Design Thinking in 1st Grade

  • Learning
Anna Stevens, Lower Division Science Teacher

First grade scientists kicked off the second half of the year with a study of fasteners, or tools that hold objects together. By tinkering with fasteners and other materials, students practiced fine motor skills to engineer structures. This unit acts as a platform to start exploring what it means to be a designer and engineer and, more importantly, how to fix problems in the world around us.

In order to bring this practice to life we identified a problem with our Madagascar hissing cockroach homes: they needed a better place to play! Cockroaches, or any other dynamic insect, work well for this project and Avenues has a lot of specimens for observation and testing.

Observing the users. (Cockroaches, in this case.)

Using the design thinking process—a series of steps to solve a problem—our 1st graders built structures to satisfy the needs of the cockroaches. To determine those needs students developed a list of questions and wonders in order to learn about the likes and dislikes of their user. Some were answered through research, but other questions needed to be tested through student-designed experimentation. This allowed students to gain empathy, or understanding, of their audience, to determine the needs of their users and bring their ideas into reality through prototyping. Do they prefer warm or cool environments? Do they like water? Do they like to socialize with others? What do they eat? Do they prefer light or darkness? Behavioral observations were made once students isolated the variable in which they were testing, designed the experiment and then tested individual insects to record their preferences. If a class came up with conclusive data, students added elements to their design to satisfy the need.

Building structures for the cockroaches

In partner groups students then ideated designs, brainstorming and sketching their visions in their journals. Their only limitation for designing was size; each pair was provided a shoebox sized platform and their structure needed to be built inside of it. Students prototyped and built for multiple class sessions using upcycled and repurposed materials gathered from the LD Possibilities Place.

Building structures for the cockroaches
Building structures for the cockroaches

Once building was complete, students tested their structures to observe how the cockroaches responded to their new play place. Each group received a cockroach and let it free in their structure. Some groups quickly realized, amongst shrieks and squeals, that their walls were not tall enough and the insect was quick to escape. Or that the exposed underside of tape created a dangerous and sticky environment for their critters, with legs and antennae becoming entrapped in precarious ways. Others saw their cockroach climb happily amongst obstacles while other insects instantly gravitated to the dark hiding places students built. Students wrapped up their day of testing discussing any necessary adjustments or revisions they would make to their structure.  What worked? What could be improved? Understanding the cyclical nature of revisions, iterations, and testing demonstrated flexibility, adaptiveness and critical thinking in our 1st grade designers.

1st graders with their cockroach play structures
Observing the end users in their new structures

While this is the first time our young scientists have worked through the design thinking process, Avenues students employ this method of problem solving across content areas and grade levels and become intimately familiar with the process.

Observing the end users in their new structures


  • 1st Grade
  • Design Thinking
  • Lower Division
  • science
  • STEM