Design Thinking for Kids

In this blog post, we’ll break down the steps of the design thinking process and its benefits for learners. Then, we’ll share some examples and project ideas from our themes to inspire you.

Emily Veno
May 26, 2023

Prisma is the world’s most engaging virtual school that combines a fun, real-world curriculum with powerful mentorship from experienced coaches and a supportive peer community.

We all want our kids to grow up to be problem-solvers who have a meaningful impact on the world. But what kind of people are best equipped for creative problem-solving?

You might initially think it’s about creativity: generating the most unique ideas. But plenty of us know highly creative people who aren’t able to successfully solve problems! Maybe they lack the ability to deeply research until they understand the problem. Or perhaps they lack the ability to iterate, using feedback to improve their initial idea; or follow through, to see ideas to completion.

Design thinking is a methodology that's been widely embraced by entrepreneurs, leading companies like IDEO, and esteemed colleges like Stanford University. The design thinking process recognizes that innovative solutions aren’t random, nor driven by creativity alone.

According to the Harvard Business Review, “design-thinking processes counteract human biases that thwart creativity while addressing the challenges typically faced in reaching superior solutions.” In this sense, design thinking is not just for “designers.” This process can be used by anyone in any industry who needs to solve problems.

It’s because of design thinking’s applicability to innovative problem-solving that it’s such an important skill for kids to learn. In a rapidly changing world, where most of today’s elementary schoolers will grow up to work in jobs yet to be invented, problem-solving skills, including design thinking, will be more essential to success than any particular piece of academic knowledge.

At Prisma, learners in our virtual middle and high school programs learn through project-based, interdisciplinary themes. All themes provide learners the opportunity to flex their creative-problem solving muscles through real-world, authentic projects, and some of our themes focus explicitly on design thinking.

In this blog post, we’ll break down the steps of the design thinking process and its benefits for learners. Then, we’ll share some examples and project ideas from our themes to inspire you.

What is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a problem-solving process encouraging critical thinking and innovation. It was popularized by Stanford’s and is widely used in higher education and professional industries to solve complex problems. This methodology is all about understanding the user, challenging assumptions, and redefining problems to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent.

Design thinking follows a specific process, typically: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test, with variations and additional steps (like reflect or share) added depending on context. This approach not only focuses on creating innovative solutions, but also fosters creative confidence, self-confidence, and thinking skills.


Benefits of Design Thinking for Kids

In January, the World Economic Forum published a report called Defining Education 4.0: A Taxonomy for the Future of Learning. This report advocates for a shift in education toward developing learners' "uniquely human qualities – those unlikely ever to be replaced by technology.” These skills include creativity, critical thinking, digital literacy, collaboration, communication, and adaptability.

Here’s why design thinking is one of the most effective ways for kids to build these essential skills:

  1. Real-World, Authentic Context: Many kids don’t try their hardest at school assignments because they know the assignment doesn’t really matter. Design thinking asks kids to make something real to help a community experiencing a problem. With this authentic investment, they’ll be motivated to learn throughout the process.
  2. Problem Solving & Critical Thinking: Design thinking equips children to become problem solvers. It teaches them how to identify & define problems, brainstorm solutions, and test those solutions. This equips them to handle the messiness of real-life problem solving by using a systematic process. By challenging kids to think out of the box and question existing norms, design thinking fosters critical thinking.
  3. Empathy and Civic Responsibility: The design thinking process doesn’t ask learners to come up with ideas out of thin air. First, it asks them to empathize with their end user. Instead of making assumptions, learners practice understanding diverse perspectives and walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. This practice well-equips them to help, not harm, in their future endeavors.
  4. Fosters Creative Confidence: The design thinking process is not about getting the right answer, but about generating ideas and trying out new things. This boosts self-confidence as students learn that 'failing' is part of the process and it's okay to make mistakes.
  5. Iteration and Revision: Any effective design thinking process will focus on iteration: testing and refining an idea based on feedback until it’s as effective as possible. To absorb and implement constructive criticism, learners will need grit, a growth mindset, and adaptability. At Prisma, we call this the Innovator’s Mindset. After a few cycles of design thinking, learners are more able to accept feedback in other areas, from revising writing to listening to parent advice.
  6. Digital Literacy: Although design thinking doesn’t need to involve technology, many design thinking projects give learners an authentic way to use a variety of creative tools, including technical tools such as modeling software, programming languages, and robotics.

