What do the inventors behind Post-it Notes, Kevlar, Velcro, and the microwave oven have in common with children? Play!
Play is a human activity with a long history. Evidence of human play has been found in archaeological sites around the world. Research in diverse fields of study, from history to anthropology to comparative psychology, indicates that there is a strong evolutionary link between play and development. This is true not only of humans but of all species whose members are born helpless and experience a relatively long period of development before reaching adulthood. It appears that animals that grow up slowly grow up playing, and that this activity is related to both physical and mental development and maturity. Play is engaged in for its own sake. It is open-ended and absorbing. Play is deeply satisfying, but not always “fun”; it can sometimes be arduous, frightening, and time-consuming. Yet it is something that all of us, especially children, engage in naturally, wholeheartedly, and as often as possible.
When asked what inspired them to become inventors, many adults tell stories about playing as children. Among inventors’ most frequently cited childhood play experiences are mechanical tinkering, fiddling with construction toys, reflecting in and about nature, and drawing or engaging in other forms of visual modeling. There is something about the fluid habits of mind fostered by play that inventors value and continue to use as part of their working lives. These playful approaches, used repeatedly by inventors and other creative adults, form an interesting parallel to the kinds of play that child development experts identify as more or less universal.
Through play we develop certain “habits of mind”—curiosity, persistence, imagination, communication, problem solving—as well as skills in manipulating and understanding the properties of the material world. The Lemelson Center’s research has shown that this array of abilities has been and continues to be an important part of the inventor’s tool chest. The diaries and notebooks of nineteenth and early-twentieth century inventors and their colleagues and families provide historical evidence of the role of play in the invention process. Interviews and oral histories conducted with contemporary inventors add to the historical record of playful invention.
When children pretend, build with blocks and boxes, solve puzzles, take things apart, or rig a new way to do something, they are practicing flexible habits of mind and making important new connections. Children who engage in this kind of thoughtful play with a wide variety of materials are forming the basis for lifelong creative talents, like those of inventors.
Play and its connection to the innovative mind was explored in the interactive exhibition Invention at Play, developed by the Lemelson Center in partnership with the Science Museum of Minnesota and the National Science Foundation, and shown at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and venues nationwide between 2002 and 2011. The exhibition departed from traditional representations of inventors as extraordinary geniuses who are “not like us” to celebrate the creative skills and processes that are familiar and accessible to all people. Visitors of all ages experienced various playful habits of mind that underlie invention.
To complement the exhibition, the Lemelson Center developed a manual for educators that is still relevant today. Using this manual, educators will:
- Learn how play fosters creative talents among children as well as adults;
- Experience their own playful and inventive abilities; and
- Understand how children’s play parallels processes used by inventors.
We hope that the array of activities, resources, and approaches in this manual underscore the role of play in the inventive spirit in all of us.
Download a PDF of the Invention at Play Educators' Manual >>