Me and My Community: A Learning Opportunity for Younger Students

At what age can students start to understand their role in community and challenges the community may face? For teacher Emily Mitchell from The Nueva School in Hillsborough, California, the connection can be made as early as 1st grade. Each year her class engages in a project to learn about the larger community and adopt a community subject to study in depth.

Using the principles of human-centered design, the class this past school year used their study on Frank Lloyd Wright to design a new workspace for their subjects (leaders in The Nueva School). Emily’s students discussed:

  • How does my subject fit into the larger Nueva community?
  • How does their job affect me in first grade?

They first used their observation skills in the subjects’ workspace unobtrusively. They took notes and pictures from all angles and even gathered some stories through interviews. After much idea generation and prototyping, the students zeroed in on possible design solutions. What did the 1st graders gain from this process? Building empathy, listening, asking great questions, creating, iterating and testing — and more.

Community engagement is an ongoing process of discovery and action that students from a young age can embark on. While 7 year-olds may not be feeding meals to the homeless or building apps for the visually impaired, they can start to reach into their communities. As a result, they begin to feel genuinely engaged, know their ideas to have value and believe what they do does matter — even at a young age.

Below are additional activities that can build an understanding of community and our roles within them.

Community layers

There are multiple layers that comprise a community — from immediate circles like family and classrooms to broader networks like our country and the planet.

Circles are a good metaphor to convey ever-widening forms of community to kids. Here is one visual project that teaches them how they fit into the larger community and the world, appropriate for pre-K – elementary ages. Project instructions are included here on

In our ideaSpark™ program, community starts with learning teams that include trusted peers with a diverse skillset, backgrounds and insights, as well as team mentors. Teams are then supported by a resource network that includes universities, leaders in the community, entrepreneurs and local companies. Community is also place - from a neighborhood and city to schools and extended family groups.

Like Emily at Nueva, it may be best to first explore the communities younger students can most closely identify with. Rather than starting with the plight of Syrian refugees, take a step outside the classroom and meet school leaders. Then, explore the neighborhood where the school resides and where students live.

Community needs

Younger students can understand that we all enjoy things like swimming pools, amusement parks, chocolate chip cookies and fancy new clothes, but these things aren’t actually needs. By knowing what they personally need, the students can better understand what everyone needs.

The following activities will help them discover ‘needs’ versus ‘wants’:

Make a list

  • Carry a notebook for a three days, and write down everything you use — from water in the shower and the clothes you wear to things like TV and video games. Then, divide up the list into two columns: “What I want” and “What I need.” Ask family members or your learning team what they think people in your community need to live.
  • Create a poster. With the learning team, create a single poster or two about our wants and needs. Cut out pictures from magazines and glue them to the right poster. Then, share the posters with another group and explain what you believe everyone needs.
  • Investigate basic needs. Food, water and shelter are a few of our basic needs as humans, though sadly many people lack these resources. Research why that is and find groups in your city and the world that help people meet these needs.

During the research or ideation phase of their project, the 1st graders in Emily Mitchell’s class filled out a needs profile on their individual subject. For example:

User: Megan
Needs: Better way for people to know where her office is
So as to or because: So that people know how to find her

This helped the first graders put themselves in someone else’s shoes and design solutions that met their specific needs.

Dreams for my community

Younger students especially have more creativity and ingenuity than we often give them credit for. As we get older, our new ideas are often blocked mentally by doubt and the roadblocks we’ve often encountered in the past. I believe we can tap in to the power of younger minds to gain a new way of looking at our communities and generating innovative ideas. Seriously!

Design Thinking

How do you start to get their minds churning? After leading them through a discussion and activities on community like the ones above, invite them to dream big. Ask open-ended questions that encourage them to use their imaginations and engage with one another. Tools like mind-mapping, sketching with crayons on canvas paper and colorful Post-Its will help capture ideas.

Questions may include:

  • Imagine you could make the perfect community. What would it have in it?
  • What would NOT be in your perfect community?
  • Sometimes communities have problems that affect the people who live there. Are you aware of any of the following problems? (Share some examples to get students going – for example: hunger, poverty, pollution, bullying, water waste, etc.)
  • Which of the problems you just shared do you personally care about?
  • Imagine if you had all the help and resources in the world. Even the President of the United States said he would help you. What problem would you fix and how would you do it? Be creative!

Students should understand that ideation is all about throwing any and every idea out there — even if you don’t act on it later. Therefore, it’s important not to validate or criticize ideas during their dreaming. Just like in play, there are no wrong moves.

Creative confidence

Identity within communities can change a young person’s belief about their abilities. Specifically, that the future can be better than the present, and I have the power to make it so. They can also trust that there are people in their community like mentors who serve as guides to support them and their learning teams through that process.

I love this example from People Serving People, a homeless shelter in Minneapolis for children and families. Local design firms and educators in the area worked together to show the kids how design thinking can help them make a difference in their neighborhoods. Although the success story centers are teenagers, it’s a great example of giving students learning opportunities that are relevant to their lives and their community, especially when they may feel like most of life happens to them.

At People Serving People, a homeless shelter in Minneapolis, local design firms and educators work together to show kids how design thinking can help them make a difference in their neighborhoods. More resources at:

I used insight from the following organizations in this article: