10 Design Thinking Activities to Get Your Group Creating

When John and I wrote , one of our main driving beliefs was around the fact that all kids are naturally creative. We started the book with this short manifesto on the need for creative classrooms:

We believe that all kids are naturally creative and that every classroom should be filled with creativity and wonder. We want to see teachers unleash the creative potential in all of their students so that kids can be makers, designers, artists, and engineers.

We know that school can be busy. Materials can be scarce. The creative process can seem confusing, especially when you have a tight curriculum map. So creativity becomes a side project, an enrichment activity you get to when you have time for it. But the thing is, there’s never enough time.
We can do better.

We believe that creative thinking is as vital as math or reading or writing. There’s power in problem-solving and experimenting and taking things from questions to ideas to authentic products that you launch to the world. Something happens in students when they define themselves as makers and inventors and creators. That’s the power of design thinking. It provides a flexible framework for creative work. It’s used in engineering, publishing, business, the humanities, in non-profit and community work. And yes, it can be used in education! You can use it in every subject with every age group. Although there are many versions of the design thinking model, we have developed the LAUNCH Cycle as a student-friendly way to engage in design thinking. We believe all students deserve the opportunity to be their best creative selves, both in and out of school. We believe all kids are unique, authentic, and destined to be original. Most importantly, we believe this is not an all-encompassing solution, but a start. We believe our role is to empower kids to make an impact on the world around them and fully believe in themselves. It is because of these beliefs that we wrote this book. We wrote it for ourselves, for our colleagues, for our friends, for our students, and for you. Because ultimately, we believe that you have the power to inspire kids and create a ripple effect that lasts for years to come.

I still believe those words today.

However, in getting to work with adults in my own district, and teams of teachers and school leaders around the country (and world)-one thing has become clear.

I believe adults are just as creative and need experiences to create, design, and make together as our kids do.

Every time I do a workshop or event I work to get the adults in the room making and designing. And, my hope is that they can reconnect with this creative belief about themselves and the kids they work with. Here’s what it looks like to get the adults creating as well (this is footage from our Design Thinking Institute at UPenn this past July):

Design thinking provides a great structure for people of all ages to go through the creative process. The 10 activities I share below can be done with any age group, and they are a lot of fun!

Concept: DrawToast workshops are a great way to getgroups to think freshly about mental models. In just 3 minutes, each person sketches a diagram of how to make toast. When comparing diagrams, people are shocked at how diverse the diagrams are, revealing a wide range of models of what’s important in making toast. It’s a great launch pad for drawing out what’s really important to the group.

Concept: Design thinking is often presented without teaching content. This is very different. Learners get 30 minutes to choose a UN 2030 Goal (there are 17) that is relevant and meaningful to them, then they get into small groups. The group researches the goal quickly, by answering the questions: What does the world need to know about this goal and what can we do about it? The group then creates a short PSA (Public Service Announcement) and shares it widely with an authentic audience. It is fun, fast, and shows the power of design sprints to teach content and skills.

Concept: The Gift-Giving Project is 90-minute (plus debrief) fast-paced project through a full design cycle. Students pair up to interview each other, come to a point-of-view of how they might design for their partner, ideate, and prototype a new solution to “redesign the gift-giving experience” for their partner.

Concept: Very similar to the Gift-Giving Project, the Wallet Project is 90-minute (plus debrief) fast-paced project through a full design cycle. Students pair up, show and tell each other about their wallets, ideate, and make a new solution that is “useful and meaningful” to their partner.

Concept: We used this design challenge during our LAUNCH Academy: Design Thinking Institute this July. Our attendees loved it so much that many of them took this back to their school, districts, and organization as an activity to do with their colleagues to introduce them to design thinking. One of my favorite (and nostalgic) design activities to do with any group of any age.

Concept: We’ve all played sports at some point in our life. Who came up with the rules? Who created the game? Who made the constraints? And who decided the objects to play with? Now, with limited time and resources, your group will create and invent a new sport, and a set of directions for people to actually play the game.

Free Download Here: https://gumroad.com/l/designchallenge

Concept: One of my favorite activities as a classroom English teacher is also a fantastic group design challenge. Give a group a book (fiction or non-fiction). Then you break them up into smaller groups (or individuals) to read different parts of the book. Each group (or person) has to read and then create an overview/trailer of their part of the book to share chronologically with the rest of the class. Here the design really starts with the creative process driving how you share the information, plot, characters etc. Perfect use for professional development when you want to introduce a topic in a fun, engaging way.

Concept: The University of Arkansas created a series of STEM Challenges that work as great design activities with groups old and young! For example after reading “The Three Billy Goat’s Gruff” they set up a challenge like this:

You decide to help the billy goats reach the opposite side of the creek so they can eat. You must create a model structure to help the billy goats get from one side to the other while using the design loop and only the materials provided. Your teacher will also provide you with model billy goats, with specific weights, that your bridge must be able to withstand.

This has been the most popular design challenge used during the Global Day of Design each year!

Concept: Cover Story is a game about pure imagination. The purpose is to think expansively around an ideal future state for the organization, class, group etc; it’s an exercise in visioning. The object of the game is to suspend all disbelief and envision a future state that is so stellar that it landed your organization on the cover of a well-known magazine. The players must pretend as though this future has already taken place and has been reported by the mainstream media. This game is worth playing because it not only encourages people to “think big,” but also actually plants the seeds for a future that perhaps wasn’t possible before the game was played.

#10. Rollercoaster Challenge

Concept: You have been asked by the CEO to submit a proposal to create the next great rollercoaster at Screamorama. As the lead engineer you will need to figure out how to get guests from point A to point B in the safest and most-thrilling way possible. The first step of this project is to design a prototype of your roller coaster to present to the board members. Each hill, twist, turn, and loop will impress the board and increase the likelihood that you will get the bid to build the final rollercoaster at Screamorama. But take note, you will have to remain under budget to win the bid. You will be competing against other firms across the country (classroom). Good luck with your project.

John and I created the “Design Your Own Rollercoaster” Challenge as part of our book LAUNCH. The entire project can be accessed below by signing up for weekly updates!


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