Because so many second graders need and value order (Responsive Classroom), I like to show my students all 5 stages of Design Thinking at the very start of our project.

I might start off our Design Thinking project by saying something like, “Today we are beginning a Design Thinking project. Our project has five different steps. Step 1: Empathize. Step 2: Define. Step 3: Ideate. Step 4: Prototype. And Step 5: Test.”

By doing this upfront, I’m able to provide students with structure and predictability, as well as set up clear expectations for our entire project.

Please Note: I don’t always use all five stages with 2nd graders. In fact, I’ll often focus on just one or two stages. If I do, however, choose to use the whole process, I consistently share the 5 steps upfront!

Tip #2: Emphasize Process Over Product

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

At the same time, with my 2nd 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: Embed Social Emotional Learning

Intentional social emotional learning (SEL) lessons help students understand and manage emotions, as well as set and achieve personal positive goals.

In the Design Thinking process, students will set regular goals for themselves, and as the teacher, you can model what positive goal-setting might look like.

Or, because Design Thinking includes a stage centered around empathy, maybe you will choose to really focus on what it means to feel and show empathy for others.

Lastly, Design Thinking also helps students build a growth mindset. As a teacher, you can support your second graders to use a different strategy, rather than giving up. You can have conversations about how mistakes help us learn.

Design Thinking Project Example: The Backpack Project

I wrote about the Backpack Project in a previous blog post here, but I’ll be sharing it again today through the lens of teaching 2nd grade students.

You might want to check out my other blog post if you are looking for an in-depth breakdown on each stage of the Backpack Project.

The Backpack Project is inspired by the “Gift-Giving Project” and the “Wallet Project,” from the Stanford d.school. In the Backpack Project, students have 60-90 minutes to design and build a backpack for a friend. 

Our essential question for the Backpack Project is:

How can we design and build a helpful and thoughtful backpack for a friend? 

The goal of the Backpack Project is to have students practice empathy by designing a meaningful gift for someone in the class.

Introducing the Project

To begin our project, I would introduce our essential question, along with the five different stages of the Design Thinking project. I would recommend writing both the essential question and the stages on the board.

For example, I might start off by saying, “Today we will be doing a Design Thinking project called the Backpack Project. Our essential question is: How can we design and build a helpful and thoughtful backpack for a friend?

“First, we will interview our partner to learn more about them and their interests. This stage is called ‘Empathize.’ Then, we will decide what our partner likes and needs, based off our interviews. This is called the ‘Define’ stage.

Next, we will ‘ideate’ or brainstorm ideas. Then, we will build ‘prototypes’ based on our ideas. Lastly, we will ‘test’ our prototypes by gifting them to our partners.”

Beginning the Design Thinking Process

Once you have provided students with structure for the project, you can launch into the first stage, “Empathize.”

For this first stage of the Backpack Project, students will interview their partners. I use the word “interview” to describe this process, but I also like to tell students that we are doing this activity to “get to know each other.” 

For the “Empathize” stage, I like to provide my 2nd grade students with a list of questions they can ask their partners. I find it to be a helpful strategy for scaffolding this activity at the start of the school year.

Potential questions for students to ask their partners:

  • Walk me through the contents of your backpack (or tote bag, etc.). 
  • Why do you have a particular item in your backpack?
  • When do you carry your backpack?
  • What do you primarily use your backpack for? 

Students can spend about 5-10 minutes each interviewing their partners.

If you are looking for an in-depth breakdown of each stage of the Backpack Project, check out this blog post here.

Wrapping Up the Project

Once students have completed the “Prototype” stage, meaning they have created prototypes of backpacks to give to their partner, it is time for students to “test” their designs.

When a project asks students to design a prototype for another person, I typically have students “test” out their creations by getting feedback from that person.

In the Backpack Project, students would show their prototypes to their partners, and get feedback and additional ideas on how to improve their designs.

What does their partner like about their backpack? What is helpful about this backpack? How is the design of this backpack thoughtful?

I remind students to use “I like…” and “I wonder…” feedback when checking in with their partners.

You can also have students spend some time reflecting on the Design Thinking process as a way to wrap up this activity.

Design Thinking Project Ideas for 2nd Grade

If you are looking for additional Design Thinking ideas to use in your 2nd Grade classroom, check out the ideas below:

Design Thinking Read Alouds for 2nd Grade

I love using read alouds as a method to teach Design Thinking. That’s another great tip for teaching 2nd 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. 

Here is a list of books that you can use for a project:

Additional Design Thinking Ideas

  • Design a new sport.
  • Design a new board game.
  • Design a cardboard arcade.
  • Design a system to improve food waste at your school.
  • Design a pair of sneakers for a friend.

Thank You!

Thank you for reading this blog post about Design Thinking in the 2nd 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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