We are all a part of many systems, large and small. Larger systems can be neighborhoods, schools, or our  own bodies. Small systems can be found right in your own classroom, such as the block area. Systems help us organize and connect information and experiences. They are integral to our daily lives and recognizing how systems work can help children function more effectively within them.

Systems Thinking is the way we understand how multiple materials, concepts, or principles work together. Systems Thinking incorporates many skills including social, emotional, and critical thinking. Offering opportunities that challenge children to think systematically is extremely beneficial because they work on developing many skills at one time.


So, what does Systems Thinking look like in an early childhood classroom?

Let’s look at this through an example of ramp and construction play. A group of children are playing with ramps and blocks in the construction area. They want to make the ball go fast and decide they need to add elevation. They find a material that will allow them to place one end of the ramp at a higher point, creating an incline.

This small moment has many things happening. 

  • First, the children had to make a plan for how they wanted the ball to travel down the ramp. They decided they needed to create some kind of force on the ball to get it to move faster.
  • To create that force on the ball, they made the choice to incorporate an element of elevation on one side. Then they had to assess the materials available and make a choice about which would work best. They incorporated the chosen material and tested its functionality.

All of these steps happen within a few moments but important skills are being developed. Children are formulating ideas and hypotheses about what materials will fit into the designs they are creating in their minds. They have to assess how the materials will work together with one another. They also have to communicate these ideas to one another and come up with an agreed upon plan. This is Systems Thinking!

It’s important to point out that the process of System Thinking takes practice, like any other skill! Give children time incorporating other materials and ideas into their play and complexity will increase over time.


Teaching Tips to Promote Systems Thinking:

  • Offer diverse open-ended materials that have various textures, sizes, colors, or scale. Materials that have multiple purposes encourage children to determine purpose and assign meaning themselves. These kinds of materials also spark communication because they often require discussion and planning.
  • Offer literature in construction and library areas, and read aloud during group meetings. You may already have one or more of the following books in your classroom:   
    • The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires
    • If You Give a…series by Laura Numeroff
    • Stuck by Oliver Jeffers
    • A Little Bug Went Kachoo by Dr. Suess
    • The Napping House by Audrey Wood and Don Wood
  • Help children recognize that when one part of a system changes, the entire system is affected. For instance if you replaced a large bicycle wheel with a small one, how would that change the system?
  • With your colleagues develop opportunities that promote Systems Thinking throughout your indoor and outdoor learning spaces.


How can you create opportunities and spaces that support the concept of Systems Thinking in your classroom?