Design Thinking, Language Learning and the Power of Giving

Design thinking activities are a powerful tool for engaging students and developing their creativity and communication skills. The real value lies in the interactivity and authenticity of the experience. The content of the learning is genuinely supplied by the students in the room in the form of their impressions, memories, experiences, ideas, opinions and feelings. Through purposeful interactions between the teacher and the students as well as between the students themselves, language (including grammar) naturally emerges.

Task (or project)-based learning supplies students with optimal conditions for language use. It uncovers language through the process of exploration and discourse. The role of the teacher is to engage with the students, along their learning journey, and worry less about where the activity is going in terms of language output. Later on, there will be opportunities to refine the language.

The design of a Design Thinking project rests on the creative approach of the teacher. With early age kids things need to be simplified and broken down into small steps. Before diving into the project, teachers can warm up the waters by going through the process of gaining students’ attention, informing students of the objectives, stimulating students’ recall of prior knowledge, presenting stimulus, and providing guidance. Once students’ knowledge, understanding, ideas, and memories of experiences are brought up to the surface, the teacher presents the hands-on project.

Project #1 Building a house

Our first ‘construction’ project focused on the ‘real estate’ sector. As this was the very first ‘big scale’ project for the kids, I started small and kept the process as simple as possible.

At first, we define the groups (Bedroom, Bathroom, Kitchen, Living Room) and discuss in-depth what goes into creating the final outcome of each project. Next, students make their informed choice about which group they want to join.

In the second phase of the process, students are engaged in research and inquiry. The illustrations of the Japanese book “House of 100 Stories” (100かいだてのいえ) was the ultimate gold mine for inspiration. Kids gained ideas, then brainstormed and sketched the remnants of the filtration of information.

The Bedroom

The Kitchen

The Living Room

The Bathroom

I ran a ‘minor’ experiment with major consequences which was meant to give kids a sense of the tidal wave coming at the end of the second project. After having kids work on their selected project once, I told them that a strong earthquake has hit the house and now they need to switch to another project and ‘repair’ the room of the devastated house. Since most of the projects were work-in-progress at its very early stage, my statement seemed quite sensible but the decision to ‘invite’ kids to move on to another project brought tears to the eyes of some and reluctance to give up on their original work. Even though my decision was met with universal disapproval, it was a great opportunity for some to practice letting go of things and possessions and a great warm up for what was yet to come.

Acting out

As a complementary activity, kids made their own puppets to ‘travel’ around the rooms of the house and act out scenes from their imagination, such as going to bed by going down a special slide.

Cleaning Up

One of the most important aspects of the project was the disposal of our ‘house’. Kids enjoyed taking things apart and learning how to sort out the trash as a way to nurture their care for the environment and appreciation of the natural resources.



Assessment for this method of learning is entirely performance-based. Do children make connections between personal experiences and the subject matter? Is there an evidence of students’ application of research findings?

Project #2 Building Shops

Our second Design Thinking project was a little bit more advanced as students were ready to build on the knowledge they gained during the first project. To gain attention, I presented students with several introductory activities such as the well-known Fruit Basket and Pass the Apple games. We had fun associating colors with fruits and vegetables and taking turns calling a fruit or a vegetable (even acting out as such).

Inform students of the objectives – building a Fruit shop, Fruit Stall, Juice Bar, Salad Bar and ‘sending’ invitations to the younger students to come visit our stores and do some pretend-play shopping.

To stimulate recall of prior learning, students were sent on a ‘trip’ to the library to select relevant to the topic books and gain ideas and inspiration from them.

Present Stimulus – present the learners with the content materials (GrapeSEED Unit 5 – Fruits and Vegetables)

Provide Learner Guidance – Present the learners with examples


Elicit performance – present the learner with practice activities

Practice Activities

Stage 1: Define

What? Who? Why? Where? When?

Stage 2: Ideate

Brainstorm ideas and sketch – Develop the “What” by bearing in mind the “Who? Why? Where? and When?”

After finishing their sketches, children think about the materials they need and compile a list of items for their teacher to purchase from the real store.

Stage 3: Prototype

Building the shops and making give-away items

Stage 4:  Implement and test

We prepared invitations for our little friends and signed them with a warm “Come to Our Shop” We also prepared and supplied them with shopping bags and money to be exchanged  for the products.

Menu – through experience kids come to realize what drives the process and plays an important part in the role-play activity – the presence of a menu and items that correspond to what is ‘stated’ on the menu.

At the end, I asked kids to give away every give-away they have made to the younger kids. Surprisingly, when asked to reflect on the day, many of them expressed the satisfaction they felt when giving the things to their little friends: “I liked it when gave the fruits.”



In return, a day later, we received a lovely hand-made present –  unique vegetable print bookmarks – as a sign of gratitude.

We allowed the younger kids to choose two out of the four shops and helped them take the shops to their classroom for their own play activities.


 Cleaning Up and Sorting Out the Trash

The remaining two shops we took apart and disposed of.

This allowed us to conclude that the desire to give and help is inherent in us as human beings and all we need to do as teachers is to allow kids to discover it. I believe that this entire experience turned out to be a transformative and life-changing “expedition” for the kids.

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