A bunch of designers and design thinkers in SAP Labs India got together this summer to design with children. Our goal was to find out how early should we nurture and channelize a child’s creative potential to solve practical and real problems that matter to them. Organizations like IDEO and Stanford d-School are already using Design Thinking as a tool in schools for children around the age of 10 and above. We wanted to test if we can push such a systemic thinking to even younger children to create a solid foundation of constructive creativity very early. Our big question: Which is the right age for children to pickup design thinking skills?
Sixty children, all children of employees of SAP Labs Bengaluru from age 6 to 15 were invited for the experiment. We divided them into 3 groups – tiny, young and big thinkers and each group had a 3-day design thinking camp. We gave them challenges surrounding the broad umbrella of sustainability (food, water, energy) and asked them to build solutions that can make SAP campus run better, healthier and greener.
On Day 1, we introduced them to the process of design thinking with a half-day design exercise in which children designed school bags for their partners.
On day 2 each team picked up a design challenge and went on a field trip around the campus, observing and interviewing employees.
On day 3 they built prototypes, tested with their users and finished with a presentation to their audience comprising of their users, stakeholders, coaches and parents.
The company’s facilities team took them to the waste treatment plants, paper recycling areas and organic waste composting areas. Children learnt about the issues surrounding sustainability in a large campus where thousands of people work. They synthesized and brainstormed around the problems they found out during their field trips. Amazingly, each age group came up with different set of insights and different solutions to the same problem! As an example, we gave the challenge of redesigning the gym experience to motivate people to keep themselves fit. One group found that employees don’t have enough machines to work with and also several employees prefer to outdoors exercises. Putting these insights together, they designed an open gym that uses the garden areas of the campus. Another group found that the one time fee payment did not motivate employees to join the gym. So they created a pay-per-use service model to motivate those who did not want to pay a huge one-time amount. A third team found out that a lot of paper cups were used in the gym for water and employees were not happy about the cleanliness of the towels provided to them. Combining these problems, children offered a starter kit of towels, hand napkins and water bottles to people coming to the gym. In short, without being introduced to viability, desirability and feasibility or without being taught about service design or product design, these children were redesigning large systems with large-scale operations with ease. (The pay-per-use service model was from a 6-8 year group)
Design also nurtures essential values of living and working into a child and this we witnessed during the camps.
Empathy and collaborative learning are the most important values design brings to children.
Some children develop the skill to listen and empathize at 6, while many get this around the age of 8. When empathy for others starts forming, it is the best time to introduce the process of design to impart the values of constructively creating things. Once childrenempathize with the people they are designing for, they are able to understand, articulate and solve their problems with better clarity.
Children build strong interpersonal and social skills when they design together.
Traditional problem solving focuses on breaking the problem into pieces and fixing them in parts – that celebrates individuality within a group and does not favor co-working and co-deciding. However in design thinking, they ‘do’ the same things together as a group, while using their individuality to steer the ‘thinking’ of the group. They start building strong social and interpersonal skills as a result. They learn to appreciate others who bring in a different perspective from their own and at the same time they discover what they are good at as well. We found that children created strong bonds with each other in a matter of three days. Many children said their confidence to speak in public increased and their style of communication improved.
Children can solve problems systemically without knowing or being aware of it.
They address problems fundamentally and since they do not know the distinctions between products, systems and services as yet (ignorance is bliss!) their solutions are holistic and fixes the root causes. They come up with solutions that are a combination of service design, product design and even branding, marketing and communication design. Someday multi-national companies would want to hire them, the future workforce.
Creativity needs to be channelized to real, practical problem solving very early.
The best age to start we think is 8, when they are confident to read, write, articulate their thoughts and have a constructive conversation (asking those ‘why’s repetitively and imperturbably). Some children catch up faster, as young as 6, they are ready to solve large problems that are beyond school assignments and projects. In fact, they are so good at solving practical problems because they are still curious, open, non-judgmental and best of all with boundless energy at all times– all essential ingredients for creative problem solving.
As a closing note, if you are a parent, you can already take small steps at home to nurture creativity ‘constructively’ in your child, and here is how.
1. Ask the right questions and channelize your child’s creative skills. Knowing, valuing and nurturing that design is part of our everyday things and activities is the key. As an example, if a child is creating a diya or a candle, instead of asking the child to choose the colors she wants to paint with, ask your child whom is she making it for, whyand how would that person use what she makes, and how to best design for her needs, what problems does he face with the candles she has, and how can she improve the design and so on. Make creativity not just fun and colorful, but a learning experience for you and your child.
2. Show that giving form to his imagination is rewarding. If your child wants a car, make a car out of used lids, cardboard boxes and pipe cleaners (DIY). Show the child that there is joy in the art of imagining and bringing it to life. Spend a Sunday afternoon just making something out of nothings you collected.
3. Let your child work with rudimentary, throwaway material. Stock up used up cans and bottles, lids, pipe cleaners, broomstick, thermo cols, candle wax, pieces of threads and practically anything that does not have a purpose in the house. The more children learn to work with varied material the better their design sense.
4. Make opportunities for your child to work together in a group on real problems. Have children as members in your community groups. They have a lot of time after school hours that working parents do not have. They can setup an organic garden or setup a library, all the things you are doing to make your community better. Empower your children to participate and drive these activities.
5. Make space for design in your lifestyle and at home. Spend time talking and reflecting on design in everyday things and activities. Children often reflect on their trips and stick photographs, but seldom sketch a place they visited or describe a meal they enjoyed vividly. When you are going on walks to the park, pay attention to the benches, pavements, trees and bring back pictures of good design. Encourage your child to maintain a design journal. Transform one of your walls into a sketching wall and sketch your conversations.
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Read what our coaches say about the camp: Catch them Young, by Santhosh Rao
dCamp in 10 Minutes, a humble video footage (coming soon)
Happy designing !!