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Invention at Play

Page history last edited by danielac@thomas.org.br 5 years, 4 months ago

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This program was inspired by the exhibit Invention at Play and it aims at looking at invention in an innovative way and encourage visitors to make connections between their own lives and abilities and those of inventors. The program brings a fresh perspective to the topic of invention, exploring the marked similarities between the ways children play and the creative processes used by innovators in science and technology.


Tips on how to run the program

You might choose some of the suggestions on this page to run short extracurricular activities in common areas around school, or you might put some of the ideas together to build a narrative about invention and offer the community a longer program.


How do You Describe Play?

Input from the Smithsonian - Play a video called How Do You Describe Play, but before students watch it, ask them to add their ideas to a mind-map. For the brainstorming phase, you could use apps like popplet or write their ideas on glasswindows using DIY glass paint. http://www.manualdomundo.com.br/2013/04/como-fazer-em-casa-tinta-que-escreve-em-vidro/

Hands-on Have a toy making hands on task as follow-up and motivate students to share their inventions on the school's social media platforms using a hashtag.



Make a card board contraption

Resultado de imagem para cardboard contraptions

Make a card board toy


Recognize the unusual!

Input from the Smithsonian - Make a very visual video telling the stories of two inventors who could recognize the unusual and create good product out of their 'mistakes'.

Art Fry - post-it notes - http://invention.si.edu/art-fry-post-it-note-inventor

Stephanie Kwolek - Kevtar - http://invention.si.edu/stephanie-kwolek-kevlar-inventor

Hands-on - What can you invent from a bag of junk? Place the same set of objects––inventive play stuff (see examples below)–– in individual paper bags. Distribute to each person. See how many different ideas can come from the same junk.


Here are some  familiar materials that can spark play and invention that you might put in the bags:

Broken equipment to take apart and put back together (cut off all cords!)

Tools: screwdrivers, pliers, hammers

Cool trash: egg cartons, Bubble Wrap, huge appliance boxes, tiny jewelry boxes, and every kind in between Watering devices: turkey baster, squeeze and spray bottles, funnel, hoses, straws, pitchers and bowls

Small stuff: bottle caps, toothpicks, screws, thread, safe sewing needles

Things that roll: marbles, dowels, toy wheels, paper towel and toilet paper rolls, balls, beads, old trike and bike tires Sticky, attaching stuff: magnets, clay, glue, tape, paper clips, sponges

Building materials: blocks, wood scraps, tiles, plastic wrap, Popsicle sticks, wire, clay

Nature stuff: rocks, shells, leaves, sticks, sand, dirt, water, snow, ice Supervised stuff: nails, tacks, scissors, pins, glue gun

Paper and fabric: cardboard, tissue and typing paper, poster board, felt, old towels, muslin Safety goggles or old glasses


Borrow from Nature

Input from the Smithsonian -  Make a short and visually appealing video or banner  with information about  inventors who have modeled innovative technologies on patterns in nature.

Alexander Graham Bell - Telephone - http://invention.si.edu/sites/default/files/IAP%20Family%20Guide%20-%20English.pdf

James McLurkin - Robotic Ants - http://invention.si.edu/sites/default/files/IAP%20Family%20Guide%20-%20English.pdf

Paul MacCready - http://invention.si.edu/sites/default/files/IAP%20Educators%20Manual.pdf

Hands-on -  Make a tube telephone - http://babbledabbledo.com/simple-engineering-project-diy-voicepipe/

Materials needed: • old garden hose • pairs of plastic funnels • penknife

Directions: Cut up old garden hose in pieces as long or short as you want them to be. Push a funnel into each end (after cutting off the metal couplings from the ends of the hose). The tube telephone can have many twists and turns. Talk to a friend by speaking into the funnel at your end and listen to your friend by holding the funnel to your ear. Change the distance between the telephones and see if the distance affects sound and clarity. What happens when the “line” goes limp? Does that affect sound? 

Instead of the 'ol cup and string try making a telephone out of tubing and funnels. Simple engineering project for kids exploring the sense of sound.


Hands-on - Nature Matching Game

Display pictures of the following: burrs, gourds, leaves, thorny plants, spruce trees, Venus flytraps, tomato worms, milkweeds, silkworms, and thunderstorms. Also ask participants to collect and bring in samples from nature. Next, provide the following list to the students and have them try to match from the list human inventions inspired by the pictures and samples.




Baby rattle

Paper money



Barbed wire


Chewing gum


Bear trap



Flexible pressurized suit


 Powder puff



Sound and light show 

Jump the Tracks

Input from the Smithsonian - Make a video or banner with information from inventors who   “jump the tracks” or “think outside the box” by breaking patterns and finding new connections. 

