Creativity often strikes when you least expect it. But if you’re not one of those people that constantly oozes great ideas, you might be looking for ways to spark your creative abilities. The good news is that creative thinking activities can help. These exercises can provide the inspiration you need to come up with your next great idea—and the science behind them is flawless, too.
How Does Creativity Happen?
Did you know that understanding creativity starts with neuroscience? Those quick-firing neurons in our brains might be the explanation behind the image of a light bulb as a symbol of bright ideas.
Recent developments in neuroscience suggest that creativity involves a mixture of spontaneous ideas and controlled thinking. Basically, you need the spark to get those great ideas, but also the planning abilities to think them through and see whether they’ll work.
It’s a complex balance, notes Neuroscience News, and it’s also notable that some people are naturally better at this process than others. Scientists are investigating people’s creative abilities to see if they can determine why that is.
In the meantime, it’s worth discussing different ways to be more creative. From children to teens to adults, everyone can try out creative exercises and see whether they achieve notable results.
Can Anyone Be Creative?
Some people think that creativity is something people have from birth. The perception is that either you are creative or you aren’t. People who have artistic gifts and abilities typically say that they have always loved their craft or always had talent. So, does that mean the average person can’t become creative?
To begin with, it’s important to define creativity. What is creativity? It depends on who you ask.
Some people say that creativity is a term that describes all kinds of innovative thinking. Others say it’s the creation of something new that has a distinct purpose. You might say that the person who invented the microwave was creative. But so was Shakespeare, and that’s a vastly different talent than understanding the science behind microwaves.
And while researchers haven’t quite pinned down the details behind people’s levels of creativity, it’s true that we all have some sense of it.
What Constitutes Creativity?
So, what types of talents are creative? Anything that requires innovation, creation, and strategy is creative.
Some people are great at composing music. Others are brilliant at creating works of art. Still others may be able to understand complex technology while the rest of the population struggles. Even if you have no obvious “talent,” you can still be creative in other ways.
Being able to see things from different viewpoints is one form of creativity. So is managing to collaborate with diverse groups—especially those that may have different ideas than you.
While not everyone can sculpt a masterpiece or write a sonata, it doesn’t mean only a select few have talent. Plus, you can nurture creativity in everyone, from babies to older adults.
How Can You Promote Creativity in Kids?
As “creativity expert” and author of books on the subject, Jonah Lehrer, told Greater Good Magazine, most children believe that they’re creative in early childhood. But by the time they reach fifth grade, less than half of children feel like they are creative.
By high school, the numbers dip even further. But as Lehrer explains, science says that being creative is a “universal human trait.” Everyone has it—perhaps to a different degree, or in varying subjects. But all people—young and old—have the potential to develop creativity.
The key is ensuring that children don’t lose their confidence in their own innovative minds. From infancy, children explore, learn, and create—the trick is keeping them from losing that ability as they grow. Fortunately, there are simple ways to help children retain their creativity and nurture it from infancy.
Give Children Open-Ended Toys
From the time babies begin crawling and exploring (and putting things in their mouths), they’re creative. The primary way parents can support safe exploration is by giving their babies and toddlers open-ended toys.
As Brain Blox explains, children do the most learning, exploring, discovering, and creating with “basic,” old-school toys. Open-ended toys like blocks, pretend food, dolls, balls, and even cars allow kids to use their imaginations in play.
In contrast, battery-powered toys tend to have a single purpose. With a toy as basic as a block, children can imagine all sorts of play scenarios. The same applies to dolls, dollhouses, and even natural toys like sticks, leaves, and other found or reclaimed materials.
Starting out with such open-ended toys starts kids on the path toward using their own minds for entertainment. With luck, you can nurture your child’s creative exploration and see their social skills and emotional intelligence flourish.
Allow for Creative Play (without Parents Intervening)
Many parents worry about their children’s safety and development. But modern culture often stresses safety over innovation, at least for kids. Kids often learn and explore best without close adult supervision, even if that means they’re getting messy or even hurt.
When children play creatively—without grown-ups around—they learn to work out their own problems, test their limits, and collaborate. Plenty of adults could benefit from the same experiences, but unfortunately, this type of play is often viewed as undesirable.
