Add to It! - A Game for Building Flexible Thinking Skills and Tolerance for Ambiguity

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Flexible thinking is an important part of creativity. It means we can shift our perspective and think about something in a completely different way. This serves us when we are learning complex concepts and when we are problem solving.

A flexible thinker knows there are many ways to solve a problem, and considers that the problem we think we have might not be our actual problem. He or she can generate ideas from many angles, and switch angles when necessary.

Tolerance for ambiguity is another skill that can help us when we are problem solving, or even just working on a project that does not have a precisely defined procedure. Tolerance for ambiguity means that we can accept the condition of not knowing exactly what will happen next. It means we can navigate change and unusual occurrences. It helps us keep moving toward a goal even when we have to wade through a lot of uncertainty.

These two skills are tied to resilience because they allow us to see past obstacles and find a path forward. These are important skills that we hone our entire lives, but there are simple ways to practice them, even with young children.

The following is one of my favorite games to play with my daughter. We started playing this game when she was four, and it gave us an opportunity to talk about flexible thinking and tolerating ambiguity in a way that made sense to her. It also allowed us to practice these skills in a way that was fun and visual.

The Game

We call the game Add to It. It is a collaborative drawing game with three rules:

  1. Draw one line or shape at a time.

  2. Do not to talk about it with your partner.

  3. No erasing or crossing out the other person’s additions.

One person starts by thinking of a picture to draw and draws the first line, mark, or shape. So, for example, if she thinks of a bird, she might draw a circle for the head.

Without discussing it, the second person looks at the shape and thinks of something creative to draw, using the figure that has been marked on the paper. Perhaps the second person will look at the circle and decide to make it a doughnut by putting a circle in the middle.

The first person now has to shift her thinking. Perhaps a bird doesn’t make sense to her anymore; she sees a large eye, so she draw eyelashes. (I don’t get picky about the “one line” rule, as long as it’s one idea being drawn each turn.)

With those lines added, the second person shifts their thinking from a donut to a sun and adds the rest of the rays around the sun.

Eventually, either my daughter or I will say, “Okay, let’s talk about it,” and we’ll share our thinking and how it changed throughout the game.

How This Game Develops Creative Skills

Because of the no-talking rule, you never know what the other person is going to draw. Sometimes this causes frustration as they “ruin” your idea of the picture, but because tolerating that ambiguity is the point of the game, it’s easier to work through it. The flexible thinking comes in, of course, as you constantly shift your perspective to continue adding to the picture, and to make sense of unexpected adaptations.

This game is also great practice in “not-easy” collaboration. The no-talking rule forces a bit of a struggle into the collaborative exercise, and requires the partners to:

  • Trust each other

  • Accept each other’s ideas

  • Find a way forward together despite differences

It requires empathy and implicit communication. Each partner in this game receives the messages, “Your ideas matter,” “You are an equal partner in this,” and “What you add is valuable.”

The Outcome

This game always feels special because together you create something that neither of you had any idea you were going to make when you started. It is exciting to be able to switch your thinking and come up with something completely new. It gives you little “Aha!” moments of insight throughout the game. And, at least for me, the feeling I get going into this game is different than when I sit down to draw something specific. It’s an openness that prepares me for tolerating ambiguity in life when I’m dealt an unexpected card.

Now that my daughter and I have been playing this game for a while, we consider our most successful rounds the ones where we each shift our thinking many times. And as she gets older, I will have memories of our experiences with this game to remind her of how creative and resilient she is.


Sara Smith is an educator, learner, and creativity consultant for FableVision Learning. She holds a Master of Science in creativity from the International Center for Studies in Creativity at SUNY College at Buffalo. Sara is compelled by learning and its intersection with creativity, and her vision is to develop and support creative communities that help people to grow and to nurture their passions and strengths.

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