James McLurkin - http://invention.si.edu/innovative-lives-question-everything-and-never-give-story-inventor-james-mclurkin

Chuck Hoberman -  http://invention.si.edu/sites/default/files/IAP%20Educators%20Manual.pdf


Hands-on -  “De-engineering” 

One of James McLurkin’s favorite activities as a child was "de-engineering." Even today he collects parts, gears and motors that help him in prototyping his robots. By taking apart toys, appliances, and other mechanical products, children learn how they work. Today’s youngsters often have no idea how simple machines, or the technologies behind the inventions they use, operate. By engaging in de-engineering activities, they can often bridge this gap. This activity will help students better understand how things work when they are given an opportunity to take things apart.

Materials needed:

safety goggles;

screwdrivers (both regular and Phillips),

pliers, broken equipment––radios, irons, clocks, etc. (note: please remove the plugs before giving the appliances to students);journals

Directions: Working with a partner and wearing safety goggles, students should carefully take the piece of equipment apart, recording interesting facts in their journals. Students can also identify the parts they find and describe the function of each. A summary of how the equipment works can be written, giving what the students found as they “de-engineered” their piece.


Keep Making It Better 

Input from the Smithsonian - Make a video or banner about Inventors, like children at play, who are persistent and curious. Stress in the material that these inventors  keep trying, sometimes over a period of years, to improve their inventions and how they have to overcome numerous obstacles to perfect their work.

Newman Darby - http://invention.si.edu/s-newman-darby-windsurfing-collection-1944-1998

Sally Fox - http://invention.si.edu/innovative-lives-sally-fox-colorful-cottons

Krysta Morlan - http://invention.si.edu/krysta-morlan-waterbike-inventor



Hands-on - Clay Boats 

While doing this activity, ask students to think about Newman Darby’s quest to reach his island. Through trial and error, they will be reproducing many of the same processes that he went through to build and perfect his sailboards and boats. This activity can be done using buckets and bowls indoors, but is more fun done outdoors in a small stream. It explores the properties of buoyancy and hydrodynamics in boatbuilding and encourages students to experiment with different sizes, shapes, and compositions of materials before selecting their best design. 

Materials needed:


Paper clips

Small weights

Containers of water or a small plastic pool set up outside and filled with water


Students will experiment to discover how an object that might ordinarily sink in water—such as a lump of clay—can be made to float. Through the shaping of

the clay in various ways, children will find that some designs float better than others. They can then load their boats with common classroom objects or small uniform weights to find out how much “cargo” the boats can carry and which designs support the most weight. This activity can be extended by experiments with plastic cups, aluminum foil, and other materials to test ideas about

buoyancy. All observations should be recorded with the use of graphs.


Hands-on - Sink or Float?

Students should guess whether materials on the table will sink or float.



Hands-on - Catapult Challenge


Invention is a Process

Input from the Smithsonian - Make a video or banner exploring the work of SpakLab  at Lemerson Center.




Hands on - Make an electric car


Groups of participants should get the necessary materials to make a project. Their goal is to work collaboratively to make their project work, and record a tutorial in English about it.


Hands on - Pasta Concept Cars

Students get in groups and use tape, different types of pasta, and colored paper. Participants engage in an invention process to build a prototype car.


pasta concept car


Hands on - Make a brushbot



Hands on -Make your own dark vision glasses



Hands on - Make your Own Projector



Hands on - Host a Toy Making Event



Show the picture below and let people guess what it is.

Refer them to the text.


Morse Telegraph Key


Hands on - Make Your Own Telegraph



Young inventors

Input from the Smithsonian -  Make a video or banner about young inventors and the impact that young minds have in pushing for discoveries. Show lots of images to facilitate the delivery of the idea that inventors are people who play, explore, tinker, prototype, think together and seed failure as part of the process. 






Hands on - Bown bag STEAM challenges

Marshmallow Towers

Pom Pom Cannons

Paper Helicopters

Roller Coasters

Paperclip Sailboats

Building Windmills


Zip Lines

Solar Ovens

Lunar Landers


The Invention Playhouse - Four Approaches to Playful Invention

Smithsonian content - Create a space to explore four playful approaches that are frequently cited by creative adults as significant to the development of inventive minds. These approaches form an interesting parallel to the four kinds of children’s play that child-development experts identify as more or less universal: exploratory play, pretend play, social play, and play with patterns, puzzles, and problems. http://invention.si.edu/sites/default/files/IAP%20Educators%20Manual.pdf



1. Exploratory Play—tinkering, experimenting, getting to know tools and materials

2. Pretend Play—developing imagination, language, problem-solving skills, and understanding of symbolism, analogy, and metaphor

3. Social Play—learning to communicate

4. Play with Patterns, Puzzles, and Problems

Feasible low-cost maker activities - http://invention.si.edu/sites/default/files/IAP%20Educators%20Manual.pdf



















Comments (1)

Carla Arena said

at 5:43 pm on Apr 6, 2015

Dani, I loved the ideas here! Pasta concepts cars and the clay boat are simply fantastic for critical thinking, reasoning, tinkering... Excellent ideas for the Inventors´ topic.

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