Classroom Practice

50 Ways to Cultivate a Creative Habit

Written by Amy Burvall

“inspiration exists, but it has to find you working” – Picasso

“Creativity” as a concept often seems daunting. Many people don’t feel they aren’t “creative” when perhaps they really mean they aren’t particularly artistically talented. Creativity, however, is much broader than any brushstroke- it’s a way of thinking and doing that one can, like anything, learn about, practice, and become better at. In my post-webinar three part blog series, I discussed the essence of Creativity in “The Way Back to Wonder”, strategies for creative thinking in “Thinking Outside the Lines”, and practical ways to start a creative habit in “Daily Diet of Creativity”. This post expands on the latter, and it began as a simple list composed for the New Year.  Each idea takes little investment in time and energy yet can really help cultivate those creative capacities. Try them for yourself or with students, perhaps adapting them to your curriculum in some way.

1. Do a wonder walk/ photo safari

The most creative people tend to see things that others miss, and often find inspiration in the mundane. One of the best ways in which to practice observing rather than mere seeing is to take what I call a “wonder walk”. Just the act of walking itself has proven to be stimulating for the creative juices, but why not add a unique environment – perhaps somewhere you have never explored or a route you’ve not yet taken? Kick it up a notch with a challenge – perhaps keeping in mind a certain theme like color, texture or shape. How many types of wood surfaces can you find, for example, or colours of doors on houses? Use your smartphone or other unobtrusive camera to archive your experience (my suggestion is to get as “macro” as possible, taking note of the “little things”).

2. Try a new medium

I tend to do my artwork in series, since they somehow seem more legitimate that way, but whenever I get bored or stuck I simply try a new medium. You can go from digital to analogue, from coloured pencil to black and white marker, from text to video. We live in a multi-media world, and it’s important for students especially to dabble in a variety of ways in which to express themselves and articulate their learning. Instead of an essay, why not a video blog (vlog)? Instead of a test, why not an annotated infographic? A music video in lieu of a slide presentation – certainly! Just as changing the texture of a palette or adopting a new tool is refreshing for the artist, it can be so for us in all aspects of our lives. If we extend the metaphor, this could even mean taking a trip, testing out a new sport or hobby, or simply opting for the train rather than the car.

3. Wordplay

Any type of wordplay will exercise your brain and there is an added bonus if it involves humour. Aside from exchanging puns with friends, I like to play something I call the “Line and Carrot Game” and “Less and More”. For the former, the goal is to remove one or two letters from a word to create a new word with a completely different meaning (you can also exchange letters, adding an alternate). A variation is to insert a “carrot” symbol and add a letter or two. This can be done in sentences as well, and works especially well as a group game with “6 word stories”. For “Less and More”, think of something you’d like less of and then something in contrast (preferably rhyming) that you’d like more of: e.g. “Less Hate more Create”.

4. Remix / Re-contextualize existing art or a selfie

Creativity is all about remix – combining, transforming, and giving new meaning to existing ideas.  A simple way to start is by adding elements to a well-known piece of art or perhaps a photo you’ve taken. You can see examples in my Renaissanta, Bowie-roque, Reposed, and Salvador-Dollies series. One handy tool for this is Paper by Fifty-Three for iPhone, which allows you to quickly sketch over images.

5. Join a creative community or start one of your own

My “Make du Jour” G+ community is an open group in which members can benefit from my daily curation on Creativity and creative projects as well as share their own. For fun challenges (even a “daily create”), try checking out the assignment bank from the #ds106 open course. You can adapt many for your students. Hitrecord is a crowdsourced publishing project with a lot of inspiration and a variety of opportunities to participate. KQED’s Art School is rich in resources, how-tos, and challenges. For clever prompts to get one thinking about the creative process, try joining Somewhere, a sort of LinkedIN for people in the creative industries ( I’ve adapted their prompts, called “provocations”,  for student journaling). Also recommended: New Hive, Phonar Nation (for photography), 643 Things to Draw,  642 Things to Write About and (for design).

