Creativity Challenges | What, Why, How

Creativity Challenges | Snapshot

What: Creativity challenges are short, usually one-sentence prompts inviting imaginative action, often playful or containing unexpected juxtapositions (e.g. Design a feast for dragons). Creativity challenges are usually meant to be completed quickly (5 to 10 minutes)

Why: As a recurring routine, especially when coupled with regular reflection, creativity challenges foster a culture of creative thinking and problem solving. They are quick and often fun; whimsical prompts set an unintimidating tone for engagement.

How: Begin with a collection of prompts (some Creativity Challenges can be found at and open-ended, non-precious materials such as cardboard. Keep work time short to emphasize that this is to be a draft rather than a finished product.

How are creativity challenges useful?

Creativity challenges are an engaging way to spark divergent thinking, imagination, and call on students to make connection to prior knowledge across content areas.  Playful and unexpected juxtapositions in the prompts wake up the mind and take away the fear of “diving in.” These challenges help build comfort with ambiguity, support idea generation, and urge experimentation.  Moreover, they create multiple entry points, and prompt participants to build understanding through synthesizing disparate information.  While the prompts are playful, students must ask themselves probing questions. Keeping a short time frame and using non-precious, open-ended materials adds a layer of creative problem solving. These parameters of time and materials also emphasize that the value is in generating ideas rather than creating a perfect product.

Students from Columbus Gifted Academy engage in a creativity challenge as a part of a Studio Thinking Workshop at the Columbus Museum of Art.

How do I do it?

Start with playful, unexpected prompts. Some examples include:

  • Using cardboard, create a zoo for Mars.
  • Collaborate to design a nest for an intergenerational family of phoenixes.
  • Design a public transit system that anyone would be happy to ride.

While the prompts are playful, students must ask themselves probing questions (e.g. How would a zoo on Mars need to differ from one on Earth? What would phoenixes of different ages need, and how can a nest be fireproof? What would make public transit more attractive to more people?). The following pages include some prompts to help you get started.  Try them as-is, or use them as a springboard to develop your own.  As students become comfortable participating in creativity challenges, invite them to generate their own.  The first tool is a sheet that can be printed, cut, and distributed with each student taking a different challenge.  Each example is a challenge that has been used with a range of ages, though you may find that the vocabulary or the cultural specificity of some prompts make them lass suitable for your particular context.

Next, introduce simple materials (like recycled yogurt lids, paper towel rolls, and tape) and time constraints (5 minutes at the start of class and 5 minutes for reflection). Making the challenges quick and using non-precious, open-ended materials breaks down barriers to experimenting and adds a layer of creative problem solving (“But how can we do this with only twist ties?” “We don’t have time to make the whole thing, so how can we represent it?”).

Finally, take some time to reflect using open-ended prompts. Taking the time to reflect helps students to solidify their learning and provides information teachers can use as a form of assessment of students’ creative thinking. Reflection can be done orally as a turn-and-talk with a neighbor, or with the full group, or written by an interviewing partner, the teacher, or the students themselves. Reflection supports learners’ metacognition and surface evidence of thinking and understanding that comprises formative assessment.

Some general examples include

  • Tell us about what you created.
  • How did you begin?
  • Tell us about a discovery you made.
  • How did you use the materials?
  • What surprised you about this process, and/or the work and reflections of others?
  • What challenges did you overcome while working on this challenge?”

What does this look like in action?

Case #1: Warming up | AP US History, Arts and College Preparatory Academy

Amanda Waluzak, social studies teacher at the Arts and College Preparatory Academy (ACPA), invited the MCV team to lead a creativity challenge with her AP US History class. In groups, students had 5 minutes to respond to the prompt, “Create a sculpture representing an emotion,” using only paperclips, string, CDs, craft sticks, tin cans, rubber bands, a sock, a block of wood, and a small piece of tape.

Students collaborate to create a representation of “flabbergasted”

Groups then toured other groups’ creations and made observations, ventured possible interpretations, answering “What makes you say that,” and raised questions about the creations.  In a general reflection about what kinds of thinking students engaged in, many discussed the role of imagination, collaboration, and ambiguity. Students were then asked, “What could this have to do with social studies?”  Student responses included metaphorical connections, such as “You could think about your piece as history itself, because it’s going to continually change as it’s added to over time” and “you could think of it like balancing the economy, because it’s going to crash and it’s going to grow.” Many students discussed the nature of interpretation and perspective, including this quotation:

“Whenever you address a social issue, you have to go about it with this kind of thinking. Especially in a country as big as the United States, where everybody has such different points of view, and such different backgrounds. You have to go with open-mindedness and imagination to form solutions to the problems our country is facing, with everybody’s expectations and wants out of our government. So when you’re drafting a bill, or trying to address social issues that are going on right now, like the Black Lives Matter movement or something like that, you have to come at it with an open mind, seeing everyone’s point of view.”

