Teaching Children To Discover The World Through Design

Design appreciation programmes for pre-school children show that design truly is for everyone.
Professor Masayo Ave guides the pre-school children to observe details in leaves, flowers, twigs and other plant parts.

One afternoon in 2013, a group of pre-schoolers gathered at St James’ Church Kindergarten to go on a nature walk.

But this was no ordinary excursion. The children had a mission: to look out for flowers, branches, fallen twigs and even tree trunks that formed the shapes of alphabet letters or numerals.

Before the walk, their teachers had shown them photos of greenery and encouraged them to “spot” numerals and letters among the plants.

This exercise, called “Design Gymnastics ABC”, is part of the ManyWaysOf- Seeing (MWOS) initiative by DesignSingapore Council (Dsg)’s Design Thinking & Innovation Academy.

During the walk, the children learnt to be observant to complete the task; their sense of touch was also sharpened as they collected fallen plant parts. They returned to the classroom with items such as leaves and twigs, to be sorted and used for other MWOS activities. The programme uses such hands-on exercises and the appreciation of design to inspire creativity and a sense of wonder in young children.

Later, the children arranged the various plant parts into “faces” showing different emotions. The children then told stories about the faces they had created, honing their communication skills on top of their observation and interpretation skills.

Mr Jeffrey Ho, Dsg’s Executive Director, says MWOS sprang from the belief that design is a life skill that is not just for “an elite group of designers”.

“Design is not about a product,” he adds. “It is a process, which requires the individual to approach issues with an open mind and to assess situations from different perspectives.”

Only fallen plant parts are collected for MWOS sessions. 

Developing MWOS with schools

MWOS began in 2003 as a design appreciation programme for primary and lower secondary school students.

The objectives then were to spark creativity in youth and give them opportunities to work with mentors and designers in school projects, says Ms Lim Cai Ling, Manager, Design Thinking & Innovation Academy.

In 2012, Dsg collaborated with the Early Childhood Development Agency to introduce MWOS to pre-schoolers, and has since reached out to more than 35 pre-schools.

Working with Professor Masayo Ave, an acclaimed Japanese designer and architect, Dsg is also developing a latest set of nature-inspired design workshops for children.

Early childhood educators who are keen to bring MWOS to their students can attend Dsg’s Train-the-Trainer workshops and Master Classes. During these sessions, they learn to hone their own sense of curiosity, how to prepare for and facilitate the programme, as well as develop an age-appropriate curriculum based on the MWOS approach.

Humble Origins

The MWOS programme, first introduced in 2003 by Dr Milton Tan (Dsg’s founding Executive Director), was inspired by the work of Nelson Goodman, the Harvard philosopher. Professor Goodman founded Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to study learning processes in children, adults and organisations.

Upcoming events with Professor Masayo Ave:

ManyWaysOfSeeing Seminar
March 10, 6.30pm to 8.30pm
Venue: National Design Centre,
Auditorium (Level 2)
Register at bit.ly/MWOSsem

March 13 – May 31, 9am to 5pm
Venue: Sentosa Nature Discovery

(Left) Using various plant parts, the children make faces wearing different emotions, and then tell stories about each character. (Right) The children are guided to match colours and details as closely as they can when they draw their items.

Teachers inspired too

Ms Alicia Tang, a pre-school educator in PCF Pasir Ris East at Blk 216, has conducted MWOS workshops for fiveyear- olds since 2013. Having seen the creative process in action, she observes that the programme benefits both the children and teachers.

Professor Ave uses techniques such as “Golden Silence” and “Whispering” to create a quiet, meditative environment for the children to concentrate on observing. Ms Tang recalls: “I was amazed by the way Professor Ave facilitated the children in her workshops.

“The learning environment was very well-planned and stimulated learning in young children. Most importantly, [she] revived my inborn sense of wonder and led me to the joy of discovery in the natural surroundings around me.”

Another MWOS activity created by Professor Ave is called the “Spirit Garden”. In one such session, the children each picked an item from among leaves, flowers and other plant parts displayed on a plain white tray. Using magnifying glasses, they examined their chosen item quietly – rather unusual for a roomful of pre-schoolers.

Handing out coloured oil pastels, a teacher then asked the children to match the nearest colour to their item. After this, the children were guided to draw the items to be “as real as possible” to practise their skills in drawing and identifying details.

At the end of the exercise, the children pasted their drawings on the branches of a big paper tree, prepared in advance by their teachers. This collective display cultivates a concept of showing “our work”, versus “my work”, explains Ms Tang.

She adds: “We are living in a fast-paced society where children are spending too much time on technologies. The sensorial explorations… not only encourage the children to stay focused but will also teach them the importance of teamwork.”

Design is not about a product. It is a process, which requires the individual to approach issues with an open mind and to assess situations from different perspectives.

Looking ahead

At present, MWOS is an enrichment programme that is not part of the pre-school curriculum. Dsg hopes to encourage more schools (including primary and secondary schools) to embrace MWOS.

Mr Ho says: “We are probably the most creative when we are young, bounded only by the limits of our imagination.” It is this quality of creativity and appreciation for design that Dsg hopes to extend to everyone through MWOS.

Other Stories: The Design Issue

    Mar 18, 2015
    Margaret Lim
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