The Philosophy Behind the Mystery Box Challenge

The Children’s Creativity Museum (CCM)’s mission is to help visitors build creative confidence. To accomplish this mission, CCM builds its programs and exhibits upon its “creative pillars.” The Mystery Box Challenge (MBC) beautifully combines several of these pillars: twenty percent inspiration, constraints, and process over product, just to name a few. We have brought the MBC to outreach events, school classrooms, and even to the Children’s Art Museum in Kathmandu, Nepal. Now, you can bring the MBC to your home!


One of the beautiful things about Mystery Boxes is that you can put just about anything in them. The MBC is therefore quite doable on a limited budget and is a great way to recycle and/or reduce trash anxiety. The box itself doesn’t even have to be a box; it could be a bag or any kind of container opaque enough to hide its contents. We like to use scissors and tape and 8-10 of any of these other objects:

  • Paper

  • Cardboard

  • Fabric

  • Ribbon

  • Old CDs

  • Packing peanuts

  • Styrofoam

  • Twist ties

  • Corks

  • Cardboard tubes

  • Empty tape rolls

  • Bottle caps

  • Pop tops

  • Plastic bottles

  • Puzzle pieces

  •  Straws

  • Coffee stirrers

  • Plastic cutlery

  • Plastic bottle wrappers

  • String

  • Any kind of scrap plastic

  • Popsicle sticks

  • Plastic or paper cups

  • Rubber bands


How constraints factor into the MBC is obvious: you can only use the stuff in the box. But how do constraints make us more creative? For one thing, they liberate us from perfection. If you have a limited number of materials to work with, you know from the get-­go that your earthquake ­stopping robot is not going to exactly match the image you have of it in your head. Instead, the few materials you have become charged with possibility. What could a pipe cleaner be? An antenna? A lasso? A laser beam? And what could it be if you attached a popsicle stick to it? In short, constraints force us to forget about what we don’t have and to think critically about what we do have. Sound familiar?

Process Over Product

Because constraints reduce the need for perfection, the physical objects that participants create is not the most important part of the MBC. What is important instead is the process of creating these objects. What was the inspiration for the creation? What connections did participants make when brainstorming? What challenges did they face? What would happen if a giant eagle attacked the parachute they built? The purpose of the MBC is to think, and the thoughts behind a MBC creation are far more precious than the creation itself.

How to Fill a Mystery Box

One of the beautiful things about Mystery Boxes is that you can put just about anything in them. The MBC is therefore quite doable on a limited budget and is a great way to recycle and/or reduce trash anxiety. The box itself doesn’t even have to be a box; it could be a bag or any kind of container opaque enough to hide its contents.

Building Prompts

The building prompt should be just as much of a surprise as the building materials, so make sure that participants do not see their prompt ahead of time. We recommend writing several prompts out on cards or slips of paper so that participants can choose a prompt at random. This will make the prompt selection more fun and will also ensure that you have extra prompts on hand in case some participants finish early (or if everyone wants to do a second challenge!).

CCM scaffolds its challenge prompts roughly by age:

– For participants ages two to three, the prompts ask participants to build a simple object, such as “a star” or “a hat.”
– The prompts for ages four to five ask participants to build an object or simple character, such as “a hat for a crab” or “a best friend for a unicorn.”
– The prompts for ages six to seven are more situational and include challenges such as “a way to collect water in the desert” or “a fly catcher for a frog who has lost his tongue.”
– Participants ages eight and older have the opportunity to pursue our most complicated challenges. Examples include, “You are Big Foot. You have remained hidden from the world for many years, but now people are close to discovering your hiding place. Create something to keep the people away from your secret world.”

Your Role as a Facilitator

1) The first thing to consider is what type of facilitator you wish to be. Traditionally, the MBC facilitator does not participate in the building challenge but acts a mentor or coach. As a facilitator in this capacity, your job is to help the participants’ creativity shine. One way that you can kick­start participants’ critical thinking skills is by designing the constraints of their challenge, which is a fancy way of saying that you are responsible for preparing the building prompts and the contents of the Mystery Box. You are also responsible for explaining how the challenge works and ensuring that the both the building prompts and the building materials are a surprise for participants.

2) Participants should choose a building prompt first and then receive their Mystery Box.
Once participants have opened their boxes, they should not be allowed to exchange their boxes or building prompts for new ones. Remember, part of critical thinking is making connections between seemingly unrelated things, so participants will need to find a way to connect their prompt to the items in their box.

3) Once participants have their prompts and materials, take a step back and let their ideas flow.
In some cases, literal steps back are even better, especially if you are working with youth; removing yourself from the creative space might relieve some of the pressure to get approval from an adult. It might be tempting to join in on the brainstorming and building, but remember that this is the participants’ creation (you can work on your own another time).

4) How to step back.
So once you’ve sent the participants off with their supplies, your job is to sit and wait for them to show you their creations, right? In theory, yes, but when have theory and practice ever perfectly aligned in your life? Most likely, you will need to step in at some point and provide some encouragement or mediate a dispute. The MBC is hard, and it might be overwhelming to someone who has never worked with these sorts of constraints before. It can also be difficult for a die­hard perfectionist to grasp the concept of process over product. Try asking questions like, “What else could this object be” or “What does this object look like to you.”

Go ­Beyond Questions

They’ve done it! Your participants have created something super nifty out of only a few surprise materials. Their challenge is over. Not so! As a facilitator, your role is to lead participants beyond the construction stage of MBC and into the equally important explanation stage. Remember, the purpose of the MBC is to get participants to think, and asking participants to explain their creations to you and/or to each other keeps them thinking even after they’ve put down their tape and scissors. A great way to start the explanation stage is to simply say, “Tell me about your creation” and let participants take things from there. After that, follow up with some open ­ended questions. Avoid yes/no questions and questions that require an either/or response. Not sure what to ask? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Point to part of the creation and say, “Tell me (more) about this part.” This prompt works well as an icebreaker with shy participants.
  • “What if…” This is a great question to help participants think on their feet. For example, if participants have built an ice cream­-powered rocket ship, you could ask what happens when the ice cream starts to melt. If they have built a playground for fish, you could ask what happens when a shark comes.
  • If participants have created some sort of device, you could ask:
    •  How many people can use it at one time?
    • How long does it take to accomplish its task?
    • What is the power source?
  • If participants have created some sort of character (animal, robot, alien, etc.), you could ask:
    • What is its name?
    • What does it like to do?
    • What does it eat?

Wrap-­up Questions

When everyone has run out of go­ beyond questions, it’s probably a good idea to have a wrap­ up discussion about this Mystery Box thing. Here are some suggested questions to spark conversation:
1) What did you like about this activity?
2) What was challenging? Why?
3) What can we learn from the Mystery Box Challenge?
4) How can we apply what we learned (to this cool project that we’re working on)?

Share with us

If you’ve completed a mystery box challenge at home make sure to @ us on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter so that our educators can ask questions!