Monday, July 9, 2012

Structuring Creativity: Greeting Cards for Offbeat Holidays

Creativity is often seen as an academic free for all.  Where divergent thinking is allowed to run unchecked, leaving students laughing and giggling on the floor with very little accomplished.   Or maybe that was just my poor classroom management on my part.

Either way, constraints are important.  Constraints force students to evaluate their divergent ideas and converge those ideas into one or two solutions that they feel will do the best job solving the challenge they have been given.  It pushes students to the top of Bloom's Taxonomy and they see the creative problem solving process through to the development of an idea.

Students can simulate the process using the lense of the developer.  Students will look at a challenge the same way a developer at a company would look at creating a new product.  Developers will tell you that development is a process that requires months of researching, brainstorming and designing.  Your student developers do not have a lot of time or money to create a new product.  They are being hired because they are creative and they work for free.  Their challenge is to develop high quality ideas with only a few materials and a finite amount of time.   

I read about this idea in Tina Seelig's new book inGenius, a book I wish I had found 10 years ago.  I will be reviewing the book in a later blog.  As any great teacher or creative person will tell you, the best teaching ideas are stolen and ripped off from others.  I am shamelessly taking Tina's idea and remixing it here.
Your students have a class period to create a line of greeting cards.  (If you feel your students have not seen many greeting cards you may want to take some time to look at them and study their purpose and format.) 

There are a number of creative constraints built into the process.  

The first is time.  You will give your students x amount of time to prototype the cards.  Tina has college students complete the task in 30 minutes.  Elementary school students may need an hour and middle school students may need 45 minutes.  The amount of time is a variable, that as the teacher, you can change as you see fit.

The second constraint is the number of cards to be created.  The college students have to design four cards in the allotted time.  That seems to be a good number, especially if you have four people working in a group.  I would say one card per person is a good starting out point.

The third constraint is the supplies.  Tina gives her students markers, paper and scissors.  If you wanted to add another level of constraint to this task you could give each team $10 in classroom money and charge them for the use of those supplies. You then add in the idea of the team trying to accomplish the task for the least amount of money.

The fourth constraint is the holidays that will be used in the assignment.  Tina randomly assigns the students a specific day.  If you would like to add a little more difficulty to the task you could avoid common holidays altogether and use some of the days below that I found on

The fifth constraint is the presentation of the greeting cards.  Tina has her students display four (or whatever number you have chosen) prototype cards that will be sold and then give a sales pitch.  I emphasize prototype because some students will think these cards need to be "finished", they do not, remind your students that the cards are still in the development phase, the first draft so to speak.  

Here is a great example of a prototype presentation for a new app called Elmo's Monster Maker:

Once you have determined the level of challenge for each of the five constraints you are ready to let the children start prototyping!  If your students are young, or have little creative problem solving experience, use easier constraints.  You can do this challenge again later in the year, just adjust the constraints as you see fit.

The entire class votes on their favorite designs and you can award the winning team with some kind of design award.  The students should be surprised and proud of what they can accomplish in such a short period of time.  

The life lesson for the students is not about making greeting cards for obscure holidays; it's about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.  Too often students sit in classrooms, watching the slow-motion minute hand finish one more rotation around the clock.  We have to push students out of their comfort zone so that they can be confident in dealing with stressful situations.  We know that stress shuts down the problem solving areas of the brain, our students need to learn to cope with that stress, calm down and work through the problem.  Adding constraints to creative problem solving helps them learn to deal with the stress.


  1. Creating a line of greeting cards is a good idea to measure the creativity of our students. Adding time pressure is good also because we can know how fast they can think of an idea.

  2. One of the things I have to be careful about when adding time pressure is to add it in slowly. Especially when building a creative problem solving team. I want the students to feel successful before putting them into the pressure cooker.

  3. Creativity can be done in so many ways and come in different things. Greeting cards for example, you can always do whatever you want and design it in line with whatever the celebration is. I remember when we had to create our personalized greeting cards for our baby shower and I swear, I felt the stress because of the time allotted but still I enjoyed making those cards.