Your kids are in the backyard with a picnic blanket never picked up from last week, a half deflated ball, an old croquet set, the dog and his house, and the clothes on their body. Do they a: whine and bang on the door until you finally let them in; b: play croquet; c: lay down on the blanket and take a nap; or d: make up their own game that results in the dog whining at the backdoor, a shoe lost in the tree and a sopping wet blanket.
If you answered d, your kids may be on track to invent the next big thing. Here are six tips to encourage your little innovators.
Don't solve all your kid's problems
One thing all great innovators have in common is heightened problem-solving skills. Steve Jobs didn't just complain that he could only carry one CD in his Walkman, he thought of a way to solve the problem and the music industry will never be the same.
Letting your child solve the problem will give him better reasoning skills. My son has worked up an elaborate system of stepping on the stool, then a shelf, then kneeling on the counter to get something off the top shelf. I could reach up and get it for him every time, but by finding a way to do it himself he has become an innovator.
You can improve your child's problem solving skills by not stepping in and pointing out the solution so often. This can be done in the little things like allowing your child to organize her own toys. It can be done in big things like encouraging your child to think of ways to fix a broken toy.
You should also resist the urge to settle all disagreements. Social problem solving skills are also important. The person who thought up micro-loans for third world entrepreneurs is certainly an innovator. And who doesn't want their kids growing up to achieve world peace.
Play with creative toys and encourage free play
There are many toys that play up your child's creativity. Basic wooden blocks are a good start. Other products that get the creative juices flowing are play dough, Bendaroos and paper dolls where your child makes her own clothes.
Encourage your kids to play with their toys in creative ways. My daughter uses game pieces for everything under the sun. A pair of dice become a bale of hay for horse figurines. It's annoying when we want to play games to try to track all the pieces down in her room, but it's good for her to be thinking outside the (game) box.
Innovators work with elements or components already in use for other things and find new ways to use them. The world had glue and paper long before sticky notes were invented.
Throw away the instructions
Many of those creative toys we buy come with instructions or examples of what to do with the toys. Let your child make it that way once or twice, but then throw away the instructions. I had to teach my son that even though the Lego kits have everything he needs to create something specific. He can make other things with them too. When your child shows you their new creations, be sure and point out the good things they did to encourage future innovation. Ask them what they might do differently next time.
There were no instructions on how to make a light bulb and it took Thomas Edison 1,000 tries to get it right. Innovators have to come up with things on their own.
Let your child take things apart and put them back together
Encourage your child's curiosity about how things work. From old cell phones to spring loaded pens. Let him pull stuff apart and put it back together. This will give him a basic understanding of mechanics. Once he understands different parts of an object and how they work, he can think of new ways to use the parts or how different parts may make the object work differently.
If you, or a repairman, are fixing something in your home, let your child watch and see how it's done.
Point out creative ideas or solutions
Do you think your new pineapple slicer is nifty? Point out to your child how it works and tell him that you admire the person who thought of it.
My father once created an elaborate water draining system with ropes, tarps, buckets and rain gutter in his garage because he was waiting for good weather to fix a leak in the roof. My young daughter looked up at it in awe. She then went home and used a bathrobe tie, jump rope and a bucket to create a system to get things to the top of her bunk bed. Everyone can use a little inspiration now and then.
Get out and enjoy nature
There is a reason helicopter propellers look like the seed pods of a maple tree. Velcro works like those pesky burrs that get stuck in your socks. Nature has inspired thousands of inventions. Many are detailed in the book Nature Got There First: Inventions Inspired by Nature by Phil Gates. Let your kids spend time exploring the natural world and maybe they'll get some ideas of their own.