Teaching kids creative thinking

The more I learn about creative thinking and about teaching, two subjects of great interest, the more depressing organized education in the U.S. becomes. I’m familiar with Montessori, Waldorf and various other well known private school brands, as well as public school programs here and there, but it’s all vaguely disappointing. I’m often left feeling there is no substitute for parents and extended family: they are the best hopes young minds have for learning what it means to think free. Perhaps that’s as it should be.

Two bright spots I’ve found are these two programs, aimed at giving kids exposure to creative problem solving in team environments. I’ve yet to see these things in action but I’d love to visit and maybe even help out with a local chapter.

Odyssey of the Mind – An international program that focuses on creative problem solving projects. It’s a world-wide competition with regional finals and programs.

Destination Imagination: Similiar to Odyssey of the mind, but offers 5 different tracks each with a different creative focus, from technical, to artistic.

If you know of other resources for parents who want to augment their kids exposure to creative thinking and problem solving skills, or have experience with either of the above programs, please leave a comment. I’d love to hear more.

20 Responses to “Teaching kids creative thinking”

  1. Drew Kime

    You should read up on John Taylor Gatto: http://www.preservenet.com/theory/Gatto.html

    You’ll either be thrilled to find someone who “gets it” about the problem you describe, or utterly depressed to find out that the problem is so much deeper and more systematic than you realized.

    If you’re not already interested, here’s the executive summary: Modern public education is bad at teaching creative thinking because it is *explicitly designed* to squelch creativity. And most of the people dilligently working within the system don’t know it.

  2. Ryan Anthony

    Odyssey of the Mind (OM as we called it many years ago) has been around for quite a while. When I was in grade school in the late eighties my elementary school participated in the competitions. They were always a lot of fun to prepare for, even aside from gluing your hands together trying to create balsa wood structures to stand up to weights. Being a part of those teams most definitely affected me positively. The number of students that participated was not high though.

  3. Todd W.

    I participated in OM when I was in junior high in the mid-80s. It was a ton of fun; I also did the balsa wood bridges Ryan refers to. It was presented as something for the “Gifted and Talented” classes to do, so not something generally available to all students. Not sure what the stance is now, but I assume nothing’s changed in that regard.

    I’d suggest a quick read through the last chapters of William Duggan’s “Strategic Intuition” for an history and analysis of progressive education. It’s not a primer for early learning, but does indicate a middle-way between pure rote and pure freedom approaches.

  4. Craig J.

    To me the current state of the education system isn’t just relegated to grade schools and high schools. The same problems that are seen at in the upper tiers of education. Many academics are “mailing in” the courses and are so caught in the ivory tower that they forgot how to prepare students for life past their exams. A great article about this was written by Warren G. Bennis and James O’Toole for the Harvard Business Review the basic premise being that the professionals who use to come back and teach after working in the “real world” are no longer welcomed into academics. It is an interesting take on how that influences the education of our college students. To a certain extent I wonder if how we are taught relates to how we work. And while I’m on my soapbox I can’t help but throw this cartoon in for describing creativity in the workplace.

  5. Miranda

    Thanks for this great post, and the comments. My son will start kindergarten next year in public schools, and I am looking for supplements to his public education. I remember when I was in kindergarten, and the teacher made me re-do a project for coloring the trees purple. I’m already preparing to supplement different creativity-building activities for my son.

  6. Douglass Turner

    Having recently returned to the States following eight years in Iceland I can tell you that the whole “helicopter parent” thing here has got to be part of the problem.

    I’m American, my son was born in Iceland and my daughter arrived in Iceland at the age of 2.

    In Iceland I was stunned by the relative freedom at an early age that I saw amongst the kids there.

    The incessant “good job” knee jerk response to everything kids do here is maddening. American kids live in a highly controlled bubble patrolled by their parents. This is a creativity killer.

    You want to make American kids more creative. Get out of their way and let them be kids.


  7. Elaine

    My younger sister loved Odyssey of the Mind in high school in the early 90s. (They started it about the time I graduated, IIRC.) Although, like Todd W’s school, it may have just been open to “gifted & talented” kids.

    I’m trying to remember a summer school that I went to in junior high (?) that was really focused around creativity. I made my own journal and then wrote & drew in it; my sisters and I made a cardboard castle. Also, my senior year of high school I was in a really interesting after-school performance art class, which was storytelling, interpretive dance (yes, really), mask-making, etc.

    It seems like a lot of the really interesting/creative programs are just for very smart kids or kids with very pushy parents, which is incredibly unfortunate. That last program was especially unusual because it included a number of kids from the “alternative” high school, who weren’t the usual super-nerds that were in most of the extra things I was involved in.

  8. Tracy

    I’ve been fortunate to attend a couple of Destination Imagination’s (DI) Global Finals as a Production Assistant years ago – amazing experience (you’ve never seen so many examples of creative, motivated teams in one place). My Mom is actually a full-time employee (and has been for more than 15 years) of Destination Imagination (DI) – if you’re really interested in finding out more about the program let me know, she can probably put you in touch with someone who can share some more history/insight into the program and perhaps even with a local affiliate that will allow you to witness first hand the creativity that takes place within the program.

  9. Simon Dodd


    I’ve just been pointed to your work/blog and find it very interesting reading. Thank you!

