As children leave the classroom on the way to the playground, they spy a collection of huge appliance boxes in the hall. You can feel the excitement in the air as the children examine me size and shape of their finds. When the teacher asks, "What can we do with these boxes?" the floodgates spring open and a multitude of ideas pour out. Children's individual interests and learning styles are reflected in each of their ideas.

"We can use the boxes as drums!" says Jeff, a musical thinker. He immediately starts tapping on the different-size boxes, turning them into quite a rhythm section.

"I want to jump in and out of the boxes. Let's put them in a line and play follow the leader," says Denise, a kinesthetic thinker. She likes to use her body to solve problems and express ideas.

"We could tell the story of 'The Three Bears!' See, this box can be Papa's bed, this one is Mama's, and this little one is for Baby Bear," says Rich, a linguistic thinker. His easy use of language and ability to tell and appreciate stories helps him to see a story within the boxes.

Back in the classroom, the children's teacher gathers the group together to talk about all the ideas and choose some to do. Collecting children's suggestions on chart paper, she validates each child's ideas by putting them in writing. After much discussion and more brainstorming, it is decided that the class wants to use the biggest box to create a "book house" in the library corner and the others to make a "box obstacle course" out on the playground. The group also decides that they really need more boxes to be able to do everything that was suggested.

Explore Learning Styles

The creator of the Multiple Intelligences theory, Dr. Howard Gardner, has said, "I define an intelligence as the capacity to solve problems or make things that are valued by a culture." Classroom invention activities are one of the best ways to provide children with opportunities to use their varied intelligences to do just that!

As you can see by the above story, children approach the same product and project in many different ways. That is part of the joy of doing invention-type activities with children. Inventions are an open window into children's thinking processes and interests. Watch and listen as children explore new materials and you will learn a great deal about them. Some children will be very organized as they explore the sizes and shapes of the boxes, while others will use them in a dramatic-play scenario. All children will show you their interests as well as their creative- and critical-thinking skills and problem-solving abilities. These are all essential skills for mastery in any curriculum area as well as in life.

Consider Your Role

To get your "inventors" going, present children with engaging materials and set the stage for creating. They can take it from there. Of course, you still play an important role. Children need your continued attention and carefully considered questions to keep them moving forward with their projects. During these invention activities, you play a many faceted role-as observer, supporter, facilitator, and model.

As observer: It's important to watch, listen, and follow children's lead with invention materials. They often have different (and better) ideas for how to use or do things.

As supporter: You can support children by positively acknowledging their efforts. Offer support by specifically stating what it is you notice that they are doing. "Look at all the different ways you are using the boxes! Putting this smaller one on top of the other was a good idea because it won't fall off."

As facilitator: By asking just the right question when children are engaged in inventing, you can propel children into new ways of thinking. Open-ended questions invite children to think creatively and problem-solve. Try questions such as:

  • "What do you think?"
  • "What should we try?"
  • "How many ways can you_____?"
  • "How can we make it better?"
  • "What do you think will happen next?"
  • "What would happen if__?"


As model: Whether or not you are aware of it, children are always watching you. That is why it is also important to be a "model inventor" for children. As they observe you inventing and problem-solving, they see a valuable example of how inventive thinking is a part of life. One way to do this is to narrate your creative thinking for children to hear. For example, you might say, "I have an interesting problem. We ran out of fingerpaint paper. I wonder what else we could use to paint on today?" Using everyday situations, you are modeling an attitude as well as process for creative thinking. In addition, you are also using and emphasizing important creative-thinking vocabulary words such as think, problem, and wonder. Children will begin to use these words to describe their own creative-thinking processes.

Give It Time!

Time to explore and invent is important. Children can't invent in a 20-minute free-play segment. Young children deserve what the ancient Greeks called temenos, the sacred, or protected, space and time to do deep work. You can do this by honoring children's inventions as the important work that supports their learning in all curriculum areas. Inventing is not something that is separate from your curriculum and identified learning standards. It is actually a place where all the standards and curricula come together and are given a place to bloom. It is an opportunity for the meaningful application of skills and understandings.

Build Thinking Skills

Creative thinking is a life skill, one that children can joyfully apply to everything they do for the rest of their lives. As you know, memorizing content information, such as the names of the colors, letters, and numbers, is not what makes a child a "thinker." It is the ability to use information in new ways that helps children truly understand the content. It is the ability to think, learn, and experiment with objects, language, and each other that propels children to achieve. In an ever-changing world, children need to know how to use "what is there" to create "what is needed."

Invention activities invite children to use three types of thinking: critical, fluent, and flexible.

Critical thinking is the ability to break down an idea or problem into its parts. By looking at the pieces of a problem, it becomes easier for children to solve it. Sorting, comparing similarities and differences, and classifying are all common critical-thinking processes young children use. For example, when you ask children to compare different-sized boxes to invent the strongest bridge, they are practicing critical-thinking skills.

