10 Design Thinking Skills We Can Learn from the Playground

Last week, during a friend’s baby shower, for the first time in a long time I ventured out onto a playground. I would be lying if I didn’t say I felt completely out of place. Kids were running wild, screaming, and climbing on anything and everything. However, the most notable aspect was their energy and playfulness. It was a world where everything worked, and everyone worked together with glee. I began to think, “what can I learn from this place, and how does it relate to the design world?” Design thinking is a relatively new and budding aspect of a formerly artistically driven world. It is a way to apply elements of design and how to think through with those elements, principles and tactics to solve almost any problem, and take ahold of any advantageous opportunity. I began to look at the playground through this perspective. What lessons could we all learn as designers from this kid-ruled domain?

Below is a list of 10 common playground elements, behaviors and equipment that we can use to build us as designers and improve our perspectives within those roles.

10. Foursquare – You have to work to be on top
When I was ten, this was the equivalent of the NCAA. There would be a line of almost the entire fifth grade, waiting for a chance to make it to king. From the perspective of design, there is a lot to be learned. For one, all things come with hard work and determination. Rarely does anyone just fall into the hands of their dream jobs, but rather a lot of self-reflection, research, and challenging projects fall in between. The downside to the design world is that it is relatively competitive, which means you often have to “fight” to find your way to the top. However, in a more optimistic light, this means that there is the opportunity to make there and the excuse to work hard to make it happen.

9. Monkey Bars – Don’t look down
To me, this was my least favorite part of the entire playground. Mostly it was my lack of upper body strength, but it was also my fear of heights and taking risks. As designers, we are often stuck in our ways and what we know because we are afraid to take risks. Added to that, we also look down on our skills and how far we come and do not celebrate our accomplishments, both big and small. Looking up and working your way to the end, no matter what the challenge, can only end in a stronger self-worth and pile of new skills and experiences you can add to your design arsenal.

8. Tag – Share the fun
One major aspect of design thinking is the idea of sharing ideas. Even though it is a competitive field, I have noticed that designers often feed each other job and project leads along with tips on how to make themselves better designers. This is something not seen as often in the fine-art field, which makes me appreciate the world of design even more.

7. See-Saw – Partner up and collaborate
This is one of the most iconic pieces of a playground. It is also one of the most useful aspects of design thinking. It is hard to complete a job from start to finish without some input, brainstorming, etc. from another creative. Just like children on a playground, as designers, we think better and come up with crazy and sometimes genius ideas in groups. Never be afraid to work another person, regardless of personality traits. There is always something valuable you can learn from another, even if you leave wanting to pull your hair out.

6. Slide – Big risk pays off…sometimes
I was always a daredevil when it came to the slide––the higher the better. Unfortunately, it would sometimes end in an array of boo-boos and tears. In the view of design thinking, what we can learn is that we all have to take risks. It is the best way to push innovation and better our world. On the other hand, it is important to take caution. Not every project, job, and risky idea should be implemented because sometimes big risks end in things that can’t be fixed with a Superman Band-Aid. However big risks often seen from Apple products can change the industry and the world.

5. Benchwarmer – Never sit on the sidelines
Nobody likes someone without any passion or willingness to participate. Whether you are a new designer or one that may not work well with others, there is no excuse to not collaborate, share, and experience design with other creatives. Design thinking is all about never giving up on a challenge and always strategizing until the beloved design “Ah-Ha” moment happens. If you sit on the sidelines or quit challenges to early, you will never know what could have been.

4. Merry Go Round – Never lose focus
This was the easiest way to leave the playground with your head between your knees. Often within design, our ever-spinning lives can allow us to lose our focus. It’s hard to both have and keep to a goal when you add all of life’s little and big surprises in the mix. Design thinking should always be approached with goal setting. Managing major projects, career goals, along with personal time can be done with downsizing it into smaller chunks. Naturally, we are also quite hard on our creative abilities. However, each and every opportunity is a path that can improve our skills, connections and outlook on design.

3. Swings – Finding self-motivation
Being a recent design-school graduate, I must say, self-motivation is one of the hardest things to keep alive. I’ve learned that is it crucially important to do things that make you happy, even if your life is overflowing with unhappiness. Our passions often dictate what we do with our lives both present and in the future, so never lose sight of them. For example, prior to design school, I was an avid painter. Now, I almost have no desire to even pick up a paintbrush, only because I lost touch. Always seek new inspirations and keep up with hobbies, passions and the people you love.

2. Running wild – Always seek new perspectives
I remember during recess it was always a new experience, and everyday something memorable happened. Design thinking can be approached in the same way. It is important to always engage yourself with something new and eye awakening. TED talks, Behance, LinkedIn, Fast Company, Forbes, and of course the guilty pleasurable Pinterest are all avenues in which can give you new inspiration and perspectives. Remember the quote “Knowledge is Power”? Well, that holds true and can help you both more readily define yourself and create more beautiful and impactful projects.

1. Inner Child – Never lose sight of it
Going back to the fleeting fury of the children on the playground, their energy was quite contagious. I immediately felt more alive, youthful, and willing to be silly. Sometimes even grownups are too grown up. Never be afraid to show your laid back side. I have found that a heavy dose of laughter per day is the best way to stay optimistic and energized no matter what you’re doing. I still find myself laughing at the age-old fart jokes, but I have no shame. Being silly, harnessing your inner child and just chuckling the day away is the best advice I can give to any designer. It will open your eyes to new and odd connections, strengthen relationships and most importantly reduce stress.

Now that my hands hurt from typing, you can see how much we have to learn as designers from something as simple as a playground. I personally plan on going down a few more slides and maybe even attempting the monkey bars again sooner rather than later. Aside from that, I hope any and all readers will take something from this post to heart. Whether you start watching endless cat videos, rekindling a friendship with a fellow designer, or just writing down your goals, all of effective ways to broaden our perspectives, horizons, and put a smile on our face.

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