Invention at Play
|Invention at Play: Magnet Raceway
Smithsonian photo by Terry McCrea
This exhibition 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.
In 1,700-2,000 square feet of inventors' stories, videos, and
interactive experiences, the exhibition provides visitors with
- 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
Invention at Play departs from the traditional representation
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. The exhibition was developed by
the Lemelson Center at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American
History in partnership with the Science Museum of Minnesota. The
exhibition has been made possible by the generous support of The
Lemelson Foundation and the National Science Foundation.
Invention at Play features three main areas:
Invention at Play Online
- The Invention Playhouse, where visitors of all ages
can engage in four types of play that foster inventive thinking:
exploration /tinkering; make-believe/visual thinking; social
play/collaboration; and puzzle play/problem solving.
- Playful Approaches to Invention, offering textual narratives,
interactive devices, and objects that support explorations of
the many ways inventors have used playful activities and skills
in their work. Three main inventors are featured, clustered
with abbreviated stories about a wide variety of other innovators
who have used similar creative techniques.
- Issues in Play – Past, Present, and Future: What kinds
of toys did inventors play with as children? Is the quality
and quantity of children's play changing? How do new technologies
affect children at play? This area, with its objects and video,
encourages visitors to reflect upon these and other questions
concerning the history and future of play.
THE INVENTION PLAYHOUSE
In the Invention Playhouse visitors can try a variety of activities
that encourage inventive skills. It includes:
|Invention at Play: Tesselation Puzzles
Smithsonian photo by Terry McCrea
- The Magnet Ramp that offers a novel invention challenge
using magnetized kitchen utensils to build trackways for rolling
a ball down a ramp.
- Rocky Blocks put a new spin on an age-old challenge—building
a tower of blocks—by resting a tabletop on a wobbly hemisphere
rather than on a steady surface. Individuals, families, and
other visitor groups can collaborate on solving a complex problem
involving balance, center of gravity, weight, structure, and
- Tesselation Puzzles promote spatial reasoning and problem-solving
skills through pattern-making activities that offer mathematical
and artistic entry points into play. Visitors may choose to
copy Middle Eastern tile mosaics or Native American geometric
pottery patterns or break with tradition and create innovative
designs of their own.
- Whirligigs invite exploratory play in a multimedia
activity where visitors invent wind-powered devices and then
try out their designs in front of blowing fans. They can test
and then refine initial ideas through repeated trials as they
play with principles of aerodynamics, balance, and angular momentum.
PLAYFUL APPROACHES TO INVENTION
This area uses "creativity messages" as headlines to signal the
playful processes that characterize the work of featured inventors.
Photo by Michael Branscom/Lemelson-MIT Program
Case Studies of inventors whose work exemplifies
playful and creative techniques. Photos and stories about inventors'
childhoods highlight the early experiences that influenced or
foreshadowed their life's work. The two main sections feature
the messages "Recognize the Unusual" and "Borrow from Nature."
RECOGNIZE THE UNUSUAL
Stephanie Kwolek, the DuPont chemist who invented Kevlar,
exemplifies an inventor's ability to see patterns and possibilities
that others may not notice. Her discovery of Kevlar occurred
when an attempt to dissolve two polymers did not yield expected
results, but did create a new stiff, extraordinarily strong,
and yet lightweight substance.
Touchable objects with tags—including a canoe young
visitors can climb intoencourage visitors to find out
how Kevlar improves these products. Also in this area is a
testing station where visitors can compare the weight of a
Kevlar rope and a standard steel cable. Nearby flip panels
tell the stories of other inventors who have recognized and
capitalized on the unusual properties of things: for example,
Art Fry, an engineer who found a use for a failed adhesive
and invented Post-It notes; and Percy Spencer, whose radar
research led to the development of the microwave oven.
BORROW FROM NATURE
Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, exemplifies
the innovator's proclivity to observe and borrow from nature.
At an interactive component, visitors learn how Bell's anatomical
studies of the human ear influenced his development of the
telephone. Also, James McLurkin, a young African American
engineer, applies biological principles to innovations in
robotic technology. A video shows how the behavior of real
ants compares to interactions among McLurkin's micro-robots.
Reading Boards feature additional inventors
who "Borrow from Nature" as well as those who exemplify creativity
messages such as "Keep Making it Better" and "Find Opportunities
in Obstacles." Benches invite visitors to sit comfortably and
use these reading boards to learn about a variety of historic
and contemporary inventors from Garrett Morgan (gas mask and traffic
signal) and George de Mestral (Velcro) to Ann Moore (Snugli baby
carrier) and Newman Darby (sailboard/windsurfer).
ISSUES IN PLAY—PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE
With its banner message, “Shape your thinking through play,” visitors
are encouraged to reflect upon questions and debates in the history
and future of play. It includes:
- A collage of historic and current toys and games that
resonates with visitors' recollections about play.
- A feedback station, where visitors can respond to
the question: “Do you see a link between how you played as a
child and what you do now?”
- A video inviting visitors to listen to educators, child
development specialists, historians, inventors, and children
themselves reflect on some of the current questions and debates
about the present and future of play.
|Invention at Play: Whirligigs
Smithsonian photo by Richard Strauss
Educational Materials and Programs
A series of educational programs designed to complement
the Invention at Play exhibition serve diverse families,
parents, teachers, and youth groups. These programs are documented
in a manual provided to each host museum, with information on
program formats and content, sources for materials, and event
logistics. Also provided is an educators manual for teachers
and students in the classroom or home school and a take-home
guide for families.
| Approximately 1,700 square feet
Ceiling height minimum 9'8"
One interpretive staff during open hours
| $30,000 member;
for a 12-week booking