6. Get Meta: think about creative thinking

Explore the nature of creativity and find out how it works with my resources on G+, the wonderfully curated site Brainpickings, or TED talks tagged “creativity”). I also particularly love this short film from Liberatum, “Inspiring Creativity”.

7. DIWO (Do It With Others)

Often we need another person to help spark our creativity. I love inventing “volley” projects with my social media friends. In #hashtaggerie, Dan Ryder from Maine would send me a whimsical hashtag on Twitter and I would attempt to depict it in an image, then we’d switch. In #visualversevolley my friend Erin Olson sends me an original poem every Sunday and I create a matching visual (sketch, photo, animation, etc.) based on my gut reaction. “Blimage” was a blog project UK educator Steve Wheeler and I dreamed up which involved sending metaphorical images to fellow bloggers and challenging them to pen a blog post relevant to learning.

8. Believe it and it will come

I recently read this piece on the power of stereotypical thinking. Apparently, the more we believe we are creative, the more creative we will actually be. More importantly, what if our students thought that way? I noticed a bit of this when I started calling “work time” “studio time”, “groups” were re-imagined as “teams”, and “assignment checklist” became “design specs”.

9. See beauty (or humour) in the mundane

There’s a phenomenon called pareidolia which is based on our brain’s tendency to see patterns and faces in everyday things. We’ve all found a semblance of something else in wallpaper or cloud shapes. Challenge yourself to find an everyday object and do the same. Check out this video channel or this artist for inspiration.

10. Study a famous artist and emulate their style

Identify an artist or even general type of art you are drawn to (no pun intended) and try to replicate the style. I write about my influences in this post, and I often try to re-create existing works but add my own flourish. Challenge students to do something “In the style of…”, for example, Shakespeare in the style of Reality TV, or T.S. Eliot in the style of their favourite music artist. I love this animated GIF project using scenes from Mad Men juxtaposed with commentary about modern tech.

11. Reflect with 1 word

Self-reflection is crucial for growing in one’s creativity. Try distilling your day into one word. Then play with metaphorical typography to make the lettering match the meaning.

12. Sketch a quote or song lyric

Practice metaphorical thinking and sketchnoting as learning tool by working out illustrations to quote, poem, or song lyrics. Use this whimsical site to change your tweets into a sonnet…then you can imagine what images would match. Miranda Keeling (@MirandaKeeling) often has poignant tweets that are observations of life filled with imagery.

13. Repurpose something

Get DIY and change up something old into something with a different function or aesthetic.

14. Write parody lyrics

A form of poetic wordplay, writing parody lyrics to existing songs (like I did for my History for Music Lovers project) is quite the mental challenge. Students love demonstrating their knowledge this way.

15. Creative Constraint…in the Kitchen!

We played a version of “Iron Chef” in my classroom in which I crowdsourced student suggestions for sweet and savory ingredients, then drew names. Each student chose two ingredients and those had to be the “star” ingredients of the dish (they ended up naming and plating the dishes creatively). Why not try this out yourself with 5 or fewer eclectic ingredients?

16. Surprise Journal

Keep a journal of surprises or oddities – in the classroom you can have a wall!

17. Find some ambient noise

Did you know ambient noise is important for creativity, and the best is that of coffee parlour? Try out this app.

18. Find some “white space”

It’s crucial to have at least 45 min to (ideally) an hour and a half of creative “white space” (a term I nicked from the graphic design world) to ruminate and make. Write about how do this. Think about incorporating meditation or a long walk, or perhaps getting up 45 minutes earlier. If you find that a struggle, try to replace TV or Internet surfing with making and thinking. I also have a rule for my daughter that if you watch TV you must also do something creative, like build with Legos or draw.

19. Portmanteaux

Portmanteaux are the perfect example of mashup. They are not compound words, but rather new words invented (neologisms) using two concepts to create a new meaning. Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll is famous for this, as well as Sniglet author Rich Hall. Posted in my G+ for inspiration is a series of mashed up words having to do with technology and modern life.  Try your hand at this. You can use concepts that don’t have a specific word yet OR get serendipitous and take two given words to create a hybrid, then INVENT the definition.

