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We step out of the car and instantly my kids start shivering. They say nothing, stoically bracing against a wind that seems to cut right through their sweatshirts.

This is all going to change the moment that they see the beach, I tell myself. But as we crisscross through the streets and then catch the first view of the waves, they look indifferent. They don’t stop and stare, mouth agape, overwhelmed by the beauty. They hardly even notice it.

The stoicism is gone by the time we climb the stairs and reach our destination in the sand.

“This might be a short trip,” Christy tells me.

But then Micah decides to build a sand castle and suddenly we are lost in a moment, sculpting a world out of the earth. Joel joins in, followed by Brenna. We invent a game where they have to throw a rubber ball into a “volcano” that they’ve made of sand.

Finally, they decide to check out the waves. It’s still too cold — maybe sixty degrees and overcast. But that doesn’t stop them from playing a game of chicken with the waves. You can tell they are beach newbies by the fact that they’re still wearing their shoes at first:


But my daughter doesn’t care. She takes her shoes off and runs and jumps and dances by the waves:


When that’s done, we head on over to the rocks and study the wildlife in the pools:


Minutes later, they ditched the shoes entirely as they went back to building sand sculptures. And so it went, this movement between creativity, exploration, and play. For hours. In the cold.

This has me thinking about the idea of choice. We began the day with limited options. We couldn’t swim in the water and we’d forgotten our books. Our phones had barely any service. Our resources included a ball, a bucket, and the beach. And yet, these limitations increased both our engagement and our creativity.

This feels counterintuitive in a series about student choice. However, this trip to the beach illustrates another facet of student choice. Sometimes fewer options can boost creativity and increase student engagement.

The Power of Creative Constraint

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Think outside the box. It’s a popular idea. It’s the story of the lone artist going away and making something radically different. But what if that’s not always the case? What if creativity isn’t always about thinking outside the box? What it involves thinking differently about the box?

Ever watched a child play with a refrigerator box? It becomes a car, an airplane, a robot suit, a table, and a tunnel. Think of Minecraft or Legos. They are basically variations on stacking boxes. And yet, the simplicity and lack of options actually unleash the power of creativity.

This is the idea of creative constraint.

It’s the notion that innovation happens when you run into barriers that force you to find a new route; that creativity often involves problem-solving and systems-hacking. Yes, creativity can mean an empty canvas or a blank page. But it can also be a roll of duct tape.

Think of Camden Yards or AT&T Ballpark or Fenway Park or Wrigley Field. These places are creative because they were built around quirky spaces. Similarly, chefs have developed some of the most creative recipes when forced to use specific ingredients. Or think of the Apollo 13 engineers who helped the astronauts back to Earth with limited time and resources. Creative constraint is what makes Vine videos and 3 Chord Punk and live theater so fun to experience. It’s also why the plot constraints of the hero’s journey led to the epic Star Wars trilogy.

The point is, life will hand you boxes. But every box is an opportunity to be more creative. It’s all about how you think about it. That’s exactly what happened on the beach yesterday. Our limitations became our design features. We built our own “sand chairs” when we got tired. We designed our own games out of a single ball and sand. We asked tons of questions as we studied the waves, knowing we couldn’t simply Google an answer.

Oh, and my wife, Christy, sculpted a dolphin that put the rest of us to shame:


She’s an overachiever. 😉

Constraint Develops Divergent Thinking

Divergent thinking is critical for creative work. It’s what allows us to make connections between seemingly random ideas. It’s what allows us to find innovative solutions by looking at things from different angles. It’s what allows us to find new approaches and simple tweaks to improve the work that we are doing.

Divergent thinking thrives in constraint. When you have fewer resources, you have to find new ways to use the existing resources you have. So, in the beach example, sand goes from merely a ground cover to a way to play a game or a way to design furniture. The lack of options push us to invent entirely new games and activities that we might not have developed had we brought a volleyball set from home or if we had set up a wifi hot spot at the beach.

One of the most classic divergent thinking exercises involves choosing two or three items and coming up with as many uses for the items as possible. Another exercise involves creating a problem and using a set of unrelated resources and “hacking” a solution as a result (we did this in my classroom when we set up the MacGyver problems).

But if you look at the research on divergent thinking, you’ll also see another critical, related element. Boredom. Several researchers have demonstrated that boredom can increase divergent thinking. I know, I know. We often hear that schools are boring and that this boredom is what kills creativity. But the research is interesting.

In a study conducted by Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman, participants had to copy names from a phonebook. It wasn’t even a cool phonebook with fantasy names like Dumbledore or Flitwick. It was a standard phonebook that pretty much nobody uses anymore. After participants copied the names from the phonebook, they engaged in divergent thinking exercises where they had to come up with multiple uses for an object. This bored group scored higher in divergent thinking than the control group. They later modified this study by having participants read the phone book instead of writing out the names. This group reported higher levels of boredom and proved more successful in the divergent thinking exercise of naming multiple uses for an object.

So, back the beach. We began our day cold and bored. We hit moments of the boredom within the hours on the sand. But that boredom, coupled with the constraint, pushed divergent thinking. We ultimately found something new to explore or something new to make.

Should We Abandon Choice?

So if constraint and boredom are both vital for divergent thinking and creativity, why aren’t the most restrictive, boring classrooms actually bastions of creativity and wonder? Should we simply abandon student choice, project-based learning, Genius Hour, and design thinking?

Not yet.

See, the creative constraint only worked at the beach, because we were free to do what we wanted to do. In other words, while it was a place with few options, it was a place of high freedom. This is something I hinted at in the last blog post when I mentioned the shift from “giving students choice” to “letting students choose.”

At the beach, my kids were free to choose what they wanted to do and where they wanted to go. They felt a natural sense of agency in the new environment. They experienced a certain slack that led to productive boredom. They had the mental and physical space to experiment and design and to play without worrying about doing things “the wrong way.” Imagine if we had added grades and rubrics and a tight schedule to the beach.

The creative constraint only worked because my kids felt empowered to own the learning process. As I think about the classroom, I am reminded of a few ways teachers can embrace creative constraint:

  • In design thinking, create challenges where students have to prototype with limited resources. This can increase the divergent thinking.
  • Outside of the design thinking process, create smaller divergent thinking exercises where they have to see a problem, a process, or a set of resources from a different angle. You might want to try out a rapid prototype exercise like the 45 minute challenge.
  • Think about ways to decrease the number of options you provide students but increase the freedom they have to own the process.
  • Allow your students to hit a place of boredom during projects. Think of a classroom like a story. Too often, we pack it full of action and we miss out on the suspense that draws slowly from an intriguing conflict or question.
John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

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