Stanford’s Design Process for Kids: Teaching Big Picture Problem Solving


Most educational systems were founded in a time when “learning” meant “rote memorization.” Today, however, we live in an exponentially changing world in which success demands creativity and innovation. Simple facts are available at the click of a button but connecting ideas to draw new conclusions in not so easy. Unfortunately, innovation is still not a valued learning objective in most schools today. Increasingly, we see the design process being used for adults, but where is the design process for kids?

The City X workshop is designed to get kids thinking like problem solvers. We do this using three ingredients:

  1. New technologies to excite and inspire.
  2. The fictional story of “City X” to make things fun.
  3. The framework of the design process to provide structure.

The Design Process, for Kids

This post is about #3: Design. After working with facilitators from the Stanford Design School ( at Singularity University last summer, I was impressed with the simplicity and effectiveness of their design thinking model. I wanted to explore how we might use this to empower kids to be changemakers who help solve our world’s problems. While developing the City X workshop we incorporated lessons shared from The Children’s Creativity Museum, Stanford’s k12 lab, and a variety of other maker-focused education initiatives to adapt the design thinking model to our 8-10 year old audience.

That is how this:

Stanford Design Process

credit: Stanford

Became this:

Stanford Design Process and the City X Project Workshop Overview

City X Project Workshop Overview

Here are some of our key takeaways so far:


For many 8-year-olds, empathy is a difficult concept. We begin by defining empathy and sharing a few examples. In the City X workshop, each child is assigned a “citizen” of City X  (the first city on a new planet) who has a particular problem that needs to be solved. We have the kids think about how their citizens are feeling by circling options from a list of words. They then share their citizens’ problems and feelings with the group.

For more ideas about empathy education I encourage you to look at Ashoka Empathy Initiative’s Start Empathy project.

The City X Project Designer Workbook


This is by far the most difficult step to implement with kids. Initially, we tried adapting activities from the bootcamp but we ultimately found it was easiest to scale this step down to the following:

“My citizen needs me to solve a __________ problem.”

We found that this language creates a unique opportunity to discuss the difference between personal problems and social issues and how the two relate to each other. For this part of the workshop we give the kids a list of major social problems (transportation, education, energy, etc.) and then ask them to circle one or more social problems that apply to their character’s personal problem. They then complete the above statement.


Brainstorming! Most kids are pretty familiar with this activity but, based on recommendations from the design program facilitator at the Creativity Museum, we reduced the’s eight brainstorming rules down to the following four:

  1. Don’t judge.
  2. Go for quantity.
  3. Build on the ideas of others.
  4. Encourage wild ideas.

We introduce these rules, paper, and markers and let the kids go! Two other rules that have come in handy for us are:

  1. Don’t invent anything that already exists.
  2. No ideas from adults – kids only!

Brainstorming in the City X Project

Prototype & Test.

Now comes the really fun part! We begin by asking the kids to describe prototyping and we discuss the importance of the cycle of testing and iterating an idea. After everyone has an understanding of why this is important to the design process we hand out clay and ask the kids to create a model of their favorite idea from the Ideate stage. As they build, the workshop facilitators serve as “testers” by walking around the room and asking kids questions about their inventions.


The final step in the bootcamp is Storytelling: how to share your design with a compelling and memorable narrative. With our time constraints in the classrooms we knew we would have to simplify this step for our kids and the answer for how to do so came surprisingly easily.

Although 3D printing is typically used for prototyping, after our first few workshops experimenting with this technology in schools it became apparent that, in the classroom setting, 3D printers just don’t make sense for that stage of the design process. They were too limited, too technical, too slow. Instead we discovered a new application: using 3D printing, our kids were able to print creations from all over the world, tangibly connecting with other children in a way that has never before been possible. Sharing is where the 3D component of the City X Project made sense.

To begin, we ask the kids to look at their clay creations and image how they would share their idea with someone else. Other than taking a picture, they’re often stumped. We explain that new technologies like 3D modeling and printing enable people to collaborate instantly all over the world. We then ask them to create “blueprints,” sketching their clay models from several perspectives (top, side, and front). We demonstrate creating a simple model in Autodesk’s free 123D Design software, answer questions and then let the kids loose with the software. The kids pick it up astonishingly fast. (We’ll share more tips and tricks for 3D modeling with kids in a future blog post.)

So there’s the City X Project design thinking framework! We hope you can use what we’ve learned to help inspire your own kids to innovate. Happy designing!


  • David Moulton

    Hi Libby – How long do you normally make the workshop for the kids? I am considering how to do this in my hometown and want to understand how to hit the mark… not too long… not too short.

  • Nichollette Jones

    I’ve been looking for a template for design thinking and what your students are using in the pictures is exactly what I’m looking for. We’ve had the at our campus as well. Where can I get that template from?

  • Krit Sangvichien

    How to contact you? My contact is

    I have design thinking project-co to propose you.


  • Amira oraby

    My PhD research on design thinking for kindergarten children I wanted to know more about it
    Amira from Egypt


      Hi Amira,
      I would love to know what you are working on.
      I’m a Toy designer for children aged 3-6 and am planning to do my PhD soon.
      For my masters I had designed a toy to make empathising more accessible to children growing up during the pandemic. Let me know if you would like to connect.

      Antra from India