20. “Blind Dates”

Creativity is about connecting dots…and mixing and combining things that don’t obviously go together. Participate in what Einstein called “combinatorial play” by combining two opposite ideas OR disciplines. For example: “Geography and PE” or “The Cold War” and “Pizza”. What can you create that would make sense? (this is a wonderful exercise for faculty meetings / professional development).

21. Walkabout: Explore “Guided Wandering”

Drive, walk, or bike a different route to spark your curiosity. Gamify it a bit by using the Trace App, which allows you to draw a design that becomes a friend’s walking path.

22. Visit a museum and create a scavenger hunt

(a perfect chance to try out an Augmented Reality app)

23. Create an ongoing “what if?” list

This also works well in the classroom as a bulletin board/ wonder wall.

24. Design an app for you

If you were an app, what would you be? Alternatively, what is your ideal app? Prototype it!

25. Start D.E.A.D. time (Drop Everything and Draw)

See my post here.

26. Mix by 53

Paper by Fifty-Three allows you to upload a drawing to “The Mix” and have anyone remix it without damaging your original (all simply appear in a nice neat stack). You have to have this iPad/iPhone app AND join the Mix with an account,  but it is pretty cool. Check out the video:

27. Make the world your canvas

Play with your environment. Try cartoon bombing (draw a cartoon and interact with your environment by placing it strategically and taking a photo. See examples HERE or HERE), yarn-bombing, or a “Windows to the world” safari by making a cut out of your choice (car, person, animal) and holding it up to different textures and colours in the environment, then capturing it in a photo. You can get inspiration HERE.  Why not try book spine poetry – where you stack your books so that the title forms a “found poem”?

28. DuChamp-ing

Make some Surrealist “ReadyMade” art inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s work (like “Fountain”). The goal is to find a normal, mundane thing, and title it to make it art. The object will be re-contextualized. You can make physical labels or use a photo editing program to overlay text later.

29. Create an ABC book

ABC books are the perfect creative constraint (only 26 letters!) and you can make them about anything. Write one using content from your discipline, perhaps (this is an inventive way for students to show their research, too). In addition, you can play with the typography, like I did in my “literal alphabet” project.

30. Take the RAT test

The Remote Associates Test is a test of creative potential, but can be used to get the brain warmed up into thinking about analogies (analogous thinking one of the roots of remix). Three cue words are all linked to a fourth word. There is a great online version here:

31. Magnetic Poetry

Of course, this dada-esque game does not have to be magnetic. I used cut up newspaper words for my MakeOut poetry (see blog) . If you don’t have tangibles, go for the online version: an app called “WordMover” OR (with different themed kits that randomize words for you)

32. 3D Visualization

Take any abstract concept, such as a vocabulary word or a problem, and try to visualize it using 3 dimensional materials such as paper, play-doh, Legos, blocks, sand, etc.

33. Circles Test

Using a template of 30 circles, try to draw something different  for each one as fast as you can. (3 min goal) You can mix up by giving it a theme, such as food or education.

34. Create a Daily Photo Challenge

Use your discipline to develop prompts for each day of the month. What would it look like for Math? Psychology? P.E.? Biology? French? Could you extend it to include “school spirit”? See inspiration HERE.

35. Coin an acronym

Think of a new acronym or use a word as a an acronym and think of the components. Acronyms are wonderful mnemonic devices.

36. Kurt Cobain-ify

Apparently Kurt Cobain of the 90’s grunge band Nirvana used to pour out his feelings in love letters he never sent. He then cut them up a la William Burroughs (father of cut-up poetry) and made them into song lyrics! Try this with yourself or a partner (each can exchange love letters). Students could write as if they were a character in a novel or History writing to someone else…you can have fun with students doing this exchange- perhaps even globally!

37. Blackout poetry

Blackout poetry emphasizes creativity by deletion. Sometimes when we eliminate things we reveal other, magical things. Author and artist Austin Kleon has some wonderful resources.

38. Design (or adopt) a uniform

Author Austin Kleon once proposed that, like Steve Jobs or Andy Warhol, there is a case for developing and adopting one’s own “uniform” .

