ACTIVITY 3: zigzag [15 minutes]

The Big Idea: 

  1. If we can let go of what we think is the “right” answer, we can come up with really amazing, fresh ideas. 
  2. Constraints — not total freedom — help us create great solutions. 

The goal of this exercise is to illustrate three main ideas:

  • You always are influenced and dependent on other people whenever you make something – no creative acts happen in isolation! (This is illustrated when your neighbor passes you their paperclip.)
  • You can create really original, fun ideas even when you have a lot of constraints. In fact, sometimes those constraints make your output even better because they force us to think of things that don't already exist. (The paperclip, time, and challenge questions are the constraints.)
  • Visualizing your ideas helps you think and communicate better. It doesn’t matter if you’re “good” at art — it’s about experimenting and explaining your ideas! (It's helpful to have each child describe their work at least once in this exercise.)

Supplies needed for this exercise:
- Any kind of regular size paperclip
- Standard blank white notecards (3"x5" or 4”x6” will do, not lined, ideally not colored)


Amount needed: For a classroom of 20 students, you need one paperclip and one notecard per student for each “challenge.” You'll do two rounds so the students have a change to morph the paperclip twice. Multiply the number of students by the number of challenges – you'll have time for 3-6 challenges in 2 rounds, so 2 paperclips and 60-120 notecards for 20 students. It's a good idea to bring some extra paperclips and notecards though!


Step 1: Form groups of 3 or 4. Ideally, the students are already sitting in grouped desks. To save time, try not to move the students around too much. Each student gets one paper clip and one notecard for each “round." Each round has one challenge question.

Step 2: Ask each student to bend their paperclip into whatever shape they want but it has to be flat, not 3 dimensional. (Don't tell them what comes next until they have finished this step.)

Step 3: Everyone passes their paperclip to the person on their left, and receives a paperclip from the person on their right. Rotating clockwise.

Step 4: Instruct everyone that their job is to draw their solution to the challenge question on their notecard. They first need to trace the shape of the paperclip and then build on/draw around that shape. Give them only about 1 minute for each challenge.

Step 5: Repeat at least 2-3 more times, with the paperclip rotating to the next person each time. Students get a fresh notecard for each challenge. 

Step 6: After 2-3 challenge questions, ask the students to take a fresh paperclip and bend it again. You can decide to reverse the direction they pass the paperclip if you want, or have them keep their paperclip. Ask 2-3 more challenge questions.

Sample challenges questions in increasing difficulty:

  • Imagine something that would give you the power to fly
  • Imagine your dream home
  • Imagine a new kind of sport or musical instrument
  • Imagine a way to save water in a drought
  • Imagine a new kind of food that could feed everyone on the planet
  • Imagine a way that could help people get along better


Ask the students to volunteer to explain their drawings after each challenge question. Ask leading questions to get them to reflect on their process. 

Talk about the influence of constraints. Constraints make you more resourceful and that helps drive creativity. How did the outline of the paperclip influence the drawings? Even though it was surprising at first, did it make you faster and freer in coming up with solutions? How did it feel that you weren't in control of the original shape? 

In relationship to Creative Power, the exercise is meant to:

  1. Illustrate how constraints force you to think beyond the usual solutions.
  2. The exercise shows the interdependencies between people undertaking creative acts. 
  3. The constraints are designed to create a help students fluidly create without self-consciousness or fear.