Let's Invent Something Together!

When you encourage creativity and problem-solving, you help your child develop skills that can be applied to everything she does.

By Ellen Booth Church




When Marla and her family moved to a new house, her two children, 6-year-old Jenny and 4-year-old Nicky, eagerly dragged some new appliance boxes into the backyard. The boxes attracted two of the neighbor's children, and all four began to play intently with the boxes. When Marla asked, "What are you going to do with these boxes?" the floodgates opened, and a multitude of ideas poured out: 

"We can use the boxes as drums!" said Jeff. 

"Let's jump in and out of them and play follow the leader," said Denise. 

"I know," said Nicky, "let's make them into houses for our animals." 

"Why don't we put the boxes together to make a castle for us to play in?" offered Jenny. 

As you can see, children approach the same materials and solve the same problems in different ways. The unique perspective of each child is what makes the process of inventing so awesome. In fact, children's inventions are an open window into their inner thought process and interests. Remember this when your child brings home that crazy, wonderful "invention" made of recycled materials. Recognize that it's the product of much thinking and experimenting, even though it might not look like anything that resembles art or science. 

It Takes All Kinds of Thinking
The ability to invent requires something that comes naturally to most young children: creativity and imagination. Creative thinking is an important life skill that can be applied to everything they do, especially to problem-solving, which is what inventing is all about. Memorizing information, such as letters and numbers, is necessary, but it's not what makes a child a "thinker." Instead, it's the ability to use this information in new and creative ways. It's important for your child to know what to do with the facts. She needs to know how to use what is there to create what is needed. 

The process of inventing invites your child to use both critical thinking and two kinds of creative thinking — fluent and flexible. 

  • Critical thinking is the ability to mentally break an idea or problem into parts.Sorting, comparing similarities and differences, and classifying are all common critical-thinking skills young children use. For example, when you ask him to compare blocks of different sizes in order to invent the strongest bridge, he is practicing critical-thinking skills.
  • Fluent thinking is the ability to brainstorm ideas. It can happen when your child is working with thoughts or hands-on materials. Thinking of all the different ways to get to school, or naming all of the things she can think of that are blue, are examples of fluent thinking.
  • Flexible thinking is the ability to see many possibilities, or view objects or situations in different ways. Young children are often masters of flexible thinking. They use it when they turn a flowerpot into a hat or a spoon into a microphone, or when they think of the many reasons why a child in a picture or story might be feeling sad.

How Does Your Child Invent?
Watch and listen as he explores a new material, and you will learn a great deal about him. Some children will be very organized as they explore the sizes and shapes of blocks, for example, while others will immediately use them in a dramatic-play scenario. All children will show you their interests, as well as their creative- and critical-thinking skills, when inventing. 

In fact, Dr. Howard Gardner, the Harvard educator who created the Multiple Intelligences theory, defines intelligence "as the capacity to solve problems or make things that are valued by a culture." Invention activities are one of the best ways to provide your child with the opportunity to use her unique intelligence. 

It's also interesting to note that boys and girls tend to approach inventing differently. While boys tend to be physically active, or "loud and large" in their inventions, girls tend to be more quiet and circumspect. Girls often pay more attention to detail in their creations, and focus more on interactions with others as they build. Of course, this is a generalization, but one that can be helpful in sparking and inspiring your child's inner inventor. 

Listen carefully for gender bias in discussions with your child, such as a comment that only boys are builders and girls are secretaries. Use such comments as an opportunity to discuss or read books about how both men and women build and invent. 

Supporting Your Child's Innovations
The first step toward encouraging your child's inventive spirit is to provide him with plenty of engaging materials. While he can take it from there, he also needs your continued attention, good questions, and narration to keep his ideas going. 

During invention activities you will play multiple roles. As an observer, it's important to watch, listen, and follow your child's lead with invention materials. Young children often have different (and better!) ideas for how to use or do things. 

As a supporter, you positively acknowledge your child's efforts. You support her when you specifically state what you see her doing: "Wow. Look at all the different ways you are using the boxes. Putting this smaller one on top was a good idea because it won't fall off." 

