Cleaning out my daughter’s closet, I found a shadow box she constructed in 1st grade. She and a friend set out to create bedrooms for a set of fictitious triplets: Penny, Kenny, and Kate. Each imaginary child needed a bookshelf for their favorite books, bedding in their favorite color, a themed night light, and other special touches to make the room their own. I remember them saying at the time, “Everybody needs to feel loved equally, just as they are!”
What these 6 year olds intuitively understood is that design thinking can promote equity and inclusivity. When children are challenged to create something with both equitable engagement and diverse needs in mind, they learn the basics of respect for diversity. And they also begin to see that being different isn’t bad. It’s just different.
Project-Based Learning expert Natalie Catlett suggests that adults capitalize on children’s love of stuffed animals to provide children with opportunities for design thinking. Working with stuffies encourages children to think about different needs without requiring them to expose their own vulnerabilities. Sammy the Shark might be afraid of the dark, but it doesn’t mean their human companion has to admit to the same fear.
Think of something that all kinds of diverse people or creatures might use. Catlett invites children to design a chair that their stuffie can sit in. Or give your design project an explicitly spiritual spin and suggest that kids create a meditation space, a prayer or yoga mat, or a nature walk guide.
Help children recognize that ‘one size fits all’ is a myth. Provide some examples that they can test. Suggest that children observe closely as individual stuffed animals try out the sample item or space. Encourage them to notice who is too big for the chair, too long or floppy for the mat, unable to read the nature guide, or disinterested in the particular features of the meditation space. Invite them to take detailed notes (by themselves or dictated to an adult) about what works, what doesn’t, and why.
Discuss what would make their designs successful. Wonder aloud about each stuffed animal’s particular characteristics and needs. What would help an anxious purple rabbit with long floppy ears meditate? How might a slithery snake that can’t read follow a nature guide? Provide time for children to look closely at their stuffies. They might even create a sketch to help them pay attention to details or write a short biography that describes their stuffie’s personality.
Create and test actual designs. Encourage children to bring their ideas to life, using common household items and craft materials. Then assess how well their stuffed animals like the outcome. In addition to testing basic functionality, suggest that everybody wants to feel safe, seen, and valued. Ask: How does your design help your stuffie feel safe? What about your design shows that you have really seen your stuffie’s needs and personality? How does your design show your stuffie that you value them just the way they are?