Using Design Thinking to Explore Inclusivity
A project centered around stuffed animals can help young learners become keen observers, think critically, and make decisions that support diversity.
As my kindergarten students walked into the design lab holding their favorite stuffed animals, their uncontained joy was visible and undeniably contagious.
“Ms. Catlett, is it true we are going to design something for our stuffie?” “Will they be OK and safe sleeping in the design lab?” “Is that your stuffie, Ms. Catlett?” “I’m so excited Lippy (the stuffed lion) is at school today, and it’s not even a show-and-tell day.” These were some of their many remarks as they entered the classroom.
A few weeks before beginning this project, I engaged in a similar learning experience in my teacher engineering education program. My classmates and I had to design two versions of a chair for a stuffed animal. I remember thinking what a powerful experience this would be for my youngest learners to begin exploring the intersection between design, equity, and inclusivity.
Introductions and Thought-Provoking Questions
To start the project, I shared with my students that our goal was to create a chair that met the needs of each stuffed animal. But before sharing the project overview and details, students had the opportunity to introduce their stuffie and how it became theirs, share a story, and observe and critique the two chairs I made for my stuffed animal, Sharky Hooper the II. We then explored two guiding questions in an open discussion:
- What makes a chair design successful?
- What steps do we need to take to create a chair that meets our users’ needs?
“Is Sharky’s chair ideal for Lippy the Lion?” I asked. Students identified aspects of Sharky’s chair that wouldn’t be ideal for Lippy. As they listed the reasons why, they began to recognize exclusion. Then they appointed stuffies that could use Sharky’s chair, even though it wasn’t designed specifically for them. “Esmeralda can fit, look,” said a student as she gently removed Sharky and placed her stuffed animal bunny in the chair.
The project spanned six weeks (eight to 10 hours in total) and focused on major milestones that required students to make detailed observations, generate ideas, plan and create a solution that met their users’ needs, and lastly test collected data and evaluate their design’s success. Each milestone centered Agency by Design’s maker-centered interrelated capacities that help learners develop a sensitivity to design: looking closely, exploring complexity, and finding opportunity.
Milestones in this project
1. Looking closely: After the project launch and before engaging in ideation, students spent time closely observing and sketching their stuffie. In doing so, they began to identify its unique traits. Students highlighted how their stuffed animal was a little chunky or had long legs. All of these were important observations that would inform their next design steps. In doing so, they identified diverse sets of visible traits and also contemplated some imagined aspects that they firmly believed to be true of their stuffie’s personality. “My bear loves a playground!” shared a student.
2. Exploring complexity: Students then selected materials from our classroom bins, consisting mostly of low-cost everyday items collected and donated by students themselves (lids, cork, tops, used straws, old CDs, small boxes) and began exploring them freely. They were prompted, at this stage, not to use any adhesive or glue until they had generated at least two or three versions of their design ideas. As they experimented with ideas and material combinations, they reconsidered their initial observations, made connections, and extended them. “Peachy is a little chunky, so her chair seat must be wide. She also seems to roll away with ease, so I’ll have to make sure she’s somewhat closed in,” remarked a student.
Another student displayed ongoing concern with his stuffie’s tail. Convinced that sitting on its long tail would be uncomfortable, he designed a hole in the chair that allowed the tail to poke through. Inspired by this solution, another student with a tailed stuffie selected an old CD as her chair’s back support. The center hole in the CD aligned perfectly with her stuffie’s tail, also allowing it to poke outward. Students realized that stuffies with similar traits could benefit from similar design features.
3. Finding opportunity: As we approached our fifth design lab dedicated to the project, students finalized their chair designs and began preparing their chairs for the much-awaited drop test to assess their strength. Their designs had already passed the fit and the sit tests. Although some were initially hesitant to drop test their chairs, they knew this was an important practice as a designer. After all, we wouldn’t want Peachy to roll over or for one of the chair legs to suddenly snap with Dino sitting on it.
After a series of drop tests and a round or two of iterations, we celebrated our chairs. We used Project Zero’s Ladder of Feedback protocol to support students in the process of giving and receiving feedback. Students asked their fellow product designers a question, expressed something they liked about their chair, and made a suggestion. Throughout the protocol, it became an even more explicit commitment to equity and inclusion.
Not one student disregarded their stuffie’s needs or identity in their design choices—holes for tails, armrests for stuffies with long arms, a chair-slide combination for a playful polka-dotted bear, and no backrest at all for Skippy the squirrel due to his large, bushy tail. As I looked at all of their chairs, I was struck by how they were magnificent in their uniqueness—some shared features, but none were alike.
This project displayed an unwavering commitment to ensuring that the user felt seen, safe, and valued. Empathy, equity, and inclusivity guided these young product designers in their dialogues, practices, and processes, nurturing a mindset that already questions a one-size-fits-all approach. All 72 stuffies had a seat of their own, and through this project my kindergarten students became aware that they can play an active role in building and shaping the world surrounding them. It begins with astute observation, deep respect for diversity, and a willingness to embrace creative courage.