Design Thinking with Children:
The Role of Empathy, Creativity and Self-Efficacy
City Games Vienna
One of the main challenges in designing learning activities at the
intersection of digital fabrication and solving complex problems
is creating a motivating context to keep up children’s engage-
ment with the problem and going through the iterations of de-
sign thinking. Based on a four day out-of-school learning work-
shop with 18 children, we reflected upon ways to boost chil-
dren’s agency. The main question of our research relates to the
interdependencies of workshop design and children’s ability to
steer the co-design of activities and outcomes. We present first
evidence gained during the workshop series and suggest a
framework for scenario-based, digital fabrication workshops.
• Social & Professional Topics ➝ User Characteristics • Applied
Computing ➝ Education
design thinking, digital fabrication, early education, co-design
ACM Reference format:
Christian Voigt, Elisabeth Unterfrauner, Tamer Aslan, and Margit Hofer.
2019. Design Thinking with Children: The Role of Empathy, Creativity
and Self-Efficacy. In Proceedings of FabLearn conference (NEW YORK’19).
ACM, New York, NY, USA, 4 pages.
The combination of Design Thinking (DT) and digital fabrication
in education can be linked back to Montessori’s quest for more
observation and reflection in pedagogy . Similarly, Papert’s
emphasis on constructing knowledge through experience  and
Resnick’s description of how learning can be designed in a more
playful and creative way  provide compelling arguments for
the integration of digital fabrication in education .
This paper presents an evaluative snapshot from a project (DOIT
- https://www.doit-europe.net/), which aims to address societal
challenges as presented by the UN Sustainable Development
Goals through novel educational designs. Key of this project is a
focus on entrepreneurial skills and attitudes during early educa-
tion, supporting children at the age of 6 up to 16 on their path
from recognizing a problem to creating potential solutions .
Envisioned areas of activities range from inclusive living envi-
ronments and promotion of physical activities to environmental
protection. Our workshop was structured around Design Think-
ing principles . In this paper we present the argument that a
main challenge in designing learning activities at the intersec-
tion of digital fabrication and solving complex problems is creat-
ing a motivating context to keep up children’s engagement with
the problem, going through the iterations of design thinking.
2 Research Questions
Our research interest in this paper is the relationship between
the design of our learning workshops and the level of agency
taken on by the children, since we see ‘agency’ to be a crucial
driver for design as well as learning. ‘Taking agency’ is also an
ingredient to self-regulated learning , which is a core re-
quirement for problem solving and Design Thinking.
Our educational design had the task to scaffold planned activi-
ties, prepare the resources needed throughout the workshop and
generally prepare facilitators for the orchestration of an event.
Given that our main interest was in seeing as much of the action
run by the children themselves, we aimed at consciously select-
ing a minimum of scaffolds in order to avoid over-scripting the
intended flow of activities . Agency and self-regulation are
preconditions for freely choosing our actions, our ability to act
in sync with the available information, develop personal stand-
ards, maintaining a critical stance towards group pressures (‘how
things are done usually’) and other forms of socio-structural in-
fluences. We were explicitly looking for any activities evidenc-
ing Design Thinking skills and were then reflecting on how
much of that could be attributed to specific workshop design de-
cisions.Therefore, in this paper we aim to respond to the follow-
ing question: How can we facilitate specific Design Thinking skills
and capture their development through observable activities?
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FabLearn ‘19, March, 2019, New York City, New York USA
C. Voigt et al.
C. Voigt et al.
3 Related Work: Design Thinking in Educa-
Broadly speaking, there were two main categories of previous
work to consider: first, studies related to Design Thinking as part
of teachers’ lesson planning, and second, studies related to the
impact of Design Thinking on learners’ personal development.
