The Importance of Thinking In- and Out-of-the-Box

How to encourage creativity in a tech-based environment. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Wendy Marshall

CREDIT ExplorOcean touchtankHow do you teach a student to be creative? It used to be that educators encouraged innovation by telling children to “think outside the box” via a “sky’s the limit” approach. Creativity was viewed as unstructured and a result of not following rules or patterns. We encouraged students to eschew boundaries and limits, and open themselves up to the endless possibilities. However, it has been found that it is not always practical or beneficial to simply encourage outside-the-box thinking. Having myself been a professional educator for more than 17 years, I’ve seen how classrooms are limited by budget, time and materials, and thinking outside of the box is often not a viable option. But when children are constrained to only a few tools and a set amount of time, an interesting phenomenon occurs: they end up being far more creative!

Tasked with building an underwater robot or designing their own inventions with limited time, tools and other constraints, it is then that my students fully discover how capable and creative they are. 

During our summer Makers Camp that is put on by my educational center ExplorOcean, children (ages 9-13) participate in guided projects using tools such as Little Bits, Makey Makeyand Hummingbird robotics. After those basics are mastered, they are then able to create self-designed inventions using a base kit and tools from the ExplorOcean innovation lab (e.g. 3D printers, mini-motors, alligator clamps, laser cutters, pipe cleaners, conductive paint and play dough). When my older students are tasked with building an underwater robot or designing their own inventions with limited time, tools and other constraints, it is then that they fully discover how capable and creative they are.

It is important, especially in a tech-based environment, to encourage students to think both inside and outside the box. Below are 5 ways to encourage this type of creativity:

1. Practice, practice, practice!

Researchers who study prodigious accomplishments talk about the 10,000-hour rule, which means in order to be able to do something notable, one must devote 10,000+ hours to mastering that discipline. Comfort, mastery of process and basic materials allow for more creative renditions in the future.

2. Use limitations to inspire creativity.

Requirements, guidelines, time and materials all narrow the realm in which a student is allowed to operate, making it easier for her or him to focus on the problem or issue. If a student feels like everything is familiar or redundant, he or she must force a new idea to the surface. Limitations can ultimately be used to jog or jumpstart the creative impulse! The key, in order to not frustrate the student, is to be transparent about the fact that the limitations have been purposefully imposed to trigger creative thought.

3. Encourage a variety of models.

Models are important, but it is important to have a variety of models and, whenever possible, give kids “vicarious” models–or in other words, student created models. It is much more inspiring and feels much more within reach for kids when they see a model created by a peer.

4. Focus on process rather than product.

When inventing, often kids do not get it right the first time. Celebrate the problem-solving that went into making things work. Highlight the persistence and resilience that the student has demonstrated when going back to the drawing board. When presenting their final pieces, encourage them to highlight the “tough times”— they will do a service to others who want to follow in their footsteps by sharing the pitfalls, and show their audience that they don’t give up!

5. Encourage students to follow their hunches.

Students respond positively to encouragement and reassurance. They may sometimes think up ideas, but soon begin to doubt themselves. I always try to encourage students to “see what happens,” even when I think the idea may fail. Trying something new is always worth their while. If it doesn’t work, he or she will still learn from the experience and may even get a better idea from it.

It’s also important to encourage collaboration. We tell students that it is a strength to know when to ask for help or get others involved so that they don’t feel like they are “cheating”. Our collective experiences and ideas can accelerate an individual’s progress – but they have to ask!

More and more educators are realizing the importance of cultivating creativity in their young students, but it is important to remember that when the educational focus is too open-ended — without a framework for kids to wrap their heads around (especially budding young makers) — objectives can become muddled and creativity can become stifled as anxiety related to too many choices increases. It is like the kid in the candy store, beckoned by too many possibilities. If we narrow the choices for them at the start, they can choose wisely and be satisfied.

When children are given free rein to create their STEM-based projects, they often do not know how to self-regulate. A teacher must acknowledge the limitations of the classroom, and be able to provide guidelines and set parameters in order for students to feel confident enough to unleash their creativity. While the goal is for students to eventually venture “outside of the box,” they are actually most creative when they first work within the constraints of said box.

Wendy Marshall, Ph.D., Director of Education for ExplorOcean, brings more than 17 years’ experience in the education realm and spearheads the educational programming at ExplorOcean. Her greatest joy comes from seeing children’s worldview change as a result of their experience with ExplorOcean. Wendy is an inspiring educator, mother of two children and an extreme marathon runner who loves to scuba dive and kayak in the open ocean. For more information, visit:

  • Dawn Casey-Rowe (@runningdmc)


    Great points, and I agree with them. Creativity is central to any process, but when we’re facing limitations, we rise to the occasion. It’s a great life skill.

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