In a way, developing a “signature style” is like branding yourself – people know what to expect and can recognize you instantly. The consistency also frees up mental energy for other, more creative pursuits. Some suggest because one is purchasing fewer items of clothing one can focus on the quality (though that might not be the case for the man with 200 black suits!).

39. Design your Creative Space

What is your ideal creative space? Think about  what things seem to enable your creativity or are obstacles (for me bright lights are a no-no but I like to hear jazz).  Prototype your ideal creative space, perhaps by creating a “mood board” on Pinterest.  It’s helpful to look at the whimsical office spaces of Google (Switzerland is my favourite). Think about furniture, ambience, tools, art, office toys, etc.

40. Play with Serendipity

There are some “bots” and randomizers which can be a lot of fun. One of my favourites is a word / phrase Randomizer that I used for my @serendipidoodle project. Customize the length and difficulty of your word or phrase. The project ideas are endless!

If you want to get poetic try out which generates random prose from all your Facebook statuses.

41. Work on a colouring book

There are a bevy of colouring books out there now marketed to adults, due to research results on the impact of colouring to intellectual and emotional health. Try one instead of playing with your phone. Take it to a restaurant and do while you wait.

42. Get expressive

Take a hint from artists Jackson Pollack or Mark Rothko. Express your inner thoughts and feeling with some artwork that does not require the ability to replicate objects realistically. I enjoyed using Paper by Fifty-Three on my iPhone to create this and this.

43. Redesign (or build!) a website

If you don’t already have a personal web portfolio, try out a user-friendly, aesthetically-pleasing platform like First plan everything you need out on paper, then peruse the templates and customize as necessary. My students used this site to create a variety of website projects.

44. Develop your own animated gif library

Animated gifs are a huge part of social media, and increasingly popular as platforms such as Twitter and Facebook have incorporated them fully. Gifs are a type of nuanced communication as we move towards increasingly visual communication. If you have never created one, #ds106 has some handy resources. Develop several according to theme (like “agree” or “love it”) and use them as your signature in your social media interactions.

45. Play with new photo editing apps

Try out my favourite, “Noir” for that old school Hollywood look or experiment with creating “living photos”, or cinemagrams, with one of these apps.

46. Start a dream diary

What could be more inventive than your dreams (or nightmares)? Nothing! That is why it is a key creative practice to keep a record of them. Place a notebook by your bedside and make it a habit to write upon waking.

47. Create a weekly reflection piece

I love the way Doug Belshaw, for example, writes his “Thought Shrapnel” newsletter, which through the magic of my subscription conveniently arrives in my inbox every 7 days. I’m thinking about doing something called “Mind Peeks/Peaks” though I did find it useful to try out a “Friday 5”– my big takeaways from the week, illustrated.

48. Do some improv

Improvisation can really open up the mind (and heart) to learning. One of my go-to tools for thinking on one’s feet is Alan Levine’s “PechaFlickr”. PechaFlickr is based on the popular presentation format, Pech Kucha. The twist is that you will not know what images pop up according to your tag, and you are required to speak off the cuff with elegance as if you are giving a presentation. While this is great for improvisational thinking, speaking skills, and creative confidence, it’s also a wonderful tool for practicing second languages.

49. Remix your own work

Creativity is all about remix. Sometimes the resource material is right under your nose. I like to rethink things I’ve already created and make them into something new, like I did with my art in this stop-motion video or with an old blog post in this animated video.

50. The Muse is People!

Perhaps the most provocative of all creative inspiration comes from meeting and learning from new people. They could be folks you meet face-to-face or perhaps just encounter in a restaurant. I like to make up backstories about interesting people I see, and sometimes sketch entertaining things I overhear as they converse.  I see knowledge as being more about connection and creativity as dependent on “collecting the dots” that you will later connect in the creative work. Why not try out a collaborative creativity project with another school (I have many examples here)?

I recommend finding five simple things on this list and trying them out in the next few months (perhaps test out one per month). You will find that once you start incorporating creative practice into your daily life (and classroom) your mind and your students’ minds will become more flexible and you will begin to see the world anew.


About the author

Amy Burvall

Leave a Comment