Design education making a mark in Finnish primary schools – events attract more than 2,000 participants

The team used liquorice pieces and dental sticks to build this magnificent structure. In the photo: Michael Grandy, Lumi Salo, Elsa Piacenza, Niilo Niininkuru, Julius Piacenza, Tomas Karhapää and Jalo Jokelainen. Photo: Laura Oja

Design education is intended to encourage children to think like inventors” and provides them with the tools they will need to face the challenges of the future. A joint project by the Finnish Association of Designers Ornamo and Design Museum Helsinki, which ran from 2015 until 2017, piloted a new design education syllabus, delivered through the Kids Design Academy after school clubs. Design is also being introduced into the wider Finnish comprehensive school curriculum.

Be inquisitive, define your problem, use your empathy, think big, build a prototype, test your prototype, test it again, develop it further, then launch it to the world. This is the sort of pathway that could be used as the basis for signage to help students navigate their way around school. Design is traditionally defined as the practice of determining the shape and functioning of an object but it can also be used in the context of non-material things like services, functionalities and digital systems.

Bold solutions to big problems

The participants at the Kids Design Academy media design club created a whole new set of signage and an entirely new visual identity for their own school. The result was a lot more colour and much more information about what happens around the school building. The exercise as a whole was an excellent demonstration of how invested children become in the school environment when they are given the opportunity to use their ideas to shape it and develop it further. In the latest Kids Design Academy session, titled #bebold, the children were invited to use design and spatial planning to find solutions to bullying. Bullying increasingly takes place in the social media realm, which is why the after school club also acts as an online anti-bullying campaign.

“The children have developed such a brilliant understanding of what the design process is all about. They’ve really picked up on the importance of empathy and what it means in practice in terms of how our day-to-day environments impact on our well-being, for example. We’ve practised our problem solving skills through scenario-based play using a range of imaginary characters. We had both bullies and bullied kids as well as some bystanders. The children were then asked to find solutions to the problems they were facing and to generate ideas for how we can prevent bullying and stop it altogether.” explains Natalia Ritari, interior architect and facilitator of the latest #bebold after school club.

Children as active design participants

The latest framework curriculum for comprehensive schools in Finland, which was introduced in 2016, views students as active participants in the learning process. The design content of the curriculum eschews ready-made solutions in favour of developing children’s skills for fresh and innovative thinking and highlights the importance of interaction and collaboration. The purpose of the design education is to ensure that children have the opportunity to shape their own environment, actively driving the process of change.

One of the strategic aims of the Finnish government’s national Design Finland programme, launched in 2013, was to ensure that design education is fully integrated across all early years and comprehensive school education curricula. This reflects an understanding of the potential offered by both design and design education to bring genuine tangible benefits to Finnish society as a whole. The idea is that an increasing awareness and understanding of what design really means will have a direct impact on people’s well-being and Finland’s competitiveness more generally. One of the key methods for delivering this content is through phenomenon based learning.

“Here in Helsinki, phenomenon based learning is defined as a comprehensive approach to acquiring new skills and new knowledge that takes a multi-disciplinary look at the world. It’s a shared process that allows teachers and students to use the designer’s tool kit to approach the phenomena under investigation,” explains Petra Ilonen, project manager at Ornamo.

“Design education takes its cue from the actual lived reality of the children and young people we are working with. The idea is to investigate the environment that surrounds us with an open and inquisitive approach. The overall aim is to help the students develop their own direct relationship with the designed and built environment around them. Help and support is also on hand for the kids to build on their communications skills and they are also invited to practice listening to others,” adds Hanna Kapanen, Museum Educator at the Design Museum Helsinki.

Kids Design Academy – the facts  

Project: The Kids Design Academy after school clubs have been running in Helsinki schools since 2010 and are available to students in Years 3 to 6. The after school clubs serve as the basis for the project.

Aims: With support from the Helsinki cultural centres, to make design an integral part of the learning process in schools and to provide teachers with new working methods.

Participants: A total of 325 children attending after school clubs.

Participants: More than 2,000 children and young people took part in the Kids Design Academy events (Helsinki Design Week Children’s weekend, Tulevaisuuden rakentajat architecture and design event)

Facilitators: service designer Laura Euro, textile designer Silvia Di lorio, industrial designer Aino Kiviranta, fashion designer Marika Lehti, designer Juhana Myllykoski, jewellery designers Anna Heino and Sanna Nuutinen and interior architects Maria Riekkinen and Natalia Ritari.

Participating schools: Kannelmäen peruskoulu, Malminkartanon ala-asteen koulu, Pelimannin ala-aste (merged with Kannelmäen peruskoulu), Herttoniemen ala-asteen koulu, Soinisen koulu (merged with Pukinmäen peruskoulu), Töyrynummen ala-aste (merged with Suutarinkylän peruskoulu), Koskelan ala-asteen koulu, Länsi-Pasilan ala-asteen koulu, Pihkapuiston ala-aste, Arabian peruskoulu and Snellmanin ala-asteen koulu.

Publications: The Opinkirjo Development Centre published Matka palvelumuotoiluun (Journey to service design), a design education handbook for teachers in 2017. This year will see the continuation of Opinkirjo and Design Museum Helsinki’s design education teacher training tour titled Monialainen oppimiskokonaisuus: Muotoilulla monialaisuutta, osallisuutta ja yhteisöllisyyttä.

For further information and interview requests, please contact:

Petra Ilonen, Project Manager, Finnish Association of Designers, +358 44 743 3577,

Hanna Kapanen, Museum Educator, Design Museum Helsinki,  +358 50301 6838,

Natalia Ritari, Interior Architect, +358 45 871 5445,