Kids Make an Impact with Design Thinking
August 23, 2018

Back To School — Kids Make an Impact with Design Thinking


Taking Design Thinking to Grades 4-8

In our Design Thinking workshops, we often ask professionals to suspend judgement and act like wide-eyed children for the day. When our own children’s school asked us if we would lead a school-based Kaizen, Jeb and I knew that bringing Design Thinking to the classroom would be a great opportunity to empower kids and see how responsive they were to this creative problem solving approach. The culmination of this year-long project was not only sustainable change for the students (who worked hard to earn it), but also a few lasting lessons for us.

What We Learned from the Kids

While stepping into the elementary/middle school classroom was a new thing for both Jeb and I, we decided to take a structured but not teacher-ly approach. The lessons we learned can be applied to grown ups as well.

They want to be empowered (and can handle it): We empowered the kids and they embraced it. The kids were allowed to sit or stand where they wanted, to raise their hand or jump in when asked questions, and to do what they needed to be present and pay attention. Every single kid in our Kaizen was engaged and their willingness to take action instead of over-thinking things was a huge asset for this kind of problem solving.

Make learning fun: It was important that something “fun” was integrated into every meeting. Whether it was starting out with a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, allowing them to leave the classroom to interview other students, or giving candy rewards. What’s fun for them, you ask? We learned this by trial and error.

Lighting Impacts Behavior: This was something we noticed by the third session. When we turned off the fluorescent lights, opened the blinds, and used floor lamps, the kids became significantly quieter and more calm. We saw first hand how natural light and yellow light decreased the volume and frenetic activity level in the classroom.

What They (hopefully) Learned from Us

We took the kids through a simplified version of SmallBox’s five-step design thinking process.

Picking the Design Challenge: The students were given four challenge areas that the school had determined would be helpful for the kids to work on. They chose: Setting up the classroom so it’s easier to learn.

Understanding: The kids were asked to become either Observers or Interviewers and were given packets with directions. As an observer, you were asked to draw a map of at least one classroom in the building. As an interviewer, you were asked to talk to a family member, teacher, or other student and ask them five specific questions that had to do with the characteristics of favorite spaces and places.

Deciding: The interviewers were asked to share their “research” out loud, and the other kids recorded big ideas they heard on stickies. They categorized all the stickies (a moment of chaos!) and made a list of themes. The Observers then shared room maps and the groups worked to identify commonalities between each as well as components that may have been missing based on what they heard in the interviews. Then they prioritized what areas and aspects of the room would be most realistic for improvement.

Solving: The students decided to focus on ideas for the following areas: lighting, comfy corner, private areas, and standing desk. For ideation — the kids got to choose between interviewing other people for solution ideas and making a collage to show their personal preferences.

Building/Testing: We combined prototyping and testing into one day, and thanks to our generous friends at Doris (thank you!) the kids were able to build out components in the classroom using tangible space supplies. During testing, they gave other students a tour of the room and asked them what they liked, didn’t like, and if anything was missing that would make it easier for kids to learn in a way that was comfortable to them.

Standing Desk Prototype



Comfy Corner Prototype (included low light and classical music)

Pitching the Idea
: Upon finalizing their ideas, we spent one session figuring out how the kids wanted to share the information with the Principal and Vice Principal. To our surprise, they chose PowerPoint as their medium. Their nine slides shared the story of the steps they took and the ideas they came up with. The final “Ask” was that the school let them redesign one classroom. In the pitch session the Principal and VP asked a series of questions about how to handle potential challenges around seating areas, and the kids came up with astute answers to all questions. Thanks to their hard work and preparation, the school supported their pitch and one teacher received PTO funding to set up her classroom integrating the Design Thinking Kaizen input!


Futon Seating + Traditional Seating (multi-level)



Standing Desks with Stool Option + Kitchen Table Corner

This was an incredible experience for SmallBox and gave the kids a voice for change in their school. For them to see their impact and us to see their smiles made the year a success. Stay tuned to hear how the new set-up works for them this semester.