    As a 35 year old engineering manager, I’ve spent the last 27 years involved with Odyssey of the Mind and then Destination Imagination (DI). (11 years participating, with the rest as a volunteer)

    These programs are wonderful additions to our education and the education of our kids. Simply put, DI allows kids the opportunity to USE what they learn in school and bolster that learning through engaging in practical application. You might say that other programs like US Robotics, Boy Scouts, and Lego League accomplish the same thing. But, the most important and differentiating aspect of DI is that the KIDS have to build/create everything themselves. Parents, teachers, and others can teach skills, but the kids have to use those skills to accomplish their task. If they want to sew, and they don’t know how, they learn or they figure out a different way!

    Personally, DI has taught me the base skills to be successful in life. To date, I have 18 patents. I put a Corvette engine in my Volvo Station wagon. I won an American Society of Mechanical Engineers National Design Competition. Hewlett-Packard paid for my MBA at MIT. I don’t say these things to brag. I offer them as examples of what DI can do for kids!

    And now, as a parent of two boys (2nd grade & Kindergarten) I enjoy seeing how DI is helping to build self-confidence and life-long skills in my boys.

    Destination Imagination is a wonderful program!


  10. Gary L. Brown

    My wife and I, have been with creative problem solving for 26 years. My girls were a part of OM and DI. Don’t ask me to compare the two. The best vote I ever made was to break away and form Destination Imagination. I believe in this program, my eldest daughter has been a challenge writer and she is also an Affiliate Challenge Master, my youngest has been an IC appraiser, and my wife is my marketing director for the Alabama Affiliate. Never ask the Brown Family to choose. Until you experience DI Global Finals you haven’t lived.

  11. Carrie Taylor

    I am a Destination Imagination parent, a Team Manager, a School Coordinator, and Regional and State Board member. The best way to describe what DI has done for my family is what my daughter said during her first year in DI, “DI is a place for me to use my excess imagination.” She has been participating for 4 years going on five and has been blessed to make it to Global Finals every year. I have been as a parent, team manager and official. I can see what it does and how it affects the lives of everyone who participates.

    I recommend every parent consider getting involved. Since team members do all the work, the team manager position is not all that difficult.

  12. Matt Coburn

    I’m going into my senior year at Dobbs Ferry High School in NY. I have a passion for many things, including DI and baseball. Many people believe that team sports can teach valuable life lessons, like teamwork and leadership and I agree with them. However, DI also provides both of these things, and along with the aforementioned traits, it teaches loyalty to your team, creativity, forward thinking-ness and open mindedness. I will be playing baseball in college and I would consider myself VERY LUCKY to be able to continue DI in college. DI is something that I will never forget or lose, my ability to communicate with others has jumped ten fold since I started DI in 4th grade. I am now coaching my sister’s freshmen team and am looking forward to experiencing the “sport” from another perspective.

    Parents, give your children every opportunity to explore new possibilities. This 9 year adventure changed my life forever.

  13. Adam Law

    I am an alumni of the OM program which is now DI. I am currently a regional director in the Tidewater Region of Virginia. Oddyssey of the Mind still exists but is smaller than DI. The difference between the two programs that I can glean after working in DI now for almost 5 years is that it is much more process-driven with less emphasis placed on the competition and more placed on the journey to that competition. The way the solutions are scored is also fundamentally different from the old program. In DI, our challenge appraisers are trained to look for all the possible areas to give kids the points and not look for all the possible areas to take them away. You can imagine how this difference can lend itself to an entirely different culture within the programs. I encourage all parents and teachers to learn more about DI at idodi.org and contact their local DI affiliate or regional directors to see how they can get their children started in this exceptional program.

  14. Laurie ABeel

    I am the Affiliate Director for DI Virginia. I have been involved with creative problem solving programs for 19 years and, I agree with Gary. The best thing I could have done was to move to the DI program. This program really focuses on the creative problem solving processes that kids will learn as they work together as a team.

    I am also a university professor and I now teach these skills to the graduate students I teach. I currently teach adults that are working towards their masters in education or want to be teachers. They love working with the CPS skills and tools and learn how to use these in the classroom. I would never have learned these if it were not for the DI program.

    My own two children are also DI team members and it has done wonders for their problem solving skills!

    If anyone is seeking out a creative problem solving program to volunteer with or for their children – I highly recommend Destination ImagiNation. As an Affiliate Director, I am still a volunteer, although I run the program for the state. As someone who is very busy, I would never give this up – we don’t volunteer for things we don’t love to do – and I love working with this program!

  15. Jim Fogerty

    I am on the DI board in RI, although my children are no longer involved, I find the program so worth while that I have continued to volunteer, first as an apPRAISEr, now as a board member and affiliate challenge master.

    This program not only shows the innovation that children are capable of when freed from adult preconceptions of what is and isn’t possible, but it teaches them self esteem, team work, the ability to think on one’s feet and quickly react to changing situations, and how to confidently relate one’s ideas to others – all skills that are highly regarded in today’s business world.

    While many children are over scheduled in today’s world trying to build their resumes for college, this is one program that will provide them with life long skills and provide fun at the same time.

  16. Susie Monday

    Hope you can take a look at our site and new book — based on more than 3 decades of work with kids, parents and teachers, we think that children can learn the foundation skills for innovation at a young age.

  17. Think!

    Please take a look at this blog which encourages children to think outside of the box.


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