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.

Promote Pretend Play. This sort of play is more than just an excuse to put on costumes, or play police, it develops imagination, language, problem-solving skills, and an understanding of symbolism, analogy, and metaphor. As they play with dolls or action figures, make up stories, become lions and tigers, or sail the seas in cardboard boxes, children are using and developing their imaginations. They begin to navigate with ease between the real and imaginary worlds while maintaining clear boundaries between what is real and what is fantasy. They are manipulating symbols and metaphors by substituting one object for another or creating a new object entirely. They are also learning how to imagine something and then give it concrete expression – through a story, a drawing, a play, or an object that they create or transform. This process in itself generates even more ideas. Child-development specialists see a strong connection between children’s levels of pretend or symbolic play and their ability to engage in divergent or creative thinking – to generate a variety of ideas and associations to solve a problem, come up with new ideas, free associate, and show fluidity and independence in thinking. Play along when your kids turn your mop into a witch's broomstick or an empty paper towel roll into a telescope. Give them stacks of recyclables, broken appliances, cardboard boxes, and other materials to use as props.

Take Notes! A common characteristic of inventors and other creative people is their ability to imagine, to think visually and spatially. Many inventors talk about the experience of seeing an invention whole in their mind’s eye before they even know if it will work or not. This kind of thinking requires knowledge of tools and materials. It also takes time and space for reflection – it could be on a walk, in the shower, or sitting in the subway. Many inventors featured in the exhibition talk about having a “dreaming place.” When asked to pick their favorite tool, inventors often choose a pencil or a notebook. That’s because a second common characteristic of inventors is that they capture their ideas. They draw them, write them down, build models and prototypes, or create simulations. It’s not enough to have dreams – you must capture and express them! Give your child an inventor’s notebook – a journal containing notes and jottings or a sketchbook or set of drawings. Or download the Lemelson Center’s Spark! Lab Inventor’s Notebook here.

Encourage Collaboration and Social Play. As children mature, they begin to interact more with other children. They learn about sharing and taking turns; about being in groups or on teams. They begin to understand that just because they know something does not mean that others know it too. They are learning to communicate, to say what they want to do or not do. This type of play is called “social play,” and it forms the basis for personal and social communication throughout life. In fact, communicating with others is an important part of the invention process. Brainstorming is a technique that many people use to get new ideas on the table. While an invention is being developed many inventors report discussing and testing it with family, friends, or colleagues. Inventors today often work as members of teams in laboratories or corporations. Learning to think out-of-the-box is an acquired skill-- it takes practice! To help children come up with ideas, allow them to brainstorm. Have them quickly list whatever ideas come into their minds, no matter how wild. When the ideas stop coming, have them pick the best ones and test them out. You can give children practice in brainstorming by asking them to think of different and unusual uses for a paper bag, a coat hanger, or a LEGO brick. Often when we ask children to brainstorm, we give everyone an opportunity to present an idea and then we move on to something else. Stretching ideas – and children’s minds – should involve keeping responses coming with a particular object, even if it means driving several more miles with your children in the car, as you expand their thinking skills.

Play with Patterns, Puzzles, and Problems. Have you ever watched a child use a cup for a hat? Or a hat for a bowl? Because they don’t necessarily know the accepted uses of many things, children invent their own. And often, even when they learn the “right” use, kids find new and imaginative ways to play with familiar things. At the same time that children are learning that hats go on heads and cups go on tables, they are also learning about other kinds of patterns and associations. Through play, they are learning that some things are “the same” and some things are “different”; they are learning about categories like “animal” that can contain many different kinds. They may even play with puzzles that have pieces that “fit” and “don’t fit.” As they grow and develop, children become increasingly sophisticated in recognizing and understanding categories, patterns, and associations. It is important for children to observe closely, to learn how things work and where things go. At the same time, child-development experts tell us that it is also essential for kids to explore and make mistakes, to value that which is “out of sync” as well as that which fits the mold. Through play, especially exploratory and pretend play, children can try out both making and breaking patterns. It is this facility with playing both inside and outside the box that develops good problem-solving skills. Inventors seem to be people who are always asking why things can’t be done a different way. Inventors often see associations and connections that aren’t obvious to others. A number of inventors featured in the Lemelson Center’s Invention at Play exhibition have modeled innovative technologies on patterns in nature. While some inventions come from finding new patterns, others come from breaking out of fixed sets and modes of thought. Experts who study creative problem solving say that an important obstacle to problem solving is a fixed set of assumptions or an unchanging approach. Often a radical rethinking or restructuring of a problem is needed before a solution can be found. Inventors report that sometimes this comes from working directly on the problem; at other times it comes from setting it aside and letting it “incubate.” Playing with puzzles, or matching activities helps children to use what they already know to solve a problem. As children grow older, find more open-ended puzzles and problems for them to solve, ones that require setting aside assumptions, breaking usual patterns, and finding new rules. For example, have your child take a handful of square LEGO bricks and build a circle or an arched or rounded bridge.

 

Who knows what your child will become someday. But whether she becomes a teacher, an entrepreneur, a firefighter, or an investment bank CEO, creativity, problem-solving, risk-taking, flexibility, and communication skills will serve her well. Being an inventor isn't just a job, it's a state-of-mind, a way of looking at mistakes or problems, and seeing solutions. No matter what life holds for her, that tool set is sure to come in handy.