Tag: early years

Why Design Thinking is the Secret Ingredient to Student Agency

Why Design Thinking is the Secret Ingredient to Student Agency

Not that long ago, the International Baccalaureate (IB) issued a reflective “cheat sheet” of how schools can examine learner agency in the Primary Years Programme (PYP). Some of the key indicators include exploring the frequency and depth that learners are…

  • Actively engaged in various stages of learning, including thinking about, planning, modifying and creating 
  • Actively involved in discussion, questioning and by being self-directed in their creating (as opposed to passive receiving)
  • Apply their understanding of concepts through the construction of their projects/play
  • Make connections to the real world by taking past experiences into their play worlds
  • Have an active voice and stake in the classroom/community
  • Face challenges and are given the freedom to independently overcome these or fail through trial and error or experimentation
  • Are risk-takers
  • Express their theories of the world and these are honored in the environment
  • Reflect on their actions and self-regulate.

When I superimposed this framework over my classroom, I scrutinized my own practices and the culture in my classroom. Who was doing the leading in the classroom? Was I giving them freedom to learn and the space to lead?

These were the questions that played in the “background music” of my mind as I went into the planning of our last unit for the year. I know that this time of year can be a convenient time to take things easy and maintain the status quo of the established routines of the classroom, but I decided that I wanted to squeeze more out of the year by introducing design thinking into our classroom. I felt that this would be the secret ingredient to learner agency as design thinking organically gives them choice and voice, provided that I do not micromanage their learning.

My current unit is from the theme, Sharing the Planet whose central idea is: We grow and use plants in many ways. The central idea is accessible and easy for the 3-5 years old grasp and the lines of inquiry are straightforward: Growth of a plant (change); ways that plant parts are used in human life (connection); care of plants (responsibility). I’m still mid-unit, but I can share the process so far.

From there, I introduced the design thinking process, which I’ve obviously had to simplify for the Early Years. I stole ideas from American STEM schools like the  Benjamin Banneker School as a model for my class. To begin with, I wanted the students to choose what they wanted to grow. When we began the unit, I asked parents to go out shopping or bring in plant seeds that the students personally chose. (If I had chosen the seeds, I would normally have picked beans or radishes–something that is very easy to grow and would sprout quickly.) Of course, that’s not what the kids picked. They brought in a variety of flowers and vegetables such as broccoli and bak choy. In this small change to my “normal”, I had already shifted the dynamic significantly to cultivate greater agency, enthusiasm, and depth of the inquiry–it all started with the seeds.

design and scienceThe design-thinking process language I am using is:

  1. Understand
  2. Focus
  3. Imagine
  4. Prototype
  5. Try

Understand: What do we need to know about plants? And who are the “users” of plants? (the “we” in our central idea)

FullSizeRender 86

These were the first series of questions that the students wondered about and began our jumping off point for our project: To design a garden for an end user.  In the beginning, the students weren’t really thinking about a “user”, but through daily questioning prompts in our morning meetings and investigating what lived inside the homes provided by plants, sIMG_4623tudents began to grasp the concept of the relationship between plants and animals. I decided to also create some compost with the students so that they may appreciate the symbiosis of plants with one another and how humans can support the growth of plants by turning our rubbish into food. We used food scraps from the school kitchen like egg shells and banana peels and blended it into our dirt. We then used this enriched soil to plant our seeds in recycled toilet paper tubes, which would later transplant into the gardens we created.




Focus: How is the care of our specific plant different from each other and what considerations will we need when building our gardens? 

At this point,  2 groups had emerged: the vegetables and the flowers, and the students decided that the end users would be different. 1 group was going to focus on people (vegetables) and the other group wanted to focus on butterflies (flowers). If we were successful, then the end users would appreciate our gardens by eating the vegetables and getting nectar from the flowers.


Before we could build the gardens, we had to consider the needs of those plants–no plants meant no happy end users! So the students had to research the basic requirements of their particular plant and this was definitely guided as we Googled and perused through books. Not a great deal of independence here, but the understandings of this greatly influenced the ideas of their garden design’s first renderings.

Imagine: Where might we put this garden and what would the structure of this garden look like?