Revamping adults’ views of what constitutes creativity and exploration is a great way to raise children who don’t see the same boundaries.
Praise Effort, Not the Results
One of the takeaways from Lehrer’s guidance on this subject is to honor children’s paths. Rather than praising academic results, he says, it’s better to praise the effort. Complimenting a child on their drive and ambition is better than congratulating them on achieving an A grade.
Offer Creative Outlets (Outside of School)
You can’t really argue with the fact that education is a necessity. But unfortunately, many schools are dropping their art and sports programs in favor of tougher academics and higher-level classes. That means children who feel more creative may not have an appropriate outlet for their passions.
Lehrer recommends supporting kids’ passions, and that includes giving them the freedom to explore. Kids who like art can benefit from a dedicated art space at home. Children with a musical interest might want to watch YouTube videos of artists to self-teach an instrument.
Treating creative abilities the same way society treats academic interests can go a long way toward growing a society that values innovation and insight. Starting with—and supporting—the next generation is a step in the right direction.
Keep Providing Creative Opportunities into Middle School and Beyond
Many of the activities that are beneficial for adults’ imaginations are equally as helpful for children. Lehrer notes that encouraging kids’ passions throughout childhood is a great next step. Encouraging kids between third and fifth grades to keep pursuing the messy, artistic and other imaginative hobbies they enjoy will help them to own their creativity and flourish with it.
Of course, trying a few creative thinking activities and exercises can help kids just as much as adults, too. Read on for details on activities to suggest or try yourself.
Can Adults Spark Their Creativity?
Adults are often reluctant to try messy activities that have a creative purpose. But the fact remains that creative experiences are just as beneficial for adults as they are for children. Even if you didn’t have an enriching childhood experience, the following creative thinking activities might expand your horizons.
12 Creative Thinking Activities and Exercises for All Ages
These creative thinking activities and exercises can do wonders for opening your mind to new ideas. Try one or all of them and notice how your perspective changes. You never know what activity will connect your neurons in new ways, sparking that light bulb moment.
1. Find a Rewarding Hobby to Enjoy
While children often have many passions, adults tend to have fewer. After all, we’re busy raising families, working demanding jobs, and furthering careers and financial goals.
But studies say that people who have hobbies are happier, less stressed, and even more creative. Neuroscience News’ expert explained that people who did better on innovative thinking tasks reported enjoying more hobbies and “achievements.”
During one study, scans showed that people with higher creativity scores on the lab tests had a specific network of brain connections. Scientists then used those mapped-out connections to predict others’ creativity—with a high rate of success.
All this to say that having hobbies clearly has more than one benefit. The list includes higher creativity if these studies are any indication.
Of course, the above study concluded that science is undecided on whether people can modify their brain’s connections to become more creative. But we would argue that there are ways to boost creativity—and there’s no harm in trying, either. Kids can try out hobbies too—they might find one that sticks with them through adolescence and adulthood.
2. Read More (and Different) Books
We already know that reading can boost academic performance. Reading is, after all, the key to digesting and understanding information. But does reading make you more creative?
The research says yes—reading is more than just entertainment. And it’s not mindless.
Literacy Works explains that reading stimulates the right side—the creative side—of the brain. They highlight studies that show reading fiction can boost brain connectivity and function. It’s like sports are for your muscles; reading exercises your brain.
One researcher said that reading stories “reconfigures brain networks” for days after you finish a good read. The way stories stick with us, so do the benefits to our brains.
You can read anything and still experience a benefit. But researchers say that fiction is the best for getting you out of your brain’s comfort zone. The same applies for kids, too. After all, every early childhood development expert says caregivers should read to their little ones daily—and there’s a reason for it.
3. Learn to Play an Instrument (or at Least Try)
Learning something new is one way to boost your brainpower. And it follows that giving your brain more juice would help creativity and those important connections. Trying out an instrument—even if you’re bad at it—can be a great way to spark your brain.
Playing an instrument requires coordination, concentration, and memorization. All these factors are beneficial for brain development, memory function, and your self-esteem. Reading music requires your brain to function in new ways, too, so even skimming over the notes is an excellent use of time.
