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Early Years

Engineering Habits of Mind

Science and Children—October 2019 (Volume 57, Issue 3)

By Peggy Ashbrook and Anne Lowry

Creating “verbal designs” is an alternative to making a drawing of possible solutions in early childhood engineering. By talking through possible design solutions, children can describe their engineering plans successfully as they use engineering habits of mind including creativity and communication. This process also encourages children to build on what they already know, resulting in a clear design with testable questions.

In a class of students ages 3 to 5, children designed their own “fireworks” at school after seeing them. With actual explosives ruled out, several children—demonstrating additional engineering habits of mind—optimism and collaboration—did not give up on the idea but worked together identifying three problems. The first problem was to determine what to use to make the firecracker, second was how to make the fire cracker “explode,” and the third was what to put inside the firecracker for the “light.” The first and third problems were easy for children to think through and solve. After looking at images of firecrackers online, children identified paper towel tubes as having the same cylinder shape. For material, Isla and Eve proposed using tiny rounds of “confetti” from hole punches.

The second problem had the small group of children temporarily stumped. To help them work through the problem, the teachers asked several questions, including, “What do you do to make objects move?” Throwing was the first answer, but after verbally describing the action, they realized that both the contents and the tube might hit someone in the face when it fell. The children were paying attention to ethical considerations, another engineering habit of mind, and decided they needed another idea.

Firecrackers and forts—children find many uses for cardboard.
Firecrackers and forts—children find many uses for cardboard.

Alex wondered about stretching and snapping rubber bands—if snapped against the bottom of the tube, would the tube move, also pushing the confetti on the bottom? They tested this idea successfully on a drum but found that the stretched rubber band crushed the tube, blocking confetti. The children were using another engineering habit of mind, systems thinking.

Cohen remembered filling balloons with air and letting them go, which moved the balloons without throwing. He explained how the balloon was propelled by escaping air, which could also move confetti. Cohen also pointed out that the tube would hold open the balloon, making it easier for the confetti to get in and out. Aidan added once the confetti was inside the balloon, they could pull the balloon back like a rubber band.

With this verbal design plan, the children got to work and discovered a new problem: The diameter of the tube was so large that the balloon tore. They decided to make the tube diameter smaller by cutting it length wise, re-rolling and taping the smaller tube securely before attaching a balloon. The students put confetti down the tube, held the tube, and pulled the balloon back. Success! Confetti everywhere! Though everyone was satisfied with this firecracker version, several questions remain: Would pom-poms work? Would a smoother tube work better? As in many explorations, the children leave with new questions to investigate!

Creating a Cardboard Construction Center


To support children’s developing engineering habits of mind via a cardboard construction center where children use design processes to solve problems and develop spatial and mathematical reasoning.

  • recyclables without sharp edges, such as cereal boxes, corrugated boxes, poster board, egg cartons, and plastic containers and lids
  • construction paper
  • masking tape and duct tape
  • paper fasteners
  • hole punchers
  • scissors
  • tools for attaching cardboard pieces, such as pipe cleaners
  1. Beforehand, review the “Operational Definitions of Engineering Habits of Mind in Young Children” (<a class="bibr" href="#SC_16_B1">Counsell et al. 2015</a>) and consider how you will support children’s development of these habits during the ongoing lesson.
  2. Briefly discuss the Engineering Habits of Mind with students using examples that reference the class’ common experiences. For example,
  3. While children work, draw their attention to when they are using these engineering habits of mind.
  4. Open up a cardboard construction center initially stocked with cardboard pieces less than 30 cm (12 in.) long to begin with. Introduce the safe use of any tools you provide. Demonstrate how to use one hand to hold a piece of cardboard on a flat surface while cutting with scissors, and not cutting toward the securing hand. Tape is easier to dispense by putting one end on the edge of a table and letting the roll hang down before cutting. For children who cannot cut tape, put precut lengths on a stiff piece of plastic for their use.
  5. Invite children to use the center and explore the properties of the available materials as they make structures and other objects. If children have a hard time getting started, ask them to create at a classmate’s request. Encourage collaboration by pointing out children who have successfully cut cardboard or attached pieces together as “experts” to ask for help.
  6. Over a week or more, talk with children about their experience. Ask open-ended questions such as, “Share your creation process with me. How did you get the materials to (cut, bend, stand up, stick together)?” “Are you having any difficulties with the process?” “Which materials do you prefer to use and why?”
  7. Ask children to make a verbal or drawn design before beginning additional structures. Children may want to make tracks for model cars, charging stations for devices, beds for their stuffed animals, arcade games, or forts. As children begin designing larger structures, ask them to work together. Add larger pieces of cardboard to the center. Take photos or make drawings yourself to document their process. To encourage children’s thinking about the process of designing, create a display or photo album and discuss the documentation.

A well-stocked center inspires children to try new designs and to work through additional engineering problems. To maintain interest and provide new challenging learning experiences, ask families to contribute clean recyclables, and send requests for completed structures.


Counsell S., et al. 2015. STEM Learning with young children: Inquiry teaching with ramps and pathways. New York: Teachers College Press.

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Engineering Teaching Strategies Early Childhood Elementary

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