August 2019

Engaging Young Children and Families as Design Partners in the Learning Process: Reflections From an Inclusive Preschool Classroom in Washington, DC

Sarika S. Gupta
Hunter College CUNY

It has been nearly 15 years since I taught in a preschool classroom, yet only now am I am able to put a name to an approach that felt so intuitive to me as a young teacher: design thinking. Design thinking is defined as “an analytic and creative process that engages a person in opportunities to experiment, create and prototype models, gather feedback, and redesign.”1 In retrospect, I see parallels between design thinking and what I knew about Reggio Emilia: “The learner possesses rights, is an active constructor of knowledge, and is a social being; the instructor is a collaborator and co-learner along with the child, a guide and facilitator, and a researcher.”2

As a young preschool teacher, I was eager to introduce what I knew about Reggio Emilia. However, I wasn’t sure how to implement it in an inclusive setting. Surely, I needed to include my young students in the process as co-instructors. It also occurred to me that I would need to include engage families as partners. But how? Below is a short essay I wrote that year:


Spring 2004 - Michael crawled into my lap. I had strategically positioned purple water colors, a cup with water, and various sizes pf watercolor brushes atop a banner-size paper on our round table. I reached over, grabbed a thick watercolor brush, dipped it in the water, then dipped it into the purple paint—Michael’s favorite color. I slowly painted one vertical line and then another beside it. I painted a V in between the two lines and paused. Michael eyed the letter and said, “That’s in my name.” “What letter comes next?” I asked him as I handed him the brush. He hunched his shoulders and said, “I can’t write it.” “Well, try to write a straight line next to the M,” I suggested. He hesitated for a second and I turned my attention to another child sitting next to me. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Michael place his brush at the top of the page and pull in his arm to run the brush down the page in a vertical line. He paused. “So, what goes on top of that i?” I asked. He dotted his i. “What’s next?” I asked. “C,” he said. “Try to write a c.” He painted a semi-circle. “Hmm, what’s next?” I asked. He said, “I can’t write h.” So, I suggested, “Write one more straight line from the top to the bottom” and then filled in the bottom part of the h for him. Michael’s shoulders straightened with pride. I then painted the a and e. “OK, Michael—last letter—what are we missing?” I asked. Michael grabbed the paintbrush from my hand and drew a vertical line. He looked at me, smiled, and tucked his chin into his neck. “You wrote some of the letters in your name!” I praised him. He looked at the paper with a shy smile, shrugged his shoulders, and immediately asked me to write the date on the back and place it on a high shelf to dry. He returned to look at his painting periodically throughout the remainder of the day.

At the beginning of the year, Michael refused to participate in any scribbling or drawing activities, completely avoiding writing utensils. Though Michael was not expressing any developmental delays, my co-teacher and I—along with Michael’s mothers—were concerned about his reluctance to draw or write. Through a series of conversations, phone calls, and informal meetings, we created a partnership; together, we planned a series of activities and experiences to strengthen Michael’s fine motor skills in appropriate ways and with preferred materials. Purple was his favorite color, so we kept an abundance of purple paints, Cray-Pas, and pencils around the classroom. His mothers set up a “drawing area” at home, where Michael had free rein with markers, scissors, and clay. We collaborated with our in-house occupational therapist to create developmentally appropriate and engaging activities at home, such as writing with shaving cream during bath-time. Michael’s interest in painting inspired the watercolor writings. In getting to know Michael, his mothers, and their priorities, we discovered that Michael needed time, individual attention, gentle encouragement, and a safe environment in which to grab hold of a writing utensil.

As we built on Michael’s interests and engaging him in the creative process, he gradually developed the self-confidence to explore his fine motor strengths. By the end of the year, Michael was writing his name.

In reflecting on this experience now, I can see that Michael’s positive outcome was the result of the successful partnership we built with his family. Had we not engaged his family, we might not have known about their concerns for his learning. Without his mothers’ input, we would not have known about his favorite color and preferred materials. Without us as Michael’s teachers and therapist, his family may have wondered how to appropriately encourage Michael’s writing explorations. Further, in partnering with his family and listening to their priorities, concerns, and perspectives, we were able to better understand Michael’s interests and abilities and effectively engage him, through the use of motivating materials, as a co-creator in the learning process.

Recent work on design thinking describes this collaborative approach as “human-centered,” meaning it was based on connecting and empathizing with others to problem solve. By coming together with the family, we all helped Michael build confidence in his ability to “create” and “design” letters, and progressively “redesign” them to approximate his name.

1 Razzouk, R., & Shute, V. (2012). What is design thinking and why is it important? Review of Educational Research, 82(3), 330-348. p. 330
2 Hewett, V. M. (2001). Examining the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education. Early Childhood Education Journal, 29(2), 95-100. p. 95