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4 Activities to introduce young children to prototyping

Have you ever noticed your child create an object with a piece of paper or cardboard? How about the look on their face when they finally get the object to look or cooperate in the way they envisioned? This is your child starting to prototype ideas, and it’s certainly a process that we as parents must celebrate and encourage to promote creativity at home.

A prototype is an early sample of a product that is used to test a new concept or idea. Its process is one of the fundamental principals of design-based thinking, and engages a variety of creative thinking skills along the way. As adults we might lack the creative confidence to bring our ideas to fruition, but as parents we are lucky enough to have our little bundles of joy to help lead the way.

To get started on a design-based activity, I suggest observing any elements of prototyping that already exist in your child’s play. For example, my four year old enjoys prototyping objects that he’s seen on television, like the Tricorder type device in Disney’s Miles of Tomorrow Land, or Princess Sophia’s emulate.

Designs usually become more elaborate after he’s figured out the process, and he will usually expand beyond his original idea.
Designs usually become more elaborate after he’s figured out the process, and he will usually expand beyond his original idea.

I noticed that paper, crayons, scissors and glue, usually featured highly in his process, and decided that it would be best to incorporate these elements into our activity. Now any parent looking to introduce the concepts of prototyping to a young child should do so subtly, and avoid forcing any unwanted structure to their play. Instead we should encourage the child to observe each design, and then facilitate questions on how to make improvements. Once the activity is finished we can investigate which design was the best – but keep the focus on the iterations that were made throughout the process (how did we improve this design the second time around). From my first experience I would suggest no more than two to three prototypes, and it’s essential that problems are kept ill-defined – in other words, avoid following instructions and any ‘this is the correct way’ approach to the activity (this quickly defeats the objective of introducing young children to prototyping). If you want to expand the activity in a classroom environment (or with older kids) you might want to snap a few pictures along the way and challenge the child to reflect on the process and create a set of instructions afterwards.

Below is a list of products that I think make for fun design-based activities that can introduce prototyping to young children. Try and avoid the ones that you already know, so that you can increase the opportunity to fail*.

4 Activities to introduce young children to prototyping

  1. Thaumatrope (see video below) – an old fashioned device that demonstrates the theory of Persistence of Vision. Simple to make, and you only need card, crayons, scissors and elastic bands.
  2. Kite (can you design a flying kite beyond the triangular one?) – If you’re a fan of Mary Poppins, be sure you listen to ‘Lets Go Fly a Kite’ as you make.
  3. Sailboat (take a drinks carton and go from there) – Introduce concept of wind power at the same time. This would certainly require water to test each prototype, but has certainly peeked my curiosity.
  4. Paper Plane (which design flies the furtherest?) – Lots of different prototyping opportunities. Might allow for more detailed/advanced tweaking.

* NO PICTURES – JUST GET MAKING. It kind of limits the opportunity to prototype if you look up how to make them. Enjoy the process of discovering from failing!

If you liked this article you might want to read ‘The Role of Trail and Error in Creativity’

This weekend I started off with the Thumatroupe, which I plan to share in another article, but the video below shows our four prototypes.

FREE FILM for parents and educators

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Matthew Worwood
Matthew Worwood is Associate Director of Digital Media and Design, at the University of Connecticut. Recently he produced a documentary that explored creativity in education, and is currently working on a crowdsourcing, visualization, and documentary project called CLASS of 2032. He recently co-founded the blog, DadsforCreativity.com and serves as an Executive Board member of the EverWonder Children's Museum.

Matthew Worwood

Matthew Worwood is Associate Director of Digital Media and Design, at the University of Connecticut. Recently he produced a documentary that explored creativity in education, and is currently working on a crowdsourcing, visualization, and documentary project called CLASS of 2032. He recently co-founded the blog, DadsforCreativity.com and serves as an Executive Board member of the EverWonder Children's Museum.

3 thoughts on “4 Activities to introduce young children to prototyping

  1. This is fantastic. I love the sailboat idea. Growing up we had a regatta every few years in our back yard. It was adults and kids. I remember one year (I think I was about 8) we held one with at least 20 people including extended family and the neighbors. One of my neighbors was an engineer and spent 2 days building a unit designed to be wound up with a rubber band and then raced across the pool. It sunk immediately. My uncle built this incredible pirate ship, which didn’t win the race (winning was never the goal!) but received an award for creativity and he had an absolute blast making it. The winner was a PIE PLATE made by my 5 year old friend. It had a pipe cleaner and a paper sail and the kid held up a pool noodle and blew air through it to push the pie plate across the pool. Just goes to show you how important play is!

    1. Hello Emily, thank you for sharing your story. This is FANTASTIC, and has got me excited about the possibilities that exist in this activity. I’ve already started to gather up containers for a sailboat activity this weekend and might steel a few examples from your story!

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