Design thinking for 11–13 year olds

We’re half way through the after school pilot. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Working in pairs at our after school pilot in West London (photo: Jeanette Sha)

Our after school pilot kicked off on 19 September. Noam had already run one after school Design Club. But we wanted to test the format with a slightly older age group (Years 7 and 8 — the first two years of secondary school), and see if we could prototype a more robust curriculum, to make Design Club more scalable.

Noam and Niki are developing the sessions as we go, and I’m mentoring. Part of the test is to see how the materials work for someone (me) who’s not a trained designer. We really want anyone to be able to take these resources and deliver them.

The club runs for an hour a week over 10 weeks. We will complete two projects, broken into 5 steps (define, empathise, ideate, prototype, test). At the end of each project, all children get a certificate (below). For this half term, our project was “build an app to help someone relax before bed”.

First, the good news

Children love the Design Club concept. We printed out a mini project and showed it to Year 7 and 8s at the after school clubs fair. By the end of the fair, the club was over-subscribed with 21 children signing up for just 10 places. Quite a few children said they had done app design before, but none knew about design thinking.

Teaching support makes things flow smoothly. On the first day, 15 children came. We’re now down to a steady 12. The school agreed to provide support and an art technician kindly volunteered — so 12 is manageable. The technician helps to settle the children, and works with them one-to-one on their projects. It’s essential to have another adult in the room.

You can get them making straight away. We kicked the very first session off with a ‘Tell us about you’ activity. Children had one minute to think of a colour and animal that represented them, then make a name badge using that colour and animal. We had lots of snakes and plenty of black (good old Year 8s)!

A bit of silence works wonders. The one minute silence at the start of the first session (when they concentrated on their name badges) was great. It settled everyone down.

Playing the “Quick Sketch” game (photo: Jeanette Sha)

Games are good. To get children in the mood for quick prototyping, we made a Pictionary style game where they had to draw 12 objects or concepts in 3 minutes. To help explain the design thinking process, we printed each stage on a sheet of A4 and asked five volunteers to hold a sheet each. The other children had to put them in order. They loved these activities.

Less is more. The children are really keen to sketch, play and create. They need time and space to do this. In terms of lesson planning, the children really benefit from one-to-one conversation while they are busy creating, rather than one-to-many broadcast when you talk and they listen. Obviously that’s less easy to control!

It’s fun. We’re all on a journey. The children are getting to know each other too. It’s nice to see interaction between the two year groups — especially for the Year 7s who were brand new to the school at the start of term.

Designing an app using paper wireframes (photo: Jeanette Sha)

What hasn’t worked so well

Theory is tough. Everything needs to be interactive. The children are tired but hyper after a tough day at school. They don’t want another lesson, they want to have fun. We started off session 2 with a recap of session 1. I asked the children what they remembered. The Year 8s looked at me blankly (you’re joking, right?).

The Design Club Code was a struggle. In session 1, we listed 6 mindsets (behaviours) and asked the children to come up with another 3 to create their own Design Club Code. But explaining the existing 6 mindsets was difficult. They confused the 6 mindsets with the 5 design thinking steps (especially “ideate” with “iterate”). In retrospect, we tried to pack way too much into the first session.

Writing down positive behaviours isn’t fun. Especially for older children. Too much like a school lesson maybe? To make it more interesting, we could use the Anti-Problem next time.

There’s no time for notes. Prepare everything beforehand. The first day the children all arrived 15 minutes early. I walked in to a sea of expectant faces. I completely forgot the key point of the badge-making (that we’re all different, a group of designers thrives on diversity). The children may not notice, but these little learnings are important.

Don’t try to do everything all at once. In session 4, I tried to get the children to map out a rough information architecture (showing how features would be organised) for their app. None of them did this. They all plunged straight into the sketch your app worksheets. But now they’ve designed their first app, they might appreciate the importance of a little planning next time.

Converting sketches into clickable prototypes with Marvel App (photo: Jeanette Sha)

Next five weeks

After half term we’ll be back to design another app — this time for someone the children know. We’ll be building on everything learned in these first 5 weeks. It will be interesting to see how they do things differently.

I’m really pleased with how children have stuck with their projects and come back week after week to learn more — in what’s technically their free time. And I’m really pleased (and a little surprised) at how much I’ve enjoyed it. I guess we’re all having fun and learning new stuff together.

Get in touch

We’re hoping to run more after school Design Clubs from January. If you’d like to run your own club, please register your interest. We’ll drop you an email to see what you need to get started.