Can Inventiveness Be Taught?

Can Inventiveness Be Taught?

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Updated on Jun 1, 2014

Is the ability to invent an inborn trait, or the result of a particular kind of parenting? What makes a child develop into an Marie Curie or a Thomas Edison?

While nothing can guarantee you'll raise the next Da Vinci, there is a definite connection between the playfulness required for invention and the inventive side of play, according to Monica M. Smith, Exhibition Program Manager for the Smithsonian Institution's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History.

Inventiveness means more than creating tomorrow's coolest cell phone or other gadget. It's a set of mental and hands-on skills, skills like creative and critical thinking, problem-solving, tinkering, flexibility, risk-taking, collaboration, and communication-- that can help lead to great success in life, whether a child becomes an inventor, or a restaurant owner. And inventive people often credit their parents for providing the environment and encouragement to develop those habits, Smith says.

While there's no clear set of traits all inventors share, there are a few qualities they tend to have in common. Curiosity, persistence, imagination, and improvisation are the cornerstones of the inventor's toolkit. And "mistakes" are often their most important ingredient. The Post-it Note, for example, was the result of a super-glue gone wrong-- instead of making a super strong adhesive, 3M's Spencer Silver made a super weak one. When his colleague, Art Fry, got frustrated with the fact that his paper bookmark kept falling out of his book, he realized a little not-that-sticky adhesive added to the back of the paper would be the perfect solution, and the idea for Post-its was born. It takes a certain kind of mind to look at a problem and a mistake and join them together to create something new. And unfortunately, that sort of experimental thinking is often squashed in childhood.

"When we ask a group of young kids "Are you inventive?" almost all of them will immediately raise their hands," Smith says. "When we pose the same question to a group of teens or adults, they are reluctant to respond." Why the gap? Because in today's fast-paced world, childhood often means being shuttled from activity to activity with the aim of enrichment, rather than free time and "open-ended, hands-on, sometimes messy activities", Smith says. "There is too much educational emphasis on taking tests and coming up with the "right answer"; failure is seen as bad rather than as a learning opportunity, so risk-taking is not fostered."

According to Smith, anyone can be inventive, given the right circumstances and the right encouragement. Want to help your child cultivate that quality? Good news: at the heart of inventiveness is play! Here are four tips, care of the people behind the Lemelson Center’s Invention at Play Exhibition:

Encourage Exploratory Play. Touching, patting, banging, pouring, tasting, looking, listening, tinkering, pulling apart, putting together, getting to know tools and materials – these are some of the many ways that children explore and experiment by playing. Through these activities, done with increased skill over the years, children learn the physical properties of various materials, begin to count and measure, recognize shapes and patterns, develop language and motor skills, and begin to make sense of the world around them. Many inventors seem to retain the curiosity they had as children. Their mastery of their craft may be based on a field of study, but more often than not it also comes from constantly exploring and experimenting with their tools and materials. Inventors are always asking “What if I tried this? What if we did it that way?” You can encourage this quality in your child by putting a new spin on an age-old challenge: building a tower of blocks. Instead of building on the floor, or another steady surface, rest a tabletop on a wobbly hemisphere. Suddenly, you've got a complex problem involving balance, center of gravity, weight, structure, and height-- a problem ripe for family collaboration! Families should try until their towers reach a satisfactory height; each toppling brings experience that informs refinements of an initial idea. Use LEGO bricks, children’s blocks, etc. for stacking.

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