The fact that people respect musicians for their brilliance is a nod to how complex music is. As Inc. explains, playing music is even better for your brain than nearly every other activity. Musical training impacts your brain structure and function, they say.
Playing music can also preserve your hearing well into old age, researchers note. You might also improve your verbal memory, spatial reasoning, and literacy. But one notable fact is that the younger people begin playing music, the greater the benefits. Another excellent reason to start encouraging kids’ creativity at a young age.
4. Make Art for Creativity and Mood Benefits
Art has a reputation as being the most significant measure of creativity. But even people who are not “good” at art in the conventional sense can still benefit from picking up a paintbrush or colored pencils.
The American Psychology Association says that drawing simple scenes can improve children’s moods. And when kids are happier, they say, they’re more creative. We can assume that the same applies to adults, too.
You probably don’t feel like being creative—or doing much of anything—when you feel bad. Using art to lift your spirits has the dual benefit of helping you reflect and think more abstractly.
From drawing to sketching to painting and more, trying out art may give you the creative thinking boost you need.
5. Learn How to Meditate
Meditation can help adults reduce their stress levels, but it may also aid in creative function. In fact, Harvard Business Review says that companies like Google and Goldman Sachs use meditation in the workplace.
Executives use meditation, HBR says, because it can help them change mental tracks. They enter a more thoughtful mode, relieve stress, and approach tasks from a different perspective.
The best part is that it only takes about ten to 12 minutes of meditation to see the benefits. Whether in the workplace or other settings, meditation is simple and doesn’t require any tools.
You can try guided meditations, too, but going somewhere quiet and reflecting inwardly might be enough to harness your creativity.
6. Explore Nature (or Just Go for a Walk)
You may already love nature because of its peacefulness and refreshing vibes. Did you know that walking in nature can help with creative challenges, too?
You might find inspiration in the trees, memory support in the fresh air, and innovative ideas after sitting on a park bench. Brain function can improve after time in nature, too. People with mental health challenges also tend to feel better after nature experiences.
The best part about this exercise is it’s simple and free. You can sit under a tree in your yard, bird-watch quietly at the neighborhood park, or go for a hike in a National Park.
7. Take an Academic-Type Class
Taking a class is one way to challenge your brain and make new connections. Learning how to, say, write a play or do improv may not be as rigorous for your mind as learning to play the piano. Still, learning anything new can be an enormous influence on your creative process.
In fact, Forbes even says that teaching creativity is a vital part of undergraduate classes for college students. You may not want to enroll at a university if you’re beyond the education phase in your life. But classes take place in tons of locations, from community centers to private homes to centers for the arts.
Forbes highlights that schools today teach “convergent thinking,” which aims to solve a problem that has one set answer. It’s why memorization is pushed so hard in schools—adults know the right answer, and they want to drill it into the students.
But Forbes says that divergent thinking—coming up with multiple solutions to “unscripted problems”—is much more effective for creativity. Lots of colleges recognize the divide between how students learn in high school and what the real world demands of them. Programs help students of all ages develop their ideas, run tests, and design products and solutions.
It doesn’t take a four-year degree to spur your creativity, though. Those programs are great, but the average person can still get better at creative thinking by choosing some classes to challenge themselves with. While art is a popular choice, classes in other areas can be just as stimulating.
What Kinds of Classes are Good for Creative Development?
Consider one of the following for both entertainment and brain-boosting benefits:
- Writing courses — whether creative writing, basic fiction, plays, screenwriting, or anything else.
- Art — including paint, ceramics or pottery, string art, beading classes, collages, sculpting, or many others.
- Graphic design — an offshoot of art classes that uses technology to help you create visually appealing messages.
- Communication — learning to communicate more effectively is a great way to boost creativity. From argumentation and debate to public speaking or group communication, there are endless choices that all help make mental connections.
- Anything STEAM related — STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. Many campuses call it STEM instead, separating art from the bundle. Either way, engaging with hands-on materials in combination with abstract thought can have a significant influence on how your mind works.
- Improvisation or acting — it might not seem “academic,” but improv teaches a lot of useful skills. From communication to critical thinking, navigating acting scenarios takes effort and creativity.
