• May 2013

How to Be a Creative Problem Solver

By Dr. Carol Horn
K-12 Program Coordinator Department of Instructional Services
Fairfax County Public Schools

Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from Horn’s upcoming book, “The 10 Big Ideas: How to help your child think bigger, imagine more, and do better in school”

“The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” — Albert Einstein

This quote by Einstein highlights the importance of teaching children to think creatively so that they will be prepared to cope with the complexities of our modern world and face situations that do not have one clear answer.

What is creativity, and why is it important? How can it be nurtured? How have creative thinkers changed our lives and shaped our ever-changing world?

These are just a few of the questions that may be used to start the conversation and raise awareness of creativity and its connection to innovative solutions.

There are also children’s books that share the stories of children who have solved everyday problems with innovative ideas.

One of my favorites is The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer and illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon. It’s an inspiring story of a young boy in Malawi who used scrap metal, tractor parts, and pieces of old bicycles to create a crude yet operable windmill to bring electricity to his village.

Additional recommendations include: The Kid Who Invented the Popsicle, by Don L. Wulffson and Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Change: Courageous Actions Around the World, by Garth Sundem.

Although it is often associated with art, creativity is essentially a dynamic process that draws on an inner resource that will produce as long as the environment stimulates ideas and encourages risk-taking.

The environment is a critical component, and it must be one in which children feel free to take risks in order to explore and discover their own ideas, insights, and solutions. They should be encouraged to observe and notice things, play around with their ideas, see patterns and connections, and explore unique applications of their ideas to real-world problems and situations.

Creativity is nurtured in a home that provides a safe environment for investigation, instills the value of learning from mistakes, and fosters a respect for individual ideas and differences. Children need rich and varied opportunities to explore areas of interest, think about possibilities, experiment with ideas, and discuss and reflect on the results.

Creative Problem Solving is one strategy that nurtures the creative thinking skills that are needed to come up with unique solutions to any problem. Using this strategy promotes development of:

  • Fluency and flexibility (the ability to generate many ideas and see different possibilities),
  • Originality (the ability to combine ideas in new ways or come up with unusual ideas), and
  • Elaboration (the ability to further develop ideas in order to evaluate them for feasibility).

Fluency and flexibility open up many possibilities, and originality and elaboration stretch the uniqueness of their ideas.

It is based on the work of advertising executive Alex Osborn, and college professor Sidney Parnes—both of whom did extensive research on how creative people solve problems.

It is a great strategy to use with children and teaches them to consider multiple ideas as they themselves find creative solutions to a variety of problems.


Step One: Identify a Problem or Challenge

“Every problem is a gift—without problems we would not grow.”
— Anthony Robbins, author

  • Walk around the house or yard with your child and talk about things that could be improved, e.g., the garden, the play area, their room and how it is organized.
  • Ask your child to choose one and brainstorm a list of ideas for improving it. How could it be better?

Step Two: Fact-Finding

“Facts are facts and will not disappear on account of your likes.”
— Jawaharlal Nehru, first prime minister of India

This is the stage where children practice their research skills, ask questions, and gather information. Once they have selected their problem area, discuss with your child the following:

  • Who else could you talk to?
  • What might you observe?
  • Where do you want to go to learn more?
  • How will you record your information?

For example, if she decides to focus on an overgrown garden, she may need to visit a nursery or a garden center to learn about the different plants, the space and sun that they need, and other factors that must be taken into consideration in order to have a successful and productive garden.

If the problem is a messy, disorganized room, you may suggest that he look at magazines for ideas that can be used to organize space, visit a container store, or research online.

Step Three: Identify Problems

“A good problem is something you don’t know how to solve. That’s what makes it a good puzzle and a good opportunity.”
— Paul Lockhart, mathematics teacher

Review the facts and think about the situation from as many angles as possible. Use smaller problems to identify the parts of the bigger problem. Select and state a manageable problem that will invite solutions.

In the example of the garden, some of the problems may include:

  • Too many weeds
  • Squirrels or deer eat plants
  • Not enough rain
  • Not enough sun
  • Space is too small
  • Soil is too hard

Step Four: Generate Ideas

“Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”
— Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., author and physician

Be creative and make a list of all the ways you might improve your garden or room based on the problems you identified. Stretch your imagination and remember, at this stage, nothing is judged! No idea is too crazy or silly.

You may want to start your list with “In what ways might I …” or “How might I … ”

Share ideas among members of the family and listen to each other’s ideas. You can combine ideas and, most important of all, come up with lots of ideas!

For example, to improve a garden:

  • Put down plastic to keep weeds from growing
  • Put newspapers on soil to prevent weeds
  • Move garden to another area of yard
  • Create a patio garden in containers
  • Add earthworms to break up soil
  • Add an alarm system to keep animals away
  • Dig irrigation ditches
  • Chop down trees that are blocking the sun

Step Five: Create a Solution

“In the book of life, the answers aren’t in the back.”
— Charlie Brown, comic-strip protagonist

Now it’s time to review your list of ideas and decide which ones might work. You need to look at your ideas realistically, and evaluate your ideas against some measures.

Your goal is to select an idea that has the best chance of succeeding. In the case of the garden, the measures that you select might include cost, time, location, and soil preparation.

For example, if you decide to move the garden to another part of the yard that has more sun, what will it cost, how long will that take, is there a space that would work, and what kind of soil preparation is needed?

Create a chart, and rate each idea objectively.

  • Across the top: Criteria • Not Feasible • May be possible • Will work with limitations • I can do this!
  • Down the left side: COSTTIMELOCATIONSOIL PREPARATION

Step Six: Solve the Problem

“You can’t plow a field simply by turning it over in your mind.”
— Gordon B. Hinckley, religious leader and author

Now is your chance to make an action plan. Determine what needs to be done, assess the challenges that might arise, and prepare a plan of action. Work as a team and draw or design a model of what your solution will look like. Label parts and write down details that will help you implement your plan.

Why Creative Problem Solving Works

  • When it is practiced and applied, Creative Problem Solving becomes a way of thinking about problems that can be adapted to multiple situations.
  • When children are encouraged to apply the creative process to a problem, they also gain a greater appreciation for the important contributions made to our world by creative individuals who took risks, experimented with ideas, and solved problems through real-world applications of their unique ideas.
  • Through the practice of Creative Problem Solving, children will be empowered to face any problem and to search for unique solutions to improve their world, not only for today but for future generations as well.


About Dr. Carol Horn

Dr. Carol V. Horn is coordinator of Advanced Academics Program (former Gifted and Talented Programs) for Fairfax County Public Schools in Northern Virginia.

She has worked in gifted education for the past 20 years and has a Master of Education in Educational Psychology with an Emphasis on Gifted from the University of Virginia.

She earned her doctorate in Teacher Preparation and Special Education from The George Washington University and is the 2002 recipient of the Hollingsworth Award from the National Association for Gifted Children for outstanding research study in the field of gifted education.

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