So now we began to examine different types of gardens. We visited the wetlands park to and will go to a working farm. The students have made their first sketches of their gardens. What really surprised me was the thoughtful considerations the students made. They absolutely thought about the level of sunshine that the plants would need, and they put those details into those drawings. For example,  the “pink flower” group wants to make a heart-shaped garden near a tree, but not under a tree. While the “purple flower” group wants to be near the vegetables because that garden needs to be in a sunny area.

FullSizeRender 87 We will have a morning meeting to think about their designs and come up with questions for the farmers. (Going back to the “understand and focus” part of the process) After the farm visit this week, the students will review their designs to see if they feel they are on the right track.

Next week, they will create models of their designs out of cardboard and have the students put these prototypes in the area of our school where they think the plants will grow best. That will be the “try” part of the process before they actually go and build the real model and officially plant the plants. I will have to update their progress on this project later, as I reckon they will make changes in their designs

But I can say that so much of this unit’s inquiry has been given over to the students, as design thinking has allowed this project to be more personalized and focused on what they think is important. It’s sort of an odd feeling, especially as an early childhood teacher, to move out of their way and just be the “helper” in fulfilling their imaginings. I look forward to posting the end results later in a future blog post.

To be continued….

And I am curious how other teachers or schools have used design thinking to shift into a more student-centered culture and approach to the learner. What am I missing? What ideas might you have to extend my approach?



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Community, BIG and small

Community, BIG and small

On my teaching evaluation a few years ago I got a recommendation to do community service projects with my kids. Truthfully I kind of dismissed it–I teach 3-5 years, for goodness sake–how am I supposed to do authentic community service with egocentric little ones?!!  It’s taken me a while to really take on this challenge to develop the spirit of community service into practice. However, little children can be so incredibly kind hearted and caring naturally,  I have come to the understanding that I really need to think about how I can bridge this sweetness into a larger view: the Community.

Well, this past unit seemed to be the perfect impetus for this. Our central idea was: People can help our communities by working in different ways. One of the key concepts that we were working on was responsibility, so I really wanted the kids to understand that no matter what age or ability level, we can be helpers in a community. Secondly, we were exploring the attitude of appreciation, so I wanted them to demonstrate ways that we can say “thank you” to others for their help. These 2 learning intentions solidified into a final project, in which our little classroom community came up with a way to say “thank you” to helpers in the larger community.

After much reflection and class discussion, we decided that firefighters have a really tough and dangerous job. Since it was around Christmas, we thought cookies would be a sweet treat that they would like; also, I knew it would be a selfless act to give away something that they really wanted for themselves (cookies!) to another person which would teach what it means to be of service. We also made a card with a special message to our everyday heroes.

I was really surprised that the kids didn’t complain about not tasting the cookies, and they really enjoyed making them. When we visited the fire station to deliver the cookies, we dressed up in some festive Christmas hats to spread some holiday cheer. Originally, it had been my intention to just drop off the cookies and say thank you, but the firemen would have none of that–they had to give us a proper tour of the station. Although I am not posting all of the pictures of the trip, they really went far beyond our expectations of a field trip to their station. They took us through their training courses, putting on uniforms, climbing ladders and let the kids try to operate their tools. It was awesome! Everyone really got to appreciate how hard they have to work to do their job.

After the “day in the life” of a firefighter, we gave them our present of cookies and our cards. It was an incredible experience. I hope this first experience of a community service project helps to develop the concept of giving, in which, when we give from the heart, we always get more than we give.

How to Spell Transdisciplanary Learning in the Early Years

How to Spell Transdisciplanary Learning in the Early Years


Seriously, how long will I have to write transdisciplanary before my spell check program acknowledges that it’s a real word. No matter how many times I ask it to “add it to the dictionary”, it still gives me the red line.  Doesn’t my computer know I am a PYP teacher. What nerve, I tell you! lol

As any Early Years teacher knows, there can be a fine line between topic and concept.

Look at my next unit:

People can help our communities by working in different ways.

  • People play different roles in a community. (responsibility)
  • How helpers impact a community. (connection)
  • How tools help people to do their jobs. (function)

What comes to your mind?–Community Helpers, right? –A bunch of lovely centers/corners. We can have police, fire fighters, nurses, doctors, construction workers, etc…..Lots of role play- Fun Early Years unit, right?

