Spontaneous Problem Solving

This post is an excerpt from the Odyssey of the Mind Spontaneous Problem Guide. Download Spontaneous Problem Overview/Guide

Spontaneous Problems break down into three categories

1. Hands On
2. Verbal
3. Verbal Hands On


In a Verbal spontaneous problem, the team is given a brainstorming-type problem to solve in a specific amount of time and scored according to he number and creativity of responses generated. The order in which members respond is usually random, and a higher point value is awarded for a creative answer than a common one.


  • Name uses for a jack-o-lantern after Halloween.
  • Name things that are opposites.
  • In what ways are a cloud and a spoon alike?
  • If I were about to be operated on, I would not like to hear ____.

Hands On Verbal

In a problem that is Hands-on Verbal, team members are usually presented with an object, and asked to suggest or demonstrate its uses. The object is passed from person to person as they generate answers. Like Verbal problems, points are scored not only for the quantity of answers in a given amount of time, but also for the creativity of those answers.


  • Here are two paper plates. Tell or show how they could be used, or what they remind you of.
  • Take this cereal box, and tell us something we didn’t already know about it.
  • Create a creature out of toothpicks and marshmallows, and say something clever about it.

Hands On

In a Hands-on spontaneous problem, the team is given a task to perform in a short period of time. This task is non-linguistic in nature, that is, points are not awarded for what is said, but rather for what is accomplished. Teamwork figures heavily in the scoring, as do ingenuity and technical success in completing the task.


  • Using only an envelope, a mailing label, and a rubber band, the team must use them to stretch the farthest distance possible.
  • The team is given a length of yarn and a basketball.Without cutting the yarn, they must devise a means of carrying the basketball fifteen feet without touching the ball with their hands.
  • The team is given an assortment of everyday items and told to create a vehicle that will travel between two points.

Too Busy For Spontaneous Practice? Think Again!
It is common for new coaches to have their teams concentrate on the solution to the Long Term problem and put the preparation for the Spontaneous competition on hold. These same coaches are often surprised to find that, while their Long Term scores were about the same as other teams’, the scores for the Spontaneous problem were vastly different. “If it hadn’t been for Spontaneous,” they lament, “we would have had a shot at going to the State Tournament.”

In fact, rather than the Long Term scores, it is most often the difference in teams’ Spontaneous scores that determines -which teams move on to the next level of competition.

The abilities to solve problems as they arise, to brainstorm, and to modify the ideas of others without criticism are useful and important tools in themselves. These skills should not be taught and practiced strictly for the sake of the competition:However, as new coaches approaching the date of the Regional Tournament, we often ignore the fact that it is an important part of the Odyssey of the Mind competition. As such, we really need to prepare the kids for it.

As the time for the Regional Tournament approaches, the list of things that need to be done on the Long Term problem may tempt you to forego regular Spontaneous practice. All coaches run into this dilemma at some time, and some have found ways to solve it.

  • Some co-coaches designate one coach as the Spontaneous coach, and one the Long Term coach. That way neither one becomes overwhelmed, and the kids work on both with good results.
  • Some teams begin the season with two regular weekly meetings: one is always devoted to Spontaneous, and one is always on Long Term. Additional meetings are eventually added to work on the Long Term, but the Spontaneous meeting remains a fixture on the weekly schedule.
  • Some teams practice Spontaneous one or more times per week before school in the morning. That way afternoon and evening meetings can be exclusively devoted to the Long Term problem.

The point is, there are ways to continue to work on Spontaneous without sacrificing work on the Long Term and vice versa. It just needs to be seen as a priority throughout the process.


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