quote Design thinking in play

Last week I decided to take a break from my momsy, all-about-my-kid zone, put on an adult hat to attend the Service Design Hong Kong conference (So odd after many days playing and working on the play mat in my sweat pants!) Anyway, service design is an applied branch for design thinking, and it got me to think about how the design thinking concept is relevant and helpful for children.

One main premise of design thinking is that you derive to your best product through prototyping and iterations. This is an eye-opening concept for me. You see, I grew up receiving a typical Asian education where the answers are either right or wrong, you pass the test or you fail – it’s always a binary. The focus on “being right” and rewarding it with grades (even in subjects like literature and writing, where you are supposed to voice your subjective opinions), makes it discouraging to be in the wrong. If you are right, you pass the test, you feel smart (and viewed as being successful – a confidence booster). If you are wrong, you fail the test, you feel stupid. (To give my US liberal arts college credit, they totally turned my world upside down by not giving me the right answer – everyone spent hours in class in futile debates! Still, it took me at least a couple of years to get used to that system and stop feeling confused – that’s how strong the influence from earlier education was for me).

The result was that I was always a good student, receiving good grades and getting prizes even. BUT I was always in my safe zone and grew up being quite risk-averse, not comfortable trying bold things for fear I would fail! (In fact, starting a small business recently is probably the riskiest thing I have done ever). Now I have learned that Thomas Edison failed 1000 times before he invented the light bulb, and the post-it note is a result of a failed prototype. There is so much value in failure that I never understood. (The mantra I learned from the design conference is FAIL EVERYDAY!)

So last week when we talked about prototyping and iterations, I thought about how this concept could have been very helpful for me when I grew up. Instead of feeling like a failure every time I had a wrong answer, I could have thought of it as a prototype – and encouraged myself to try again for a better alternative. I could have received rewards from parents and teachers for my number of iterations, rather than result.

Recent research have pointed to the same conclusion to this very personal reflection of mine: people now say that it is a growth mindset, not IQ, as the determinant for success. In parenting terms, it translates to encouraging kids to try more and verbally applaud them for the effort, not the results (Dr Khan from the Khan Academy had an insightful article about this).

Bean “prototyping” her dream house 🙂 I’ve learned that sometimes the best way to play with her is to let her be.

So why am I talking about this in a blog about kids’ toys and games? Yes, I think it’s relevant – this design thinking approach can be applied even to very young kids, whose play mat is the learning field. Many toys are designed to help them learn: put together puzzles, match the correct shapes, even recognizing letters and doing early math. How helpful it would be for us parents to sit back and enjoy watching their “prototyping” and “iteration” while playing with these toys, rather than jumping in to correct them immediately. How good it would be for them to hear encouragements each time they fail, not just with “Good job sweetie!” but more importantly, “Good job trying! Try again!” We could even teach them the words “prototype” and “iterate”, not so they can impress people with their vocabulary but so that they can internalize this as a process to applied for any thing in life. (And no, these words are not just used in coding).  The language we use with them determines their world view – in this case it will strengthen their confidence in their own ability and resilience.  This is especially important in Hong Kong where the success culture, and the pressure to achieve, permeates from adults to children, and the tough competition in schools makes it hard to accept and celebrate failure.

I think it will be a long way to go until education everywhere, especially in Asia, to embrace this trend of rewarding efforts rather than results in schools. But as parents we can start this trend at home. This small change will make a difference, I believe that. x


One comment

  1. Hi Hai-Anh, great meeting you at SDHK. Totally agree with pushing the little ones to prototype and continue reiterating. I try to raise my child different to how I was educated, but sometimes I can get carried away on what’s happening on the day-to-day and everyone else around. Any tips on how to remind ourselves?


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