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Divergent thinking in children


You know the old saying: give a child a cup and they’ll give you 100 uses for it? Well, it turns out it’s not just a saying – it’s a fact that children are far better at divergent thinking than adults.

In his article How Many Uses Are There For A Shoe? Len Brzozowski states:

Most adults can generate 10-12 responses before running out of ideas. But someone who is really good at thinking creatively (which most of us can be with the right mindset and a little practice) can generate 100 or more ideas from a question like this.

A plant pot, hand warmer, cup and fly swatter are a few suggestions to get you rolling. Brzozowski uses this example to explain the process of divergent thinking – looking for many possible solutions as opposed to arriving consensually at one agreed solution. It’s best done with an open mind, which is why kids are better at it. Better still if they are pre-school age.

Brzozowski quotes creativity researchers George Land and Beth Jarman. They made up a test for creative thinking. “In one interesting study, they administered their test to groups of 5, 10 and 15 year olds. The results are described in their book “Break Point and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today”.

An impressive 98% of 5-year-olds scored at the “genius” level in such a test of divergent thinking. Test-takers age 10 however, saw their number drop to 32%, and only 10% of high-school-age test-takers scored at the “genius” level. It seems that as students mature through the educational system, they have some of these creative instincts “driven out” or socialized out of them. Why should this be?

It is often said that school teaches us how to stop thinking creatively, how to conform to come up with the one correct idea or answer: convergent thinking. But as these children grow older, they will be expected to come up with new ideas, projects, innovations to make them stand out in the job market and on the career ladder.

So here are three top tips to help you and any children you know exercise your divergent-thinking streak – the method of thinking we all used best as children.

  • Take a break from dedicated thinking to listen to music, sing or play and instrument – even if you ‘can’t’ play one! Making your brain work in a different way and giving it fresh stimulus can open the door to ideas.
  • As Brzozowski suggests, do things differently today and allow failure to open you up to new possibilities. We recommend wearing something you wouldn’t normally wear – see how it makes you feel and think.
  • Pick an object from your environment and ask everyone you see today to think of an alternative use for it. Write down the answers and try some out. Maybe a pen will become a hair slide, a cushion will be a Frisbee.

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Creative Genius Toolkit

Our collection of tools and techniques will help you generate brilliant ideas on your own or in a group. Includes videos, worksheets and examples.

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