While they worked and reflected, Ms. Waluzak noticed that students were referencing some of the skills of historic thinking, such as laying out evidence, putting together an argument, and using and analyzing interpretive skills.  She wondered aloud how the experience could be modified or built on to more explicitly connect with these skills, and shape the class approach to essay-writing.

Case #2: Extending the “challenge” | Second Graders at Eli Pinney Elementary School

Second grade teachers Jennifer Argo and Katrina Kudart collaborated with the school’s art teacher, Jason Blair (Eli Pinney Elementary school, Dublin, OH) to extend an on-going exploration he was leading with students.  Over several weeks in Mr. Blair’s class, students “interviewed” an imaginary, unseen creature who responded via sticky notes that appeared overnight.  Children developed new questions based on these responses from “the creature,” conducting empathetic research and building their curiosity and questioning skills.  Then, during an economics unit of social studies with Ms. Argo and Ms. Kudart, students had a short period of time and limited materials to create a good that the creature would want.  Students returned to their questions and answers for research, justifying the demand for their product using evidence from what they had learned about the creature.  While this experience was embedded in a longer project, it was inspired by short, regular creativity challenges the children were familiar with doing in their art room.  Moreover, it retained some of the key elements that support success in creativity challenges – open-ended, non-precious materials, time constraints that emphasized that this was to be a draft rather than a polished product, and a whimsical component that set an unintimidating tone for engagement.

A student tests out a zip line designed for the class creature while exploring wind and motion.

Case #3: Spark and Reflect | CMA’s Teaching for Creativity Institute

On the first morning of the Teaching for Creativity Institute in the summer of 2017, 50 educators were prompted to “Envision and create a device that everyone will have in the future, but that no one has now.” The participants worked individually using were given 10 minutes and only aluminum foil, coffee stirrers, twist ties, and a mystery object such as a cassette tape or cork.

An educator spends time manipulating and experimenting with foil as a part of the challenge.

Participants approached the challenge in a wide range of ways. Some devised a contraption they feared everyone would need, such as a helmet that protected against technology that would mine data directly from people’s minds. Others began by identifying a “wicked problem” facing the world today, such as the growing scarcity of water, for which the participant created a portable device that could draw drinking water from the air. Others imagined improved versions of products they already owned, inventing by combining known products into streamlined wearables. Several responses began with recently-encountered personal challenges that seemed to point to a broader need.  One participant shared afterward that she was completely stumped; not knowing where to begin, she created an idea generator!

During reflection after the activity teachers interviewed a partner using open ended prompts and wrote their responses in pre-printed speech bubbles. This was done in order to model the speech bubble template, from the Making Learning Visible initiative of Harvard’s Project Zero. This is a simple, familiar way to capture students’ thinking and make it visible to others in order to provide insight into some of the thinking that is invisible in the final product.

Speech bubble templates can support reflection (left). Displaying these insights can invite others into the creative process. In the photo on the right, Ms. Emily Reiser’s end-of-year art show featured displays speech bubbles alongside photos of students working.

I am ready to try it!

As a recurring routine in the classroom, and particularly when coupled with reflection, these challenges foster a culture of creative thinking and problem solving. In the “Sparking Creativity” section of this site you will find some of our favorite creativity challenges to get you started. After you become comfortable using them in your learning environment you and your students can start generating your own prompts relevant to your content. Here you can also find some tools that map challenges to specific grade-level content standards. These were created by a consultant to the Making Creativity Visible initiative, Mr. Blair (the elementary art teacher mentioned in Case #1). These documents are designed to illustrate how to begin with creative thinking, then develop the linkages to the content standards.  Even without these direct curricular connections, creativity challenges are a demonstrated strategy to foster divergent thinking and creativity across disciplines.

Creativity Challenges Click to Download as pdf file

Creativity Challenges Click to Download as editable .doc file

Try out these challenges, adapt them, make students’ creativity visible through quotations and process images, and share your experiences with the Making Creativity Visible team!