8. Be a Little Bit Absurd
Kids are phenomenal at coming up with wacky, creative, and often hilarious ideas. Adults, however, tend to worry more about appearing silly and usually restrain themselves. Which is why organizations like Fast Company wholeheartedly recommend thinking outside the box, almost to the point of absurdity.
Fueling creative thinking, they write, has to do with changing your perspective. Think of new ways to use otherwise junk materials. Pay attention—and even be nosy—when observing the world around you. Be sort of crazy in your interpretation of the world, and it might just pay off with a novel idea.
To combat that closed-off vibe, get out of your comfort zone and engage with silly and off-the-wall ideas. Assign yourself a project to surprise, amuse, or completely miff others. No idea is a bad idea, especially when you’re trying to get your creative juices flowing.
9. Play Fun and Child-Like Games
Following the recommendation to be a little bit absurd comes the suggestion to be more childlike. Kids are silly, after all, and come up with ideas that grownups could never imagine. Except that grownups can imagine crazy things and have great ideas. They just might not see the value in those concepts.
To get your mind more open to silliness and, therefore, innovation, try things like playing charades, filling in Mad Libs, or trying to figure out word problems or riddles. Watch a show like Brain Games—which often tests the audience with complex scenarios—and try out the challenges. The science behind your brain is interesting, and it might get you thinking in new ways.
Engaging in off-the-wall thinking allows you to see how much you think like others, or how original you can be.
10. Go Somewhere New
A change of scenery is one of the world’s greatest sources of inspiration. Whether you’re traveling far or near, seeing and experiencing new things does wonders for your brain. Science has confirmed that travel broadens our perspectives, quotes Vogue, which is enough to have us packing our bags.
At the same time, historically speaking, many famous creatives have produced new works while visiting other countries or experiencing new things. Plus, well-traveled people tend to be more open-minded, since they’ve been lots of places and seen things beyond their view of normal.
But the best part of travel is the fact that even the suggestion of exotic locales helps people think more creatively, experts say. One study showed that people who were told a puzzle came from another state were more creative in solving the puzzle.
There are still plenty of mysteries about how our brains work. But knowing that travel is a big motivator and influence over creativity can help in our pursuit of innovative thought.
11. Create Something (Anything)
Whatever your area of expertise, creating something new forces you to flex your mental muscles. It’s pushing creativity, especially when you give yourself a deadline or set parameters.
If cooking is your thing, come up with a new dish, or try blending contrasting flavors together for a taste-test. For artists, step outside your normal medium and tackle something new. If music is your area of expertise, try taking on a different genre or style and writing or composing a song. Writers can venture outside their typical genre, too, swapping nonfiction for fiction or prose for academia.
Using what you’re already good at—but spinning it—can open those new pathways in your mind. Plus, you may find that the new way of doing things is rewarding, too.
12. Go Beyond Brainstorming
Brainstorming is supposed to be a way to generate new ideas. But staring at a blank whiteboard doesn’t always inspire new ideas to start flowing. If none of these “big ideas” have inspired creativity, adding small daily bits of creative time to your life might have a long-term impact.
Try daily habits like:
- Drawing the same thing each day for a week (or longer). Notice how your skill improves and how your technique might change due to looking at the object in different ways.
- Take notes in a journal or notebook daily—without any specific goal in mind. Tracking your thoughts can often bring about new ideas.
- Step out in nature and collect an assortment of items. Sticks, rocks, seeds or nuts, and even grasses or flowers make great collecting objects.
- Take a new route home once or more per week. Driving a new way can expand your horizons similarly to long-distance travel. You might even start a new, more stimulating habit.
- Writing a short story or Haiku poem about your day or week—no expert knowledge or skill required.
Final Thoughts on Creative Thinking Activities and Exercises
“Being creative” is possible for everyone, no matter your age, expertise, or background. And if you struggle to stick with creative projects, there are so many ways to get past the block and start making things again.
Great ideas may not pop up immediately. Giving your brain the space to grow and develop new connections can’t hurt, though. And who knows—you may find a new favorite hobby or a great idea that becomes the next big thing.