At the core of Design Thinking is a pattern of reasoning closely
associated with abduction, i.e. the quest for tools or processes
that can produce a desired outcome in a not entirely specified,
but envisioned, way . The relatively high uncertainty in this
process requires the cyclical approach described in Design
Thinking. Design Thinking is strongly problem driven, suggest-
ing an approach to learning that excels in steering students’ im-
agination and motivation . Carroll at al.  define Design
Thinking as a method, primarily ‘developing children’s creative
confidence’ during hands-on projects, where empathy and action
are paramount in order to access the gist of the problem. There
are a plethora of models suggesting different steps such as ‘un-
derstand, observe, ideate, prototype and test’ . Eventually,
children should ask questions such as ‘what if I do ...’ and ‘what
could be done, if ...’ , opening up novel opportunities for chil-
dren to develop their creativity in an applied way.
4 Workshop Setup
The mission of the workshop series was to enable children to
find and develop creative designs related to the idea of a ‘smart
home’. The theme of smart homes was introduced as a home that
would react in smart ways to problems the children knew about,
e.g. cooling a house during a heat wave or detecting water in the
basement. The overarching frame for our workshop design was
derived from DT principles as explained in the ‘related works’
section. However, DT related skills had to be integrated with
learning more technical skills such as card board handling, wir-
ing of electronic components and block-programming. It is a
known problem that ‘learning necessary technicalities’ – e.g.
which wire needs to go where - and ‘developing a DT approach’
– e.g. understanding the core of a problem and why it matters
for the people affected – can be at odds. We also put considera-
ble effort in choosing a micro-board, suitable for children be-
tween 7 and 11 years old. Eventually we decided to use the Calli-
ope board (https://calliope.cc/en). The workshops were held on
four consecutive days. Day 1 introduced the facilitator team and
the workshop ideas and started with analogue programming ex-
amples, Day 2 advanced practical examples using the Calliope
micro-board. The objective of day two was to build up confi-
dence with the technology in general and instill a sense about
how technology could support the implementation of potential
solutions. Day 3 provided time for children to continue to work
on their prototypes or address a new challenge. Simultaneously
we started working on presentation materials for the final event
on the next day. Day 4 included discussions about future devel-
opments, the possibility to scale the prototype from an entrepre-
neurial point of view and also a little fair for the relatives and
others, including the city mayor.
5 Methodology and Data Collection
In order to capture specific design details and individual experi-
ences of facilitators, we used structured documentation and fo-
cused interviews .
The structured documentation of workshops had a twofold mo-
tivation of (a) stimulating facilitators’ reflections on their work-
shop design in order to identify gaps for further improvement
and (b) revisiting the effectiveness of the Design Thinking ap-
proach. The interviews helped to gain a better understanding of
what the actual activities were, since making comprises a wide
range of foci and technologies e.g. the modelling of a smart
home at the scale of a shoe carton (as we did in our pilot). A sec-
ond objective was the clarification of ‘summary judgments’ ,
e.g. if the workshop documentation stated that a particular activ-
ity ‘worked well’ or ‘did not work well’.
6 Analytical Perspectives
“Entrepreneurship education is about learners developing the
skills and mind-set to be able to turn creative ideas into entre-
preneurial action” . Reading the above definition, creativity
and practical action come to the fore. These are also elements
defining DT together with underlying human characteristics
such as empathy, creativity and self-efficacy .
6.1 Empathy and Ideation
Empathy is a state of mind including mental models, frames of
references and value choices . For us, empathy is an essential
ingredient to the DT process, as it leads to understanding the
importance of a problem. Our central theme was a smart home,
able to react to various forms of natural phenomena such as
flooding while being aware of safety needs and energy efficien-
Figure 1: Envisioning truly clever homes
FabLearn ‘19, March, 2019, New York City, New York USA
C. Voigt et al.
Figure 1 shows a large box where the children could post first
issues and possible reactions of a ‘Schlauhaus’. The first ques-
tions of the interview were related to children’s identification
with social challenges and their awareness of social problems in
general. The facilitators’ responses indicated that even though
children might know concepts such as ‘climate change’ , there
was not necessarily a corresponding awareness of their im-
portance. Throughout the workshops, global challenges needed
anchoring in children’s individual life worlds and experiences.