You can be a facilitator by asking a provocative question. The right question can propel your child into new ways of thinking. Open-ended questions invite him to think creatively and problem-solve. Try questions such as:

  • What do you think about this?
  • What should we try next?
  • How many ways can you use these [egg cartons, paper towel rolls, bags, etc.]?
  • How can we make this better?
  • What would happen if...?

Your child is always watching you. That is why it is also important to be a role model. As she observes you inventing and creating solutions, she sees a valuable example of how inventive thinking is a part of life. One way to help her see this process in action is to narrate your creative thinking out loud. For example, you might say: "I have an interesting problem. We ran out of paper for fingerpainting. What else do you think we could use to paint on?"

When you do this, you are modeling an attitude, as well as using and emphasizing vocabulary words such as think, problem, and wonder. Children will begin to use these words to describe their own creative-thinking process.

Making Time and Space for Invention
Time to explore and invent is critical. Young children deserve what the ancient Greeks calledtemenos: the sacred or protected time and space to do deep work. When your child has the time to think and tinker, all that he has learned can blossom into a meaningful application of his skills and understandings.

It is important to provide a safe haven to mess around with interesting stuff. One 4-year-old girl who was playing with some empty film canisters, pudding cups, tape, and paper created a tropical island village out of her materials. Instead of concentrating on a particular subject, like science or reading, an invention space invites your child to use many essential skills all at once in a creative way. The good news is that you don't need a great deal of extra space or expensive materials. Just setting aside a small corner or table with some interesting, recyclable materials will do just fine.

You can begin by creating an "Inventions-in-a-Box" kit that can be used any time, then stowed away when you need the space for something else. Rotate the items periodically so your child always has new materials to invent with. You might include:

  • Basic art and construction materials, such as child safety scissors, glue sticks, tape, tempera paints, ribbons, markers, crayons, and scraps. Soba glue works well with lots of different materials, as does plastic colored tape for attaching and reinforcing constructions. Masking tape is also easy for young children to work with. 
  • Construction paper and recycled materials organized in smaller boxes, labeled with their contents for easy searching.

Kick-Starting Inventions at Home
One of the most fulfilling aspects of making inventions with children is that it can be an exciting, collaborative experience for both of you. Children often think of things that don't occur to adults, such as giving a birdhouse a chimney made from a paper towel roll, or using some paper and ribbons to make a hat. Not only are they using creative- and critical-thinking skills when they have materials to experiment with, they are also building social and teamwork skills. During family downtime or on a playdate, pull out your Inventions-in-a-Box or try these starter ideas:

  • Offer a grab bag. Children love the surprise of finding "treasures" in a party grab bag. Prepare paper lunch or party bags filled with a variety of interesting scrap materials, including at least one item that can be used as a base (such as a tray) for the invention. Invite your child to consider: "What can you make with the things in your bag?"
  • Explore natural materials. What might she do with sunflowers, pinecones, dried flowers, and seedpods?
  • Take it apart. Inventing isn't just about building. It can also be about taking things apart. Offer discarded mechanical items for him to explore, such as old telephones, radios, or cell phones.
  • Shed some light. Provide reflecting materials to explore, such as unbreakable mirrors, aluminum foil, shiny trinkets, flashlights, and sunglasses.
  • Ask "How Many Ways?" Invite her to explore "how many ways" she can use a particular item, such as spools, plates, paper bags, plastic six-pack rings, or egg cartons.
  • Play with paper. Paper comes in so many interesting forms and textures. Collect a variety of paper products for your child to invent with, like cardboard tubes, plates, bags, cups, small boxes, greeting cards and wallpaper scraps.

Your child is using his own ways of thinking and inventing everyday; it's as natural as breathing to him. By supporting his innate style of invention, you are encouraging him to apply all the knowledge she has and will acquire in innovative ways. As Albert Einstein said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand."

Thinking Skills & Learning Styles
Problem Solving
Critical Thinking
Age 5
Age 4
Age 3
Extracurricular Activities
Creativity and Imagination
Problem Solving