Not to me. I find this unit a challenge because now I am asking myself how can I steer this inquiry away from being a topic to developing those concepts of our roles and responsibilities in a community. I’m thinking about what approaches  I can use to embed multiple disciplines so that students can explore and create in contexts that are authentic for them. Preschool STEAM– Of course!

STEAM, in case you don’t know is an acronym that stands for:

S. cience

T. echnology



M. ath

Aha, I can hear you say how can ” doing nifty projects” make it transdisciplanary? Fair retort. Point taken. So I’ve decided to up the ante and instead of centers or corners during this unit, we will have PROBLEMS In the beginning, I will have to provide them through literature links and set up these provocations with my main teacher question: HOW COULD SOMEONE IN THE COMMUNITY HELP HIM/HER? Later, however, I expect students to generate them.

As I am in the planning stages of this unit, I will have to report back with our progress, but my head is spinning with so many ideas. I can’t wait to see what the students come up with!



Life is Play

Life is Play

It really wasn’t until I had my own child that I deeply understood the quote from Fred Rogers, “Play is often talked about as if it was a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”

 As I have watched not only my own child grow, but also the immense amount of growth that goes on with my students, it becomes more obvious to me the need to honor that Life is Play for the young.

Students construct such deep meaning of their world by finding ways to relate to it through enriching their understanding of:

  • Relationships: through shared experience and connection with others.
  • Environment: awareness of beauty and the ability to create their own private world of imagination and thinking.
  • Systems: understanding how the world works in their lives and in the lives of others.
  • Decision making: determining what is important to them and for others; making choices that develop their self-esteem.

As I step back into the Early Years this year, I wonder how as a teacher I may guide play better through provocations, asking questions and expanding their thinking. Not only do I wish for them to practice foundational numeracy and literacy skills, but I want to engage and challenge them so that they can create and build deeper conceptual understandings and open up their view of the world.


I look forward to the year ahead, and the wonderful complexity of how young children develop their ideas through imagination and creative action. This is the joy of my “work”-to be the observer and provocateur of children involved in play, as play is now my life’s work as well.



Coding in the Early Years

Coding in the Early Years

Well I am back in the Early Years until one of our teachers returns from maternity leave. It’s been an interesting shift back since this is a mixed classroom, with 3-5 year olds. I decided to incorporate coding as a part of our math language development, with a focus on positional words.

I’ve had to do a lot of songs and games to get my ELLs familiar with all of this language. They really loved this video from Scratch Garden: Left and Right Song.  Then we started talking about how we might do programming in the real world with giving directions to one of our “robot” friends. In our introductory activity, a friend had to get to the telephone, so students would take turns to “program”them with the directions they needed.


Emily counts her steps to the telephone.


Anuja thinks about how he might “program” Emily.

There was a lot of discussion about how to walk to the telephone- you can walk “this way, then that way”. As a result of eliminating confusion and focusing on the positional language ( in this case, right/left/backwards/forwards), we took away some of the foam mats so the path looked more obvious ( and it mimicked more for using the BeeBot- which is where we were heading).  Something great about using the mats was that the kids could really see the one-to-one correspondence that they needed to grasp  for programming. However, this activity did have some limitations because they couldn’t understand how a code might need to be cancelled if something changed in the program.

However, this was their first step and had more success in this way as the students began to get the concepts. This paved the way with using the BeeBot. We only have one in our class, so I used it as a center/station activity. We practiced looking at the symbols on the BeeBot and how we could use them and explored using it before setting up obstacles or using it in play scenarios.

Elena decides to link up a train to the Beebot

As their understanding progressed, we worked on the BeeBot and Foos apps on the iPads. Our tech integrator came in to assist during our school’s celebration of the Hour of Code. He was happy to see how some of the kids were progressing and helped me to assess where students were at in their learning journeys.

Anuja smashes it through Foos and gets to a game level.

