As an early childhood classroom teacher, I was accustomed to parents asking similar questions about their children. Questions such as: How do I get my child to read more? How do I make my child’s handwriting neater? How can I help my child with math? However, it wasn’t until my 10th year as a teacher that I got this unusual, but very important question: How do I help my child invent? The parent had observed that her son loved tinkering with various household materials. Sometimes that tinkering would lead to inventing, which is also known as engineering when it solves a problem. It’s clearer to most parents how to encourage some behaviors, such as a love of reading, but they are often not as confident about fostering a love for creating. Here are some ways to nurture your child’s inner inventor!
No, you won’t need a 3D printer. What your child needs is a designated space and a set of materials to play with. Gathering these materials in one area makes them more accessible to the child. It also creates a safe space for them to know that these materials are expected to be broken, twisted, glued, and bent. Hang up a little sign on a small desk that reads your child’s name and “Maker’s Lab”, and fill it with paper towel tubes, yarn, tape, empty tissue boxes, rubber bands, coffee filters, empty egg cartons, and more.
It’s easy to forget that somebody invented every item around us. Learning about the people behind the inventions is a reminder of the human element involved in creativity and problem-solving. Children will also benefit from learning about diverse inventors so that they see themselves reflected in people they admire. Even learning about young inventors like George Nisson, who invented the trampoline at the age of 16, can plant the seed of what’s possible and has the child thinking, “Hey if they can do it, so can I!”
There is no limit to what a child thinks should be invented: robot dogs that clean rooms, mini pancake makers, a heated bathing suit. On long airplane rides, you might even hear children recommend teleporting. While a lot of these inventions might sound ridiculous, they still exercise a part of your child’s brain that tries to engineer a solution to a problem. “Imagineering” (imagining + engineering) still requires your child to go through many parts of the Engineering Design Process as they identify a problem and come up with a solution. So the next time your child is complaining about how things work, pose the question, "What would you invent to fix the problem?"
In a world of “Be Careful! You’ll break that!”, set some special time aside for “Break that!” Reverse engineering involves opening up and breaking down different things (old appliances, toys, pens) to get a better understanding of their inner workings and composition. Have an old smartphone that you no longer need? Take it apart with your child and explore what’s inside. There is so much more about the inventions in the world around us than meets the eye. This develops curiosity and a deeper understanding of how things around us work.