How do you teach students to be designers from the very first days of school?

design for web

Who’s a designer?

As early as preschool, children can learn to be designers. Design is an application of creativity and critical, higher-level thinking. Designers are innovators and agents of change.

At Mustard Seed School, teachers value creativity and the design process. They build these concepts into the curriculum. The Coleman Fung Chair for Creativity and Design provides resources and inspires teachers to seek ways to develop 21st Century skills.

Making stained glass: creativity and design in the preschool classroom

Recently, preschool students in the Sky and Trees Classes researched and designed stained glass windows. The project provided an 
opportunity to engage and practice skills that lay a foundation for design and innovation.

Here’s how teachers wove key elements of creativity and design into the learning 

Gaining background knowledge

You may have a capacity for creativity or divergent thinking, but without background knowledge and study, the ideas you can 
develop will be lacking. During the stained glass window project, four- and five-year-old children visited the United Synagogue of Hoboken to observe the beautiful collection of stained glass windows in their sanctuary.


While they observed, the children drew in notebooks. They gathered ideas, recorded thoughts, and collected information in much the same way that older students or adult designers might collect knowledge: by jotting down ideas, brainstorming, researching and recording, and making lists.

Learning from an expert is one of the best ways for young children, who cannot yet read, to gather knowledge and information. Teachers invited Ms. Klein, the artist who designed the synagogue windows, to visit. She showed the children how she creates her works of art. Ms. Klein gave the children a new understanding of how to put ideas and design elements together to make a final product.

Building attitudes and habits for creative success

Creativity is not an inherent trait that some have and others do not. Instead, there are attitudes and habits that individuals develop that enable creative success. These attitudes and habits are teachable and can be practiced to increase a child’s ability to participate in design.

One of these habits is being open to explore and take sensible risks. The creative process involves choosing an idea from initial brainstorming and digging into it more deeply. Creative individuals become experts at making this selection. They reflect upon and evaluate their own work.

After collecting ideas in their notebooks, the children in the Sky and Trees Classes selected one drawing to turn into a finished piece of work.

drawing of drawing

Persisting is another habit that supports creativity. After they chose a drawing to explore, children sketched once again. They made an observational drawing of their previous drawing. This required careful looking and attention to detail. Then they made ANOTHER draft. This time on translucent vellum paper.

colored pencil 2

Finally, it was time for color! Children used colored pencils to carefully fill in the shapes and details on white paper. As the final step of the project, they painted the vellum paper with watercolor paints so their artwork looked like stained glass.

Many of these techniques and approaches challenged students. There were many obstacles. And many opportunities to practice perseverance and grit, important elements of creativity and design.

Draft, design, redesign

Design implies intentional planning.

While working on the drawings again and again, drafting and redrafting, exploring and persisting using new approaches, the Sky and Trees children learned to see their work differently. The children constantly edited this work—checked to be sure everything had been colored in and that the details were all completed to their satisfaction.

group colored pencil

The students worked on these drafts until a final product emerged. These final products were the result of research, planning, and persistence. And they were beautiful! If you have the chance to stop by the classroom and look at the windows, I know you will agree!

stained glass colored

KRISTEN JORDAN, Lead Teacher, Sky Class
Kristen Jordan is the Lead Teacher for the Sky preschool class.




Emily Sytsma

EMILY SYTSMA Coleman Fung Chair for Creativity and Design; Early Childhood Director

Ms. Sytsma has been learning alongside Mustard Seed students for over 15 years. She is also the parent of two Mustard Seed students.