Steps of the Design Thinking Process

Let's delve into the steps of the design thinking process:

  1. Empathize: This first step involves understanding the needs and problems of the user. For instance, if a student is designing a toy for a friend, they need to understand what their friend likes and dislikes.
  2. Define: After gathering information, the problem is clearly defined. Using the same example, the student might define the problem as, "My friend needs a toy that is fun, safe, and easy to use."
  3. Ideate: This is the brainstorming stage. The student might come up with several different toy ideas meeting the defined criteria.
  4. Prototype: This stage involves creating a physical or digital representation of one or more of the ideas.
  5. Test: Finally, the student tests the prototype with the user and gathers feedback. They then revise the prototype based on the feedback and test again.

Design Thinking Projects for Kids

Of course, the best design thinking project for your students or children will depend on their age & ability level, academic subjects you’d like to incorporate, and their interests.

Here are some of our favorite ideas from past Prisma themes:

Helpful Inventions

“It was incredible to see kids using the design thinking process to come up with human enhancements, animal gadgets, and home upgrades in the Inventor's Studio theme,” says our CEO Kristen Shroff. In this theme, learners chose a project based on which end user they were most interested in impacting (humans, animals, or their own family). They interviewed or observed their end user to generate an idea for an invention that would make their life easier. At the end of the cycle, they created a video advertisement for their invention to share on Expo Day.

“From inventions that made doing their chores easier like the Ellabot Clothes Feeder to a prototype of the Omega Chicken Guard to protect pets from predators, to the Calmet, a device that makes life more accessible to people using a wheelchair, our Prismarians' empathy, creativity, and innovator's mindset always blows us away.”


In our Build a Business theme, learners used the design thinking process to come up with a product or service business idea. In the ideation phase, they interviewed potential customers, analyzed their own passions & talents, and conducted market research on competitors.

Once they drafted a business plan, they completed a test run of their idea by either building a prototype (if their business was based around a product) or launching their service for beta customers. Based on customer feedback, they refined their idea. They ended the project by creating a website for their business and pitching to an audience.

Game Design

“I loved our Games for Change cycle where kids designed their own video games that raised awareness about neurodiversity,” recalls Head of Middle School Claire Cummings. Of course, it’s possible to do a game design project without engaging in design thinking. Since our learners were designing games with a purpose (to educate & inform the players about a real-world issue), they needed to empathize at the beginning of their design process.

“The iteration and feedback process aligned so well to real life, when they had users test their games and then had to go back and make changes based on that feedback.” If you're interested in this project, check out the free resources offered by Games for Change.

Take Inspiration from Biology

In our middle school Wild Inventions theme, learners competed to create solutions to sustainability challenges. The catch? Their solutions needed to be inspired by the structure and/or function of a plant or animal. This design tactic is called biomimicry, and it’s a great way to integrate biology learning with design thinking.

In our high school Secrets of the Biosphere theme, learners conducted a study of biodiversity in their local ecosystem. Based on the data they collected, they designed a product, policy, or service that would serve to increase biodiversity. This was a different way to integrate STEM learning in the empathize part of the design process.

Improve Health Outcomes

In our high school theme The Future of Health, learners interviewed patients struggling with a variety of health conditions, from anxiety to Multiple Sclerosis to a broken leg. They used the qualitative data gleaned from this process to inspire a medical device, app, or policy proposal project.

Along the way, they got feedback from healthcare industry professionals to help them refine their ideas. Bringing in authentic expert guests is a great way to make any design thinking curriculum more relevant to the real world! This theme also incorporated biology & genetics concepts.

Best Design Thinking Resources

  1. Build.Org is an “entrepreneurship program for underserved high school students that teaches them how to build their own business while becoming the CEO of their own lives.” The Build Design Challenge Curriculum offers a design thinking curriculum complete with teacher-training and digital student materials.
  2. PBS Design Squad Global is appropriate for kids in grades K-8, offering design thinking challenges, interactive ideation tools, and opportunities to showcase designs to a global audience.
  3. IDEO are the leading experts in design thinking. Their online resources, including their online courses, are great for building educator knowledge and capacity on this topic.
  4. The Stanford d.School Starter Kit is another great resource for design thinking guides, templates and exercises for every step of the process, plus inspirational projects.
  5. Design for Change uses a simpler 4-step framework inspired by design thinking to help young learners design positive impact projects around the world.

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