6.2 Creativity and Innovation
There are still uncertainties about just what ‘creativity’ is and
whether it can be taught. In general, two types of resources can
support creativity: person-centred resources (e.g. knowledge and
motivation) and contextual resources (e.g. supportive peers). In
terms of knowledge, we attempted to follow the principle of se-
lective exposure, i.e. the conscious decision of “which aspects of
the technology should be foregrounded or backgrounded”.
Figure 2 (left) shows how a lamp was used on the spot as a
source of heat, to test the temperature sensor. On the right of
Figure 2 we can see how materials were used to display the de-
tails of a room used to wash and dry clothes, whereas a humidity
sensor regulated the fan.
Figure 2: Imagination and emerging uses of resources
6.3 Self-Efficacy and Iteration
Bandura  described self-efficacy as the most pervasive mecha-
nism driving people’s agency. People’s believe to be able to in-
fluence events that affect their future is central for the goals they
set, their persistence on pursuing them and their ability to use
existing skills effectively [ibid]. Perceived self-efficacy is influ-
enced by comparing ourselves with others, mastering tasks after
mobilizing some effort or developing cognitive strategies .
Scaffolding interaction between children and technologies
seemed essential to us. Figure 3 shows children experimenting
with a humidity sensor in isolation (left) in order to design a
warning mechanism that indicates various degrees of emergency
due to raising levels of water.
Figure 3: From testing sensors to embedded solutions
During the interviews, the facilitators mentioned an interesting
barrier to iterations. First we thought that children could do a
simple prototype on the first day, start re-designing their idea in
a more compact way or using an alternative mechanism in order
to find out which one would work best and have a second proto-
type on the next day. However, children were reluctant to redo
their working solutions, so that during the review stages we
looked for things that could be added rather than replaced.
6.4 The next step: Scenario-led Co-design
The experiences of these four days prompted us to rethink our
workshop design for upcoming events. On the one hand we had
the challenge to orchestrate a process that kept the children mo-
tivated, on the other hand we were also aiming for children to
take as much leadership in the design approach as possible.
A key condition for a successful workshop turned out to be ex-
amples and problem definitions children could directly related
to. Design-driven problem-solving was then a suitable frame-
work to test feasibility and effects of different actions, in line
with local conditions. Figure 4 depicts our consolidate workshop
approach. The co-design process starts with children being
prompted by a high level issue (e.g. how to deal with a heat
wave). As described earlier, such an abstract prompt might not
directly resonate with the children, hence a further dialog is used
to add details from their daily lives (lower circle in Figure 4).
The facilitator’s role is then to provide a corridor for the scenario
to unfold or hint at material restrictions (upper circle in Figure
4). We had also made the experience that core technologies do
not need to be demonstrated in abstract, but included in the sce-
nario discussion. Children would still learn about the sensor in a
separate exercise, but with their own solutions in mind, they are
more engaged since a meaningful transfer of the learned is emi-
The resulting design options for parts of their problem are then
ranked based on three criteria: intrinsic motivation, fitness for
purpose and feasibility. The process described is not meant to be
a fixed sequence of steps.
Figure 4: Scenario-led Co-design
We established a number of elements being critical for the ac-
tion- and creativity focused definition of entrepreneurial educa-
tion such as (a) empathy to thoroughly understand a problem, (b)
creativity to ideate solutions that work considering constraints
that can’t be solved quickly and (c) iterative prototyping to learn
from past experience and test hypothetically better designs. Em-
pathy was strongly dependent on children’s ability to connect
with the problem definition on a personal level. Creativity was
very much an emergent phenomenon enabled by the sustained
dialog with peers and facilitators. Iterations were bound to dif-
ferent levels of personal identification with the problem. Here
again, empathy can be renewed by finding ways to provide feed-
back to current designs, not from the facilitators but from out-
side people with a natural interest in children’s solution.
All in all, we found that the overarching benefit from having de-
sign driven and digital-fabrication enabled learning was the ac-
cessibility of the format for all children, since by constructing
material objects, children could use different epistemologies in
forming their understanding
DOIT has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon
2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement
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