Does it worry you that as students don’t seem to be as creative as they used to? That they struggle mightily when asked to use their imagination?

My concern over this issue is a big part of why I went back to school for a master’s degree in Design-Based Learning.

It’s behind the reason I spent the last several years creating STEM Challenge activities, like my Back to School Apple STEM Challenges.

It’s why I have delivered so much professional development around STEM Challenge best practices.

And it’s also why I created the STEM Improv series — to help students develop their creativity and imagination. 

Building creativity is just like everything else; it takes practice to build that muscle to be more reflexive and easier. I am a fan of comedic improv, so I looked to how performers exercise to become more flexible and comfortable diving right into situations with creative abandon and designed a way for students to do the same!


STEM Improv Video Preview

Watch the video below for an overview of STEM Improv:


See original STEM Improv blog post for additional info and a longer walk-through video with examples. 


Student selected from 3 STEM Categories and drew a design for a fashion item made of socks that catches fish

How Do We Give Students Practice with Creativity & Imagination?

So how do we go about helping students retain the playful imagination of their childhoods (or re-engage with it if it seems buried)?

  1. Provide Captivating, Engaging Activities
  2. Give Time & Consistency
  3. Set Realistic Expectations

Captivating, Engaging Activities to Build Creativity & Imagination

Luckily, there are many quick creativity-building activities you can add to your class that don’t require much time or prep. I’ve always enjoyed the one where you come up with as many different uses for a _______ (brick, paperclip, etc.) in a set amount of time. That’s a great one to throw in when you finish a lesson a few minutes early.

But today, I want to focus on a resource I created (and you can try it for free!) with these goals in mind:

  • help students build their creativity, problem-solving & flexibility muscles
  • can be done in 15 minutes or less
  • virtually no prep

The format is simple: 

1. Students spin a wheel (or pull a printed card) to randomly select from three categories:

  • Object
  • Material*
  • Function

*The materials lists include some unconventional building materials (like crayons!) resulting in whimsical, often hilarious, designs like the one below. Because students are planning but not actually build prototypes for their designs (unless you choose to extend), you do not need to provide materials to students.

2. Next they create a design plan & answer questions about their initial plan.

3. If there is extra time, sharing designs, discussions & extensions are optional. (Kids love the chance to share, so it’s a good idea to make some time at least once a week to share out their favorite recent design ideas.)


Example from Back to School STEM Improve Activity Freebie – 336 possible combinations!

Try the Back-to-School STEM Improv Resource for Free!




Time & Consistency

This one is pretty straight-forward: if we say creativity & imagination are important, we must treat them as such. Fortunately, this doesn’t have to take a lot of time at all. The STEM Improv exercises only need 10-15 minutes, with the occasional sharing time or other extensions added in where you can make it fit. It can be done during morning work, choice boards, sub days, centers, Makerspace, etc.

The beauty of STEM Improv is that each individual set has 336 unique combinations, so you can use it for quite awhile with incredibly little setup time. I’d recommend doing this activity with your class at least weekly, but as students start building their creativity, they’ll ask for more than that!


Realistic Expectations

I’ve been guilty in the past of asking students to be creative & use their imaginations when writing a story or creating a STEM Challenge design. Here’s the thing: while it comes naturally for some students, others don’t really know how to do that or what it means.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m asked to do something and my brain doesn’t cooperate, one of my first reactions is embarrassment. I’m thinking, “My brain doesn’t do what everyone else’s brain does. Am I dumb?”

And all that self-doubt and embarrassment doesn’t exactly provide the fertile ground needed for new ideas! 😂

It’s important that we set up an environment in which we are honest that sometimes it can be hard to be creative. Even the best writers get writer’s block. Not all of our ideas will be winners every time, and when we put that pressure on ourselves we’re making it harder to feel the ease and get into the flow of generating ideas. So give students LOTS of chances to practice being creative without judgment about the quality of their ideas. Some ideas are winners, some are flops, and the most important thing is that we practice coming up with ideas in the first place.

This is why I love the STEM Improv activity so much — it’s about the practice, the lifting mental weights rather than the outcome. And it doesn’t hurt that it’s a ton of fun for all ages!







What else are teachers saying about these Quick STEM Activities?

“I did this activity with my 3rd and 4th grade Gifted and Talented classes! They loved it!! It was definitely a change for them in that “all” they were doing was designing, they are accustomed to creating. But this was really good for them to focus on the design. My students who struggle with being creative and seeing outside the norm definitely struggled with this. I liked your suggestion in the material to help a student think about just 2 components and that helped them start. I know I will use this over and over again. Thank you!”

– Kerry S. (Comment left in YouTube comments)



“I tried out STEM improv with one of my 4th grade classes today, and they loved it.  They asked when then can do this again and if they can have sets of cards to take home.  It was the perfect activity because I was missing about 1/3 of the students.”

– Rachel F. (Comment sent via email)


Grab Your Back to School STEM Improv Activity Freebie!






See all the STEM Improv Sets

If you have any questions, visit the Q/A tab on TpT and let me know! 🙂

All the seasonal and regular STEM Improv Activities can be found in my Teachers Pay Teachers shop.




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