I blog on Brain-Based Learning, Metacognition, EdTech, and Social-Emotional Learning. I am the author of the Crush School Series of Books, which help students understand how their brains process information and learn. I also wrote The Power of Three: How to Simplify Your Life to Amplify Your Personal and Professional Success, but be warned that it's meant for adults who want to thrive and are comfortable with four letter words.

How To Use Constraints To Bring Out Creativity

Use Constraints For Creativity

$16,000 in credit card debt. This is the amount the average American household owes. And the interest compounds not at all in its favor... Clearly, the money constraint associated with household budgeting is not a lesson well learned.

There are many aspects of our personal and professional lives that constraints apply to, and as the world resources continually dwindle, creative problem solving is becoming the number one sought after skill.

So how do we use constraints to teach it? How do we bring out creativity?


Take a few minutes to describe the picture at the top of this page as thoroughly as possible. DO NOT DARE GO ON UNTIL YOU'VE DONE SO.


Now, convey as much of the same information and meaning as possible in 6 words. That's right. Write a 6 word story for the picture above. Be creative! Actually, that last directive was unnecessary. In order to accomplish the task and write your 6 word story, you HAD TO BE CREATIVE. And that's precisely the point...

Or, ask students to record a 15-30 second video comparing and contrasting concepts or describing some topics. The time constraint will get the creative juices going.

Or, ask students to make a detailed diagram of the solar system for example. They can draw anything they want, but can use only a total of 2 words for labels/descriptions.

Or, maybe have them act a concept out.


Why are games so much fun? Why do kids and adults love playing them? Card, table, video, head, it doesn't matter what kind of a game you're playing, they all have constraints. And, constraints are a big part of what makes them fun!

A 24 second shot clock is used in basketball. Imagine if teams had all the time in the world. They could just dribble the ball around and take the shot at the very end...

In monopoly, you have to be creative with your money as you begin with only so much and can't go buying everything.

Teachers use constraints in MinecraftEdu to foster creative problem solving and make the challenges more fun for their students.

Other video games restrict fuel, ammo, time, movement, space, and other resources. Such constraints can and should be used in education to stimulate creative problem solving.

Breakout EDU is a form of gamification, with time being the biggest constraint. Check out this Facebook group for ideas and resources here.

What are some games you can use in your classroom? How can you use them to foster student creativity?


Passion projects are a big idea in education. Genius hour is great. I'll be the first one to say that some projects should be wide open and students should be told that the world is their oyster and they should go to town on them.


I also think it's important to include projects that use realistic constraints to teach students planning with these constraints in mind. After all, every professional project has a budget, time limit, and has to comply with regulations that further restrict it.

And, if students complain the guidelines for the new classroom project are too restrictive, listen, but stand firm, because you know it can be done. Let them struggle. Point out resources. Encourage research and collaboration. Tell them to try out wild and crazy ideas. And then watch them go to town. They will surprise you. They will surprise themselves.

And as they're doing all of the above, there's magic happening in the background. THEY ARE LEARNING CREATIVITY AND OTHER SKILLS THEY WILL NEED WHEREVER THEY GO.

Truth: Creative problem solving is a skill sorely lacking in many students, because traditional education doesn't promote it. We sure talk about it, but often don't make classwork imaginative enough to bring it out in our students. Implementing constraints that challenge students to dig deeper, collaborate, and look for innovative solutions to problems can help with that.

Do It!

You have the power to change the world. Use it often.