The Role of Structure in Creative Free Thinking

Creativity can closely resemble chaos, as it did for me last week when I watched thirty 5th-graders whirling around a classroom with cardboard, duct tape, motors, gears, string and safety scissors. I was witnessing problem solving in action, solutions borne of a broad liberty in thought framed by a specific challenge needing to be addressed. In other words I saw what would seem to be a contradiction in terms, structured free thinking.

A Camp Invention camper walks me through a fish he would bioengeneer to ensure it could survive in the heavily salted waters of the Dead Sea.
A Camp Invention camper walks me through a fish he would bioengeneer to ensure it could survive in the heavily salted waters of the Dead Sea.

I was a special guest at a Camp Invention, a week-long day camp for 1st-6th graders focused on providing children 21st Century skills. The camps are a long-standing success story of the non-profit Invent Now, which also runs the National Inventors Hall of Fame with support from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Camp Invention attendees rotate by age group each day through five different activity modules led by certified teachers using robust curricula crafted under the guidance of accomplished creativity expert Jayme Cellitioci.

In the “I Can Invent” module they spend the week creating a new invention; this year they are creating “duck chuckers,” apparatuses designed to fling rubber duckies a certain distance at specified targets. The teams of kids must demonstrate the soundness of their design from illustration to execution. They have plenty of materials to choose from, from the materials I mentioned above to old appliances and other household gadgets that have outlived their original purposes. Many of these are donated at the beginning of the camp by the students (well, more likely their parents). I watched a team of children successfully launch a duck using a sling shot mounted to a piece of plastic that had once been the cover of an electric typewriter.

I was fortunate enough to be guided through a Camp Invention by Jayme. You can gain some insight on the philosophy she brings to this long-established program from the opening of a recent Huffington Post editorial she authored:

Creativity and innovation used to be considered soft skills. They are now thought to be the hard wiring for a successful employee, colleague and global collaborator. They are the 21st century skills that matter when teachers prepare children for tomorrow’s workforce.

The camp covers all of the STEM categories: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Before the tour I told Jayme of my passion for STEAM, which includes the arts, and the recent STEAM Caucus event I attended on Capitol Hill. Jayme assured me that artistic vision is interwoven throughout the activities the students engage in, and she was right. The curricula goes far beyond simply a STEM focus, however. In keeping with that focus on 21st century skills, each module features:

  • Creativity and Innovation: This includes thinking creatively, working creatively with others, as well as independent innovation.
  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving: Campers learn to reason effectively, use system thinking, make judgments and decisions, and solve problems.
  • Communication and Collaboration: A consistent focus is placed on learning to communicate clearly and collaborate with others.
This team addressed the problem of shrinking availability of land for housing in Singapore by designing an underwater city reachable by zipline.
This team addressed the problem of shrinking availability of land for housing in Singapore by designing an underwater city reachable by zipline.

For my first hour there I let Jayme and her Invent Now colleagues shuttle me from module to module. I watched that typewriter-propelled duck sail across the room. I talked with kids as they constructed dioramas of buildings they believed would withstand a hurricane or animals they would bioengineer to thrive in the salty Dead Sea.  But after the official tour I broke off to sit through a full module on my own. I chose the “Ecoverse” module, which this year is focused on volcanoes. Why did I choose that module? The teacher had five baking-soda volcanoes sitting in a kiddie pool of shallow water. The kid in me wanted to see them blow.

This was Day Four of the five-day program, so the 5th graders already had been provided a basic understanding of the geology of plate tectonics. The teacher spun through it quickly at the start of the module, however, carefully attuned to each student to ensure they were focused after a long and exciting day. She educated them on three tools a vulcanologist uses to determine when a dormant volcano may go live, a dangerous exercise. What could they invent that could make the vulcanologist’s job easier?

The whirlwind began. Some kids worked in pairs, others on their own. Several kids built armor out of cardboard which they wore with pride. The teacher would compliment them, but then ask them what type of material they would be made of in real life, as cardboard is not particularly lava-resistant. She would also then ask them to pretend they were pitching their invention to investors or customers. Others chose not to focus on protective gear but rather on innovative ways to perform measurements from a greater distance. One kid created what I will call a combination crane/fishing pole designed to allow the tools to be delivered safely to a volcano. Another designed a type of binoculars to read the indicators from a great distance. The teacher had the students demonstrate how their devices would work by having them gather around the volcano-laden kiddie pool and test them out.

Then it was time for the baking soda explosion. But the teacher didn’t end on that note. She had the kids place pumice stones in the water. To their surprise, the stones floated. The vulcanologists, she said, are floating to safety on rafts made of this stone, explaining why it is lighter than water.

When I was being taken from room to room it was easy to get the impression that I was witnessing children free thinking to the point of chaos. But that was not the case. The kids at Camp Invention free-think in a highly structured environment grounded in core concepts of both STEM and creativity.

We all need some limits placed on our free thinking. We can’t problem-solve without a problem. A novelist may say she sits down at her computer with no knowledge of what she’ll write, but a creativity consultant might say that she actually has some idea. She knows she’s writing fiction. If she’s already started the book, she knows the setting, the characters, the action to date. But it feels like true free thinking to her, which helps inspire her. It was the same for these children.

Since readers of The Artist’s Road are all storytellers in one form or another, I’ll leave you with a TED talk by Jayme on the seeds of authentic stories. I’d also love to hear from you on your thoughts on the job we’re doing in modern society to encourage structured free thinking in our children.

9 thoughts on “The Role of Structure in Creative Free Thinking

  1. Pingback: The Role of Structure in Creative Free Thinking...

  2. Pingback: The Role of Structure in Creative Free Thinking | Stan Stewart's Blog

    1. It is a great camp! My eldest went last year. All four of my kids are participating this week. They don’t operate in Canada, so I register them for a time that we are in the US on vacation. It is that worth it.


    2. Great to see you here, Callie! Oh, they’d have a blast. See Kate’s endorsement just below yours! I attended one at Fort Hunt Elementary School in Alexandria, hopefully there’s one closer to you.


  3. Pingback: Creativity, Structure, and the Play-based Curriculum | Square Roots Preschool

  4. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 08-22-13 | The Author Chronicles

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