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Obstacles as a Path to Creativity

By Tamara Fisher — August 15, 2013 4 min read
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Last summer, I happened upon an interesting-looking game in the gift shop of the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. “Obstacles: A Game of Imaginative Solutions” billed itself as a fun, even silly, way for kids of all ages to collaboratively create solutions to the game’s obstacles through innovative use of “the unlikely tools they are dealt.”

I soon found myself playing the game with my cousin’s kids (ages 9 and 11) that I was visiting, and with my friend’s kids (ages 3 and 5) who later came to visit me. It was the younger set’s first request when they came to visit again this summer (and we played it about 25 times!) The rules are flexible, and I have found it to be a fun way to encourage kids to think innovatively about how to solve problems and overcome barriers. Our world needs people who can determine what the real obstacle is, make an assessment of the tools that are actually at hand (rather than pine for what is missing), and put those resources to innovative use by thinking outside the box to create solutions.

Creativity has long been a natural element of the gifted classroom (because many gifted learners also tend to be highly creative), but it’s certainly something all kids have to some degree and benefit from opportunities in (just as all students benefit from physical fitness/physical education, but the best athletes may receive a higher level of training in the area due to their natural talent). Of possible concern regarding creativity is apparent evidence based on research that children’s creativity as measured by the widely-used Torrance Test of Creative Thinking has been declining in recent decades. Different theories for this phenomenon have been posited (more TV time, more emphasis on academic testing in schools, over-scheduling of kids’ time, etc.), but whatever the reasons, I’m of the camp that believes such a decrease to be a problem. So I was excited to find the “Obstacles” game and discover how kid-friendly it was at encouraging and nurturing creative thought.

The game’s stack of obstacles includes things like a swamp, a wall, a maze, a blizzard, an ogre, and a dark tunnel. Each player is dealt some (we used up to 8 each) random tools, such as a lever, fireflies, a stick of butter, a shower curtain, a copper pipe, and an umbrella. The players then - competitively or cooperatively - create ways to conquer each successive obstacle using the few tools they have available when encountering each obstacle. For example, our solution to the Ice Obstacle involved placing the cushion on the shower curtain, using the stick of butter to grease up the shower curtain’s surface area on the ice, and pulling the cord from around the cushion to attach from the shower curtain to the giant bird who would fly and pull us across the ice as we used the feather duster for a stabilizing rudder:

The kids’ enthusiasm was such that we worked our way through the whole stack of obstacles and tools, laying them out in a line as we made our way “Home” (the game’s final destination):

All photos by Tamara Fisher.

As this new school year commences, contemplate ways you can nurture and encourage creativity in your classroom. For example, perhaps you could offer students the opportunity to complete certain assignments in any of a range of media. Perhaps you could stock your classroom with a few creativity games they can use during free time or recess. Maybe the kids could decide how to arrange the room’s furniture. Maybe you could read-aloud a couple books featuring a highly creative main character. Biography studies of creative individuals who used their creativity to overcome obstacles can highlight for kids the power of innovation. An invention fair or a maker workshop can really get ideas flowing, too. Boxes or tubs full of random “creativity materials” are a magnet for kids who like to muck around in their ideas. Even small things, like not being annoyed by those sometimes-classroom-unfriendly-moments when creative students are in their element, can actually be big things. How will you embrace and nurture creativity - in your students AND in yourself - this year?

Other tools and resources for encouraging creativity:
Creative Problem Solving
Future Problem Solving
Destination Imagination
Odyssey of the Mind
“Understanding Creativity” by Jane Piirto
FIRST Robotics
Kids Invent!
“Kids Inventing!” by Susan Casey
The SCAMPER technique (also as fun activities in the book “Scamper” by Bob Eberle)
Creative Kids Magazine
The Creativity Network of the National Association for Gifted Children
“Fostering Creativity in Gifted Students” by Bonnie Cramond (from The Practical Strategies Series in Gifted Education)
Creative-Productive Giftedness, as discussed and defined by Joseph Renzulli
My Symbaloo of links to online resources for students engaged in various projects or creative-productive pursuits

What are some of your favorite creativity resources?

The opinions expressed in Unwrapping the Gifted are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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