There is an inventing box in our garage filled with the kind of junk that is given away for free at yard sales. Two coffee cans, bicycle parts, an old egg beater, and a broken thermostat from the newly repaired furnace are the latest additions. You may have similar odds and ends sitting around somewhere, but not collected together and called the 'Inventor's Box.' That's the secret, removing the name of something so it can be reinvented into something new.
This is an interesting process Dr. Karl Dunker calls functional freedom. Take a hand egg beater for an example. Functional freedom occurs when you remove the egg beater's original function simply by putting it in the Inventor's Box, then you are free to turn it upside down, and the beater becomes a helicopter, or it can be taken apart and the pieces redesigned into a toy power boat.
Functional fixedness, its opposite, is seeing an egg beater capable only of beating eggs. Functional freedom suspends the obvious, and allows the development of unexplored ideas. Children, with their unburdened perspective, are naturally equipped to discover new uses for familiar objects. This is the glorious process of inventing, of 'thinking outside the box'.
Begin by cleaning out your junk drawers, the garage, kitchen cupboards. Collect paper clips and rubber bands and corks. Add broken wind-up alarm clocks, old telephones, wire, batteries, small 1.5 volt motors from Radio Shack, popsicle sticks and pipe cleaners. Check out the 'free' boxes at rummage sales and garage sales. Use your imagination! Anything that is not dangerous can be used in an Inventor's Box. Add real screw drivers, electrical and duct tape. Our Inventor's Box grew over the years from a small bin to an Inventor's Room that took up half of the garage, but then I am a pushover for hare-brained ideas. I even have a few myself now and again.
It is important to remember that the inventing from your box precludes instructions. Instructions only lead one in linear fashion to a thing someone else created first. Brainstorming, however, is a different matter. Brainstorming together invites speculation. There is nothing like the impetus of a wild idea, refining itself through the process of brainstorming, leaving ever widening circles of 'why not?' in its wake, to make you feel alive.
After the brainstorming, step back. Allow your child full rein with the materials without your input or feedback. Research has shown that too much feedback is a creativity killer, even good feedback. Think of your own attempts at a new skill. If someone was hovering over you while you were learning how to play pool for example, and giving you a constant river of cheery comments like: ".....ooooooh goooooood effort! Wow! you are really trying hard! That is really great!..." even when you KNOW you are playing horribly and you just need more practice, odds are you'll find yourself shutting down on some level, giving up. Let the kids fly with their imaginations, alone.
The development of creative thinking in children is an important issue for our society. Creative children grow into creative adults, contributing new and transporting ideas for old problems. By encouraging the native curiosity and inventiveness of our children, we, as parents, are also contributing richly to mankind's future. There are many ways parents can enhance creativity in their children. One of the most fundamental is to focus on the creative process itself, and not the product that results. Unfortunately, it is natural for adults to eye the pretty product, the useful invention and give it full measure of recognition, but not for children. Children are far more interested in how one arrives at the product, to the invention. In other words, process is paramount to a child, and the product an expendible result.
This was graphically impressed upon me one winter during school vacation. We were vacationing in a different time zone, and the children rose every morning at 5:00, their biological time. We used those early morning hours to write travel journals, or 'articles', our kindergartner called them. Ben wrote, with the help of his big sister, an elaborate column sentence on each page about splashing waves, wild cats, belly aches, and getting lost. The articles were carefully illustrated, and soon he had a small book of beautiful pages: a five year old's precious testimony of a family vacation. Ben ended up leaving his book of articles on the plane home. I was heartsick, Ben was indifferent. Utterly indifferent. It was the process of creating it that was meaningful to him, not the product that resulted.
Children create from the fund of knowledge they possess at the time, and the experiments, the manipulation of materials, the fooling around with the exciting question 'What-would-happen-if. . . ?', have lead our children over the years into ever widening circles of creative thought. Even if that meant messes, failures, and predicaments to bear with. For our family, it was a small price to pay in exchange for the adventure in inventing, the thrill of self-discovery.