Teaching Patterns

Teaching Patterns

I love teaching patterns, particularly in the beginning of the year so we can keep referencing them throughout the year. However, this year, my programme of inquiry had patterns being taught last with my homes unit (Where we are in place and time: People make their homes in different places and in different ways). Since I do a balance of integrated math and stand alone, the student really enjoyed going on pattern hunts as we looked at different homes, along with discussing and creating brick patterns. I thought I was doing a pretty good job when one of my 4 year olds turns to me and says, “You know Ms. Judy, we learned patterns last year in EY3 and we are pretty good at it. I think we should learn something else.” Krikey! Out of the mouths of babes, I was properly told off. So I reflected on what we were doing and decided to add symmetry into the mix.

After the topic was introduced, out came the mirrors and rulers, and the children began exploring how to create mirror image patterns: symmetry. They were absolutely captivated. Although I don’t have any pictures of the early explorations (I was too busy helping them hold mirrors) , I would like to share some of the later activities.

In the first set of pictures, we clamored upon the playground, drawing lines of symmetry with some chalk, and then the children worked as partners, taking turns making patterns with various manipulatives, which the other had to copy. They did a great job, and even helped to create the PicCollages that you see.  Later on, we worked with the app, Geoboard, by The Math Learning Center, to create symmetrical patterns. Again they did fantastic job, and worked very cooperatively, much to my chagrin. At last, we just got plain silly and used the app Photobooth by Apple to create symmetrical pictures using the “mirror”. Some of the kids took those images and recorded ideas and stories using the app Fotobable. It was a wonderful way for them to extend their idea of patterns, and they did such a wonderful job working together to collaborate on the images.

Our Trip to the Outback

Our Trip to the Outback

As a part of EY4’s final task on their unit about how people use transportation systems to stay connected, I decided that the summative task was going to be a rather large scale simulation of a trip. Originally I had thought that I could have them individually plan a trip, but then I worried that it might be too basic–a trip to the shop to buy ice cream, for example–so I wanted us to experience the  idea of a system, which is more complex and involves many steps.  We came up with a list of different countries around the globe: Egypt, Australia, Italy, Korea, and Mexico. We researched the countries and determined a list of reasons why we might go there:

  • seeing interesting places
  • trying new foods
  • seeing family  (in some cases)
  • meeting new people
  • having different experiences
  • seeing different kinds of animals
  • shopping

Then we researched the countries–what would be the interesting things to do, see or eat? Students got really excited to go to Egypt and Australia, although Italy, with its pizza, was close behind. We took it to a vote, and Australia won.  We took an interest survey of what students would like to do there.  Next, we started to consider how we might go to Australia. We looked at maps and thought about how long it might take us to go there. Most students agreed that taking an airplane was the most sensible form of travel, although one student did suggest that a submarine could be faster. Since we had never been on a submarine, it became a ” I Wonder” and a point of inquiry. I love when we chase up these wonderful imaginings (and yes, there is a supersonic submarine that is in the making which would be faster than an aircraft, but its not ready yet). 

After that, we set into motion getting our passports ready, our tickets “booked”, and packing our bags. I had a wonderful Australian mum help me with the snacks for our in-board flight, our Humanities teacher was one of the tour guides when we “arrived” in Sydney, and the art teacher provided me with some inspiration for Aboriginal dot paintings for our visit to the “Australian Children’s Art and Culture Museum”.

Everyone boarded Tiger Airlines to Sydney and enjoyed in-flight entertainment and snacks. Then they were met by Mr Horton from Outback Tours who took us to the Kangaroo Park and we even saw Koala Bears. After our tour, we headed to the Australian Children’s Culture and Art Museum in which we made dreamtime paintings, read and watched cultural videos, and made didgeridoos. It was a lot of fun and the kids learned a lot.

So the summative task involved:

  • Country preference ranking
  • Country research (topics explored: foods, places, animals)
  • Interest Survey
  • Trip Reflection

As you might imagine, it was very successful. The students really got a sense of how involved taking transportation can be. Even my students with little English were able to participate fully, and, although it was hard to articulate their reflection, I had enough evidence to demonstrate that understanding took place.

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Judy Imamudeen

Judy Imamudeen

Developing learners as leaders is my joy! As a highly qualified International Baccaluearate (IB) teacher and educational leader, I am committed and passionate about executing its framework and empowering students in creating a future world that works for everyone.

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