Why Early Childhood Educators Are Design Thinkers

Have you heard of a concept called Design Thinking? Do you want to know the basics of an innovative problem-solving and creative process that fortune 500 companies and entrepreneurs use? In this article, I want to tell you why early childhood educators are using design thinking in their everyday lives; here is how. 


Recently, I took a class called ‘design thinking’ with University for Peace, Center for Executive Education. It is a center established by the General Assembly of the United Nations, situated in the picturesque campus of El Rodeo, Costa Rico – on 2.5 acres of protected land – which I never actually saw since I was taking this course online. When I attended the first session, I felt out of place. Why does an early childhood advocate and an education consultant need to know about design thinking? Interestingly, my classmates included engineers, university professors, a caterer, a lawyer, and many other people from various professions and backgrounds. 

One of the workshop assignments was to be able to explain design thinking to someone who didn’t know anything about it in under a minute. As I started to work on my task, I could only explain it in relation to what I know best – early childhood education. I drew a table of the steps of design thinking, and then for every step of the process, it was clear to me that it was precisely what early childhood teachers did every day, all day, as part of their daily process working with children. We just don’t use the fancy name. Well, we should start too! Because early childhood professionals are just as strategic and intentional as engineers and lawyers, and it’s time that we elevated our profession by using labels that professionals from other industries understand! 

So what is design thinking?


If you Google this term, it will tell you that it is a philosophy and a tool to help you solve problems, especially when the problem is not well defined or is unknown, or when we need to re-frame the problem, do a lot of brainstorming and then use prototyping and testing to come up with and to help continuously improve solutions. It is used by companies like Toyota, SAP, IMB, and startups, businesses, and even doctors, bankers, and lawyers.

You will notice from the examples above that it is a non-linear process that means that you might find new insights when you test your solution, which might help you redefine a problem (Test -> Define). You might get ideas for a brand new solution when you are in the testing phase (Test -> Ideate).

So let us explore these five steps together, in the table below. I will state the five stages of design thinking on the left and then show you examples of how early childhood professionals have been implementing these ideas way for almost a hundred years (e.g., Maria Montessori Teachings first book 1909


Design thinking stagesBusiness DefinitionExamples from Early
Childhood Education
Stage 1   EmpathizeResearch your users’ needs. Have an empathetic understanding of their needs, mostly through research. In this stage, set aside your own assumptions and try to get real insight into the users and their needs.Every great early childhood teacher knows that it all starts with the child. The teacher does not decide on a set schedule of activities and experiences. Instead, he or she observes the child without labeling what they see. They watch, listen, and are present in those moments as children cry, crawl, walk, talk, play and tumble. Early childhood teachers record what they see by writing examples of what the children said, collecting original pieces of artwork, and recording objective and non-biased accounts of what they witness.
Stage 2:   Define
To accumulate the information gathered during the first stage and analyze observations and organize them until defining a particular problem. It is important to remember that the ‘real’ problem may not be obviously stated at this stage. Instead, one must understand what is said and what is not said – read between the lines.
When ECE teachers feel that they have gathered enough information about the child, they evaluate and synthesize that information to define the learning objectives for that particular child. Like in design thinking, the real problem is not always obvious. For example, Joseph, who is ‘acting out, throwing temper tantrums, or biting other children, is not simply expressing ‘bad’ behavior. Through close observation, a teacher might observe that Joseph does not speak English and is new to preschool, and is extremely frustrated from not being able to communicate his needs to his caretakers and peers.
Stage 3:   IdeateChallenge assumptions and create ideas. Look for several alternate ways to view a problem and develop multiple innovative solutions. This stage usually includes brainstorming and post-it creating.Early Childhood teachers do this at least once a week. They meet with their class team or with their supervisors and they brainstorm ideas for activities or experiences they can plan for their children that help meet their challenge and or developmental need. Everyone’s opinion is essential, whether they are a volunteer, a teaching assistant, a teacher, a curriculum coordinator, or a principal. We all have different ways of looking at the problem and various things that we may have observed about the child. Everyone shares their ‘post-its’.
Stage 4:   PrototypeTo produce a scaled-down version or a solution to investigate the ideas that you generated in stage 3.When thinking or planning for an activity or experience with children, like building a replica of their school in modeling clay, they don’t go full-blown into the activity – purchasing tons of supplies, getting all the tools, removing all the other distractions in the classroom, and then introducing the kids to what will be a six-week project that they are now all to focus on. They plan a prototype – a scaled-down version of their big idea. This may involve planning to bring some of the materials involved in the project and introducing it to the kids to see how they interact with it and how engaged and excited the children are.
Stage 5: Test
Try out your solutions. Design thinking is an iterative process. Testing helps us redefine the problems and think of new solutions.
It is always exciting to test activities, projects, and solutions with children. In the case of Joseph, teachers might decide to find a bilingual volunteer to spend an hour a day with him in the classroom. With the activity of building a replica of the school in modeling clay, teachers might be surprised to what they may discover about the children (empathize) and what ideas they might develop for their future projects (Ideate).
How can you incorporate design thinking into your teaching process? How does outlining the five stages help you to see how creative and innovative your work as an educator is?

I welcome your reflections!

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Dr. Samia Kazi is a social entrepreneur, an early childhood education consultant, and specialist. She has worked with international NGO’s government bodies, investment funds, and regional advocacy centers to help improve early childhood systems, policies, and quality assurance systems. Samia founded a leading early childhood teacher training academy in the Middle East, called Arabian Child, and is a global advisor for Global Childhood Academy, the number one hub for training adults who work with and care for children. She also serves as the regional director for the Middle East at Childhood Education International. She is a proud board member of Ellis, an early childhood organization based in Boston, USA – and serves as program committee chair. 

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