Fluent thinking is the ability to generate or brainstorm ideas. It can happen when children are working with their own thoughts as well as with hands-on materials. Thinking of all the different ways to get to school or naming all the things you 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 might be feeling sad.

Think Outside the Box

One of the most fulfilling aspects of creating inventions with children is the way this type of activity brings the group together in an exciting collaborative experience. Children learn a great deal from the process of listening to and respecting each other's ideas. Not only are they using creative- and critical-thinking skills, they are also building social-emotional and teamwork skills. Important turn-taking and sharing skills are also strengthened in the process. You can kick off a group invention project with a collective junk invention activity.

  • Bring a collection of recycled materials to group time.
  • Ask children to brainstorm ideas for ways to use the different materials.
  • Ask thought-provoking questions to spur on creative thinking, such as, "What should we use as a base? How will we attach the materials?"
  • Record children's ideas on chart paper.
  • Discuss the ideas and collectively vote on a way to start inventing.
  • Invite small groups of children to work on the invention throughout the day or week.
  • As it grows and takes form, invite children to suggest what the invention could be or do.


Create an "Invention Center"

A classroom invention center is not standard in early childhood programs, but I think it should be! It's the perfect place for children to explore and practice critical and creative thinking. Why do you need a special center for inventions and problem-solving when it happens all around your room? The advantage to having a special invention center area is that it focuses on the process of problem-solving and gives children a place to explore materials using their individual interests, intelligences, and skills. Perhaps of all of your classroom centers, the inventions center is the most open-ended. At a time when programs are being asked to be more accountable and focus on specific learning content and skills, it's important to provide children with a safe haven and the freedom to experiment with interesting stuff! Instead of concentrating on a particular topic or skill such as science, language, reading, or math, this center brings together many curriculum areas and invites children to use essential processing and thinking skills.

It is important to note that you don't need a great deal of extra space, expensive materials or even time in your day to create and use an invention center. Consider setting up an invention center for just a few weeks at first. Eventually, you might want to consider it as a permanent fixture in your room.

Try Another Approach

You can also begin by creating an "inventions box" that can be used whenever you want to focus on inventions and put away when you need the space for something else. You can pass out an inventions box to a team of young inventors and see what they can create together. Here's how to create such a box (the directions below can also be used for organizing a permanent inventions center):

  • Use a large plastic storage bin with a lid.
  • Stock the bin with smaller bins or shoeboxes containing: basic art and construction materials (be sure to include scissors, glue sticks, tape, and scrap and construction paper) and interesting recycled materials.
  • Label each box with a different shape, sticker, number, or letter. This way, children can find the items they want without needing to dig through a box of tangled scrap materials.
  • Rotate the items periodically so children always have new surprises to invent with.


Add Task Cards

Your inventions center can become even more exciting and challenging when you give older children (4-, 5and 6-year-olds) problem-solving task cards to use with the materials in the inventions center. The symbols you used to label the different boxes of materials come in handy here. Present a problem by drawing a series of symbols on an index card in an equation format. For example, a problem-solving task card using numbered boxes might say, using drawings, "Use items from box 1 + box 4 + box 7 to make a car." Children can "read" the problem on the card, think about how to solve the invention problem, find the materials they need, and start inventing!

Create Themes

You can focus and expand learning just by creating a theme for your inventions. Remember that inventions can also be just as much about taking apart as building. Here are a few ideas to try:

Grab Bag Inventions: Children love the surprise of finding "treasures" in a party grab bag. You can use this approach to creating excitement for inventions. Prepare paper lunch or party bags filled with a variety of interesting scrap materials, including at least one item in each bag that can be used as a base for the invention (such as a heavy piece of paper or a tray). Pass out the grab bags and invite children to consider, "What can you make with the things in your bag?"

Nature Box: Provide natural items to explore and take apart, such as sunflowers, pinecones, dried flowers and grasses, and seed pods.

Machines Box: Collect discarded mechanical items to take apart, like old telephones, radios, and cell phones.

Reflections Box: Offer unbreakable mirrors, aluminum foil, shiny items, flashlights, and sunglasses.

"How Many Ways" Box: Invite children to explore "how many ways" they can use a particular type of item. Choose from spools, plates, paper bags, plastic six-pack rings, or egg cartons.

Paper Box: Paper comes in so many interesting forms. Collect a variety of paper products-such as tubes, plates, bags, cups, small boxes, greeting cards, and wallpaper scraps-for children to invent with.

Take Time to Share

Plan a variety of ways for children to share their inventions with others:

Create a museum area where children can display their creations. Provide 5'' x 8'' cards that children can use to write or dictate a title or story about their inventions. How do they work? What do they do?

Invite children to draw pictures in your writing or art center to show how they created their inventions.

Provide a tape recorder so children can interview each other about their inventions.

Hold an inventions group time periodically. Children can demonstrate their inventions to the group.

Involving everyone, including children, school staff, and the greater community, in inventions projects can energize your program, while supporting growth in all aspects of children's development.