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Description Itinerary

Invention at Play
1,700-square-foot version

Invention at Play: Magnet Raceway
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 opportunities to:

  • 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.

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:
  • 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.
Invention at Play Invention at Play Online

In the Invention Playhouse visitors can try a variety of activities that encourage inventive skills. It includes:

    Invention at Play: Tesselation Puzzles
    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 height.
  • 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.

This area uses "creativity messages" as headlines to signal the playful processes that characterize the work of featured inventors. It includes:

Stephanie Kwolek
Stephanie Kwolek
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."

    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 into—encourage 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.

    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).

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
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.

Requirements Cost Shipping
Approximately 1,700 square feet

Ceiling height minimum 9'8"

One interpretive staff during open hours
$30,000 member;
$35,000 nonmember
for a 12-week booking
One van


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