Design Thinking and Creative Confidence in the Classroom

As early childhood educators, there is one thing we have all learned from the children we teach and care for, and that is how to be masters of imagination and creativity.

For children, everything is new. They are inherently creative, inquisitive, and innovative. As we grow, we start to develop more preconceived ideas and assumptions of who we are and the capabilities we have. We slowly shift from our once free and fearless growth mindset, and start to live life through a more fixed mindset. When does this start and how can we as early childhood educators foster a lifelong growth mindset in children? 

The future of work is calling on a skillset that is rapidly changing. As educators, how might we thoughtfully address the 21st century skills of creativity, empathy, communication, collaboration and critical thinking that our children will need, in our classrooms? Through incorporating design thinking methodologies into our classrooms and activity planning we can enhance the learning and experience outcomes of young children.

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is an approach that incorporates fluid and interactive thinking with rapid problem-solving. The most important piece is that there is no right answer. With design thinking, we are embracing failure. We are learning from mistakes and we are embracing the new solutions that we are learning along the way.

A big part of design thinking is creative confidence, though lucky for us, all children harbor creative confidence. Our job? Encourage and foster creative confidence and design thinking in the young children we care for, so that as they grow, so do these skills.

How to Promote Design Thinking

All children carry varying interests and skills and the early years are a vital time for them to learn about who they are and the capabilities they have. Below are a few tips on how you can incorporate design thinking and creative confidence, for all children, into your classrooms. 

Embrace Play-Based Learning

Let children be masters of their own learning. Children are naturally curious and innovative, so follow their thinking and see what they discover. With play-based learning children, are continuously following their own interests and the problem-solving never ceases.

Free play is critical in the early years and allows children to work at their own pace, solve their own problems, and self-evaluate their own learning. As educators, we have goals for our children, but free play is an important time to try and step back and not interrupt their creative thinking. There is so much they can learn from themselves, and we can learn from them when their creativity is flowing.

Teach Children Courage

To embrace design thinking and confidence, we cannot be afraid to fail. In early childhood settings, we have the opportunity to teach children courage multiple times a day. Is the child stuck at the top of the slide and afraid to go down? We know it is safe, but they might not. All they need is that first bit of encouragement to propel themselves down the slide and their fear has been replaced with excitement and confidence. Create these opportunities as much as you can, because these moments matter. 

Encourage Empathy

Important distinction: encouraging empathy is not the same as forcing sympathy. If a child bites, kicks or hurts another child, a common reaction is to have the child apologize or hug the child they hurt. This is a natural reaction, though it is not empathy. This does not teach the child about what they did, and can often cause the child they hurt to react in fear as the child who just hurt them is now being told to touch them again.

How do we encourage empathy? Let the child know that their friend might want some space from them right now and that their actions hurt them. You can also leverage circle time to talk about how certain situations make children feel. Use examples they can relate to such as, “how did it feel when your friend took the shovel from you?” Problem-solve with them: “what else might we do when our body is telling us to take the shovel?”

With young children, they do not have the capacity to think through the effects of their actions, so it is important to empathize with the emotions of children on both sides. The child who had a toy taken, and the child who felt compelled to take the toy. Both these emotions matter and both are critical in fostering empathy. 

Encourage Creative Problem-Solving

If you work with preschool or kindergarten children, encourage creative problem-solving at their level. Have the children brainstorm common problems they see or think about in their day-to-day. To make the activity as meaningful as possible let the children identify the problems they want to solve, though they might need some guidance and probes to get the conversation flowing. During these conversations be sure to encourage all ideas. We can’t use each child’s idea for the activity, but we can be sure each idea is appreciated as part of the process.

Preschoolers are born innovators and we are bound to learn a lot from them as they engage in problem-solving activities. Problem-solving activities are a great way to encourage design thinking and creative confidence for preschools and kindergarten children as they create the space for innovation, empathy, collaboration, communication and critical thinking.

Problem Solving Example: How do we get the cat out of the tree? Encourage the children to empathize with how the cat might be feeling. Make a list of all the emotions the cat might be feeling together and then transition to problem-solving. Take a step back and watch the creativity flow. Have items ready like tape, cardboard, playdough, construction paper and popsicle sticks so children can use multiple modes of learning to create a solution on how to get the cat out of the tree.

Additional Problem-Solving Questions /  Activities

  1. How can we safely catch the mouse? 
  2. How do we get a ball from one side of the room to the other without touching it? 
  3. How might we build a maze in our classroom? 
  4. How can we create a homemade puzzle and put it together as a team? 

Push yourself to think creatively when creating these activities for your kids. A great tool to assist in your program planning is a mindmap. Grab a large piece of paper and put a circle in the middle with the main idea you want to start with. Maybe this week your children were super interested in the ocean! Write “ocean activity” in the circle in the middle of your page and then make as many connections to this main topic as you can, creating lines between the new ideas and the main topic. Keep going for as long as you can until the page is full and you are fully out of ideas. Important note, try to embrace the same learning you are trying to foster in your children! Embrace failure as an opportunity and maintain the mindset that there are no bad ideas. This is the best way to let your mind map flow! 

Maddie Hutchison

Maddie is a Registered Early Childhood Educator with a Master's in Early Childhood Studies. Her specialty is in Children's Rights and she is currently a Content Strategist for HiMama!