What is an Inventor?

This year, for our first session of Family Inventor’s Lab, we did an orientation to the class, tried a wide variety of hands-on STEM activities, and talked about Inventors.

Opening Circle


We asked the kids “What is an Inventor?” A hand shoots up – “It’s someone who invents things.” We asked what “invents” means. “They make inventions.”

With a little more work, we got to the idea that an inventor is someone who creates something new that has never existed before, or is someone who takes someone else’s invention and makes it better in some way.

We talked about why people invent. I said “Imagine I’m walking in the woods, and I see an apple tree, and I really want an apple… but [I stretch my arm up as high as I can] I just can’t reach one. What do I do?” One child suggested jump, so I mimed jumping as high as I can – still can’t reach it on my own. Another child suggested a ladder. I agreed that using a tool like a ladder would be a big help. Another suggested using a stick to knock it down. Another suggested a cutter – he’d been apple picking and they’d used a cutting tool mounted on a long stick.

I summarized with “When you have a problem you want to fix, like you really want that apple, you can use a tool to reach it, or invent another way to get it. So, inventors are trying to solve problems or make something easier to do.”

If you had more time you could take this further. For example, ask “Imagine you were flying kites with friends, but your kite didn’t fly as high as you wanted it to. Could you figure out a way to make a kite differently so it would fly higher?” Or “If your friends liked to go sledding and have races, and they always beat you in the race, would you want to make a better slide that was faster so you could beat them? Could you invent a faster sled?”


mattieWe then read a story, Marvelous Mattie: How Margaret E. Knight Became an Inventor by McCully. Things I really like about this book: it features a female inventor. It talks about her design process, with illustrations showing the sketches she made (really, they’re drawings by the book illustrator, except the patent application drawings near the end of the book, which are Knight’s actual drawings). It starts with her as a girl, making toys for her brothers, which helps our students connect with her. She then builds kites that fly higