SCAMPER revisited

SCAMPER: noun, to run playfully about…as a child; acronym, Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to another use, Eliminate, Rearrange

Bob Eberle was an educational administrator from Edwardsville, IL. In 1991 he developed SCAMPER, an educational tool designed to improve imagination and creativity in children. You can get the get the teachers resource kit here, it has some really cool stuff in it. Drawing on the work of Dr Frank E. Williams, Eberle set out to improve creative imagination in two ways:

  • Thinking – should be fluent (lots of ideas), flexible (ideas which can adapt), and elaborate (the ability to add detail to ideas)
  • Feelings – to develop curiosity, willingness to take calculated risks, preference for complexity, and intuition
Eberle noted that our schools seem to educate the creativity out of our children instead of into them. SCAMPER was designed to change that. Another great speaker on the problem of our schools educating the creativity out of our children is Sir Ken Robinson. His fantastic speech on the subject, ‘are our schools killing creativity?‘ can be found on TED here, and has been set to some quite exquisite animation here. I urge you to view these.
SCAMPER is still in use in a wide number of schools today, and has since been taken on by grown ups the world over as a generally useful creative thinking tool. This post will explain how it works, and how you can learn to use it better.
Playful Creativity

“Imaginative thought and expression require playing around with ideas, toying with responsibilities, and roaming around in the world of make-believe” Bob Eberle, Scamper, 1996

Based in large part on the Idea Spurring Checklist, a list of 83 questions by Alex Osborn the creator of brainstorming, SCAMPER is a simple acronym designed to direct creative exploration. Each letter (Substitute, Combine etc) indicates a creative thinking act to be performed on some attribute of the problem. SCAMPER has been widely written about with some of the best explanations here, and here.

Here’s my own pictorial representation, illustrating the creative challenges in designing a new house:

You can immediately see the idea fluency, with the number of alterations to our house. In order to develop our curiosity, flexibility and elaboration it is important to spend time with each idea. Taking each thought as an initial movement away from our normal thinking and towards creative thinking (different AND useful that is), we might take the adaptation of the tortoise shell for our traditional concept of roof in a number of ways. How can we grow our roof, or take it with us? What sort of natural materials would be this lightweight, strong and waterproof? How do tortoiseshells actually attach to their bodies and could we adapt this technology to our own homes?

The initial thoughts are silly. They are meant to be. It’s what we do with them that counts.

Getting back to the roots of the tool, you can find examples aimed at primary schools, secondary schools, both of which are designed to use Scamper as a means for developing this sense of creative imagination in children. You can even apply scamper to storytelling if you want to give the three little pigs a good working over.

SCAMPER for the imagination

In Scamper: creative games and activities for imaginative development, teachers are given a collection of resources with instructions on how to lead a number of highly visual activities designed to develop curiosity, idea fluency, flexibility and other aspects of creative imagination. Not having tried them myself, I imagine they are very powerful classroom tools.

When transferring this into an adult environment, we need a different set of resources. In a brainstorm or workshop situation these are usually called ice breakers. Here are a few ideation workshop exercises selected for their potential to foster the same thinking and feeling processes Eberle set out to develop with Scamper:

  • Word Throw– split the room into pairs. one person from each pair calls out a new random word every few seconds, the other weaves it into an improvised story. Start the room off with ‘one day I was out walking when…”. The exercise lasts around a minute before the pairs switch roles, so two minutes all up. It’s high energy, high brain engagement and will stimulate idea fluency, elaboration, intuition, and risk taking … taking from Eberle’s model. Note: throwing out random words is harder than it sounds!
  • Shattered Stories – sit around a table. Each person writes a sentence of a story and passes it to their left, adding to the story they have just received. When done simultaneously (e.g. one story per person, everyone writing simultaneously) imaginations are stretched having to rapidly switch from one story to the next. The exercise can be done in 5 minutes, and will stimulate fluency, flexibility, and elaboration.
  • Sketch and Project – done in pairs, one sketching/questioning the other talking. The sketcher draws a simple story scene e.g. a person in a boat. The talker then imagines themselves as the main character, describing what’s going on. the sketcher now becomes questioner and prompts the talker to look around observing their surroundings. A progressively detailed story develops. The exercise should take about 5 minutes and will develop curiosity, intuition, elaboration, flexibility and fluency
Thanks to Amantha Imber of Inventium for Word Throw. I made up the other two based on similar exercises I’ve heard about. On an individual level, Urban Monk has some great exercises to boost your powers of visualisation.

Not to be confused with

Scamper, a fictional character and the partner of Metroplex in the Transformers universe


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