Invention is an expression of the human desire to improve their surroundings in a fashion that makes living life easier. Even though they may not necessarily have the resources to follow through on their ideas, children have this same innate desire to invent. There are several simple activities children can do in order to come up with invention ideas.
What Are We Missing?
The basis of invention comes from someone identifying what we are missing and then following through by inventing something to fill that hole. While children may not necessarily be able to follow through on their ideas, you can have them engage in a thought exercise (either written or orally) in which they consider something difficult in their life. For example, maybe they don't like being too short to reach things or they want an automatic way to take their dog out for a walk, so they don't have to. The important part of this exercise is not necessarily them thinking of the invention itself, but what problems need fixing with an invention.
Combine Two Things
Sometimes invention is simply an "aha!" moment of combining two obvious things together--the Spork being a combination of a spoon and a fork. Additionally, combining two things together can be a simple activity for children to do; all you need is the two objects and some form of adhesive or tape. Again, the concept is more important than the practicality or the aesthetics of the invention. In order to start this activity, have children think about an activity that has two distinct parts that can be simplified into one--brushing your teeth and flossing--why not an invention that does both?
Children can also conceptualise--though not necessarily implement--inventions on a large scale. Much like the first activity, have them envision a global problem (such as hunger or poverty), but then imagine an invention that would cure the world of this ill. You can take it further and have them present it as a mini-presentation, having them include hand-drawn pictures of their invention. This idea has the dual function of also giving you an opportunity to provide the child with information on a global issue so that they can also begin to think about the world as a whole.
Many children may not think of food as being "invented," per se, but the reality is that a lot of food that they love are not natural, but created by human hands--for example, George Washington Carver and peanut butter. Thus, an invention activity for children can be thinking of fun and exciting ways to combine their favourite foods into something new. They can either do this on a conceptual level-- how would you grow this new type of food?--or hands-on in the kitchen.
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