General Education

Thinking Outside the Box: Programs that Teach Kids Creative Problem-Solving Skills

Thinking Outside the Box: Programs that Teach Kids Creative Problem-Solving Skills
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Kathryn deBros April 30, 2015

Learn why learn to solve problems creatively is essential to student success, both in school and beyond, and discover different programs that teach this skill.

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What do you get when you cross Shakespeare with foot apparel?

It’s a strange question, I know. It was originally asked by a boy in Maine to show his teammates that anything — even shoes — could be considered creatively if you thought about them in a new way. His own personal response was “Romeo and Shoe-liet."

The boy’s name is Michael, and he is the son of Fern Brown. Brown is the co-director for the Maine chapter of Odyssey of the Mind, an international program for students of all ages that teaches creative problem-solving through yearly challenges and friendly competitions. Such programs have been popping up everywhere as after-school activities, providing a creative outlet in which children can explore topics using a more hands-on, authentic approach to learning, as well as build friendships outside of their school settings.

This influx of creative programming comes at the perfect time, as expert in education Ken Robinson speaks about{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"} developing divergent thinking skills (or the ability to interpret a question in many ways and find multiple answers) in children.

Take this question: How many uses can you think of for a paper clip? While the average person may be able to think of 15–20, a divergent thinking genius could come up with 200 ideas. And yet, our greatest geniuses in this area weigh in at roughly office-supply size themselves — 98 percent of kindergarteners tested at genius levels. Unfortunately, it’s a skill that tends to decrease as we grow — only 50 percent of kids 8–10 years old tested at genius levels reports Robinson in this 2008 Lecture{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"}.

Why Teach Divergent Thinking/Creative Problem-Solving?

# It’s Truer to Life

As an adult, it can be frustrating and rare to have to come up with a single correct answer to a given question. In school, we are taught to find one and only one; but in real life, there are many possible answers to every question.

A divergent thinking approach often encourages people to work together as teams, which is also more common in adult life. Rarely are we asked to work entirely alone. I’ll also add that, as adults, we almost never get stickers on our work anymore.

# It’s the Key to the Common Core

The Common Core Standards, a set of key benchmarks that guide instruction in K-12 schools in 46 states{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"}, demand higher levels of thinking from students without specifying how teachers and parents should foster these skills in students. Programs challenging students to produce and evaluate different solutions to a problem will help them develop the sort of critical thinking necessary to meet these standards.

# It’s a More Memorable Learning Experience

Can’t remember what you learned in the third grade? You probably would if you had built a robot that dances. Anecdotally, educators remark that kids who feel lost or unwelcome at school and engage in hands-on projects that draw on their natural curiosity are able to learn and retain basic concepts better than with traditional teaching approaches.

# It Creates a Different Attitude

Educational challenges, like applying to college, take on a new light when viewed through the eyes of alumni of these creative thinking programs, who see any problem as potential opportunities to think outside of the box. Brown, in her 25th year of involvement with Odyssey of the Mind, knows firsthand how confident kids become. That same son who dramatized footwear was known to exclaim, “It’s not hard, it’s just another problem to solve!" And what is life, Brown points out, but a series of problems to solve?

Which Programs Teach Creative Problem-Solving?

If you’d like to get involved with a program that develops creative thinking, check out the following resources.

# Odyssey of the Mind

Grade Levels: Kindergarten–College
Cost: $135 Registration
Timeline: August–May


Teams meet throughout the school year with an adult coach to work on a problem that they choose from options that are developed annually. For instance, this year some teams are building a vehicle that must stop and go without touching the floor, while others are creating a silent movie-inspired play. If a team would like to compete, they have opportunities to do so at regional competitions. If they place at one of these, they can move on to state and world finals.


Students’ solutions to given problems are judged by volunteers on how well the solution solves the long-term problem, how well the students were able to come up with a spontaneous solution to an on-the-spot problem, and their teamwork.

Lasting Impact

Odyssey of the Mind has been running for 25 years and has established programs in more than 20 countries, developing creative thinkers and collaborative problem-solvers. After all that time, they continue to collect success stories from participants.

# Destination ImagiNation (DI)

Grade Levels: Kindergarten–College
Cost: $145 Team Registration ($60 early learners)
Timeline: August–June


Teams choose a challenge representing one of seven areas, including STEM, fine arts, or service learning. This year, challenges include building a weight-bearing structure that doubles as a musical instrument and creating a project that targets a community need. Participants meet regularly to imagine, design, and develop a solution over the course of 2–4 months, which they then present through a short skit.


Teams are scored by volunteer appraisers based on their solution to the central challenge, the “Team Choice Elements," (an opportunity for participants to show off their unique talents), and the “Instant Challenge" (a surprise challenge for which team members must come up with a spontaneous solution on the spot).

Lasting Impact

Research from the University of Virginia has shown that kids who participated in DI outperform non-participant peers in terms of creative thinking, critical thinking, and collaborative problem-solving. Another study{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"} from the University of Tennessee indicated that students involved in DI reported that their participation in the program helped them improve their grades.

# FIRST Robotics Programs{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"}

Grade Level: Age groups between 6–18 years old, including Junior FIRST LEGO League ( Jr. FLL) (6–9 years), FIRST LEGO League (FLL) (9–14 years), FIRST Tech Challenge (high school), and FIRST Robotics Competition.

Cost: Pricing varies depending on the program, with Jr. FLL registration set at $50, not including materials, and FLL registration at $225, plus a MINDSTORM robot kit for $300–400 (which is reusable each year). Kits from previous years can be used, and students can also choose from a list of add-ons to “up their game."

Timeline: Team registration takes place in August prior to the upcoming school year, with the competitive season spanning November through June.


Kids use their team kits to solve challenges and program robots to perform various tasks based on the program level. For instance, this year in FIRST LEGO League, participants had to program their robots to pick up a ball and score a goal. Kids are encouraged to meet with industry experts, attend regional competitions, and create a unique team presence to showcase in a friendly competition.


Projects are judged and scored based on the overall design, the final project, and the team’s demonstration of the program’s Core Values.

Lasting Impact

According to a study from Brandeis University, students who had participated in the FIRST programs were more likely to attend college and to want to pursue a second degree when compared to the national average. Additionally, the alumni were substantially more interested in pursuing STEM fields. For example, the FIRST participants were three times more likely to major in engineering than the rest of their cohort.

_For more information, check out this Noodle spotlight on a New York City FIRST LEGO league team{: target="_blank"} and the lessons learned by both students and parents._

# Future City

Grade Level: 6–8
Cost: $25 registration, $100 materials budget
Timeline: August–January


Students follow Next Generation Science Standards to learn the engineering design process and solve real-world issues. Participants plan their own city using SimCity software, write an essay based on research about a social need, build a city model using recycled materials, and write a narrative description of the model. Students may present their work at a regional tournament.


Future City is primarily an educational program, and students do not have to compete. If they choose to, they are scored based on their knowledge, presentation skills, and the judge’s overall assessment of the presentation.

Lasting Impact

Students who have participated in Future City often report that they see the importance of math and science and would like to continue studying engineering. Teachers and parents report that their students show improvement in teamwork, public speaking, project management, and working independently, as well as writing, research, and problem-solving skills.

# Future Problem-Solving Program International (FPSPI)

Grade Level: Action-based problem-solving is available for grades K–9, competitions available for grades 4–12
Cost: Varies, depending on region. Find your contact here.
Timeline: Action-based problem-solving is non-competitive and has no particular timeline. Global- and community-based problem-solving runs August–June.


Students research a variety of global or community issues, such as the impact of social media or processed food, to solve a defined problem and imagine a future scene. To present their solution, participants produce a project or booklet. Students may bring their ideas to a conference for competition.


Projects are judged by trained volunteers who consider all aspects of the solutions and future scenes.

Lasting Impact

In a paper published by The International Journal of Creativity and Problem-Solving, participants in FPSPI indicated that they had developed skills in a range of areas as a result of the program, including time management, self-direction, self-motivation, leadership, socialization, the use of technology, and broader academics.

How Can I Teach Creative Problem-Solving at Home?

If you don’t see any of these programs available in your area (and you aren’t ready to lead one yourself), you can still create a habit of thinking divergently at home. Here are some exercises to encourage creativity in your child:

  • Give kids some materials (toilet paper tubes, cotton balls, pipe cleaners, and so on) and an open-ended question, such as “If an ant needed to go to school, what would its school building look like?" or “How can we create something to shield us from the rain using these materials?" Step back to see what happens. Amazing things can be created with a simple cardboard box.

  • Come up with a vague problem or challenge and brainstorm answers together. Your prompt can be based on a problem you confront day-to-day, like “How can we make our morning routine faster so we can get to school on time?" or based in fantasy, such as “If trees could think and talk, what would their government be like?" Record every idea without judging or crossing things off. You may be surprised at what turns up on your paper.

  • Make a mind-map by writing down a topic, like friendship or team work, and connecting all the ideas you have about that topic. For example, with a topic like friendship, you might find yourself jotting down ideas like love, birthday parties, having fun, recess, and so on. Then, choose one of those ideas, and write all the ideas you have about that topic. You’ll create an extensive map of associations and be impressed at how intricate your brain web is.

  • Daily life is full of problems you are constantly solving. Next time you or your child finds a solution to a challenge, reflect on how effective it was. How could you have solved a problem better? How can we improve our original solution now?

  • Flip the question-answer model on its head — ask your child to create the questions.

  • Make connections — take two random items and see if you can find innovative ways to relate them to one another, like Michael did at the beginning of this article.

  • Get involved with STEM or STEAM programs, or search for interesting STEM activities online that you can do at home.


Abbasi, K. (2011). A Riot of Divergent Thinking. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. Retrieved April 10, 2015 from National Center for Biotechology Information{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"}.

Briggs, S. (2014). 30 Ways to Inspire Divergent Thinking. Innovation Excellence. Retrieved April 10, 2015 from Innovation Excellence{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"}.

Church, E. B. (2015). How You Can Help Your Children Solve Problems. Scholastic. Retrieved April 10, 2015, from{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"}.

DeHaan, R. L. (2009). Teaching Creativity and Inventive Problem Solving in Science. CBE Life Sciences Education. Retrieved April 10, 2015 from National Center for Biotechology Information{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"}.

Goodman, S. (2014). Fuel Creativity in the Classroom with Divergent Thinking. Edutopia. Retrieved April 10, 2015, from{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"}.

Strategies of Divergent Thinking. University of Washington. Retrieved April 10, 2015 from University of Washington{: target="_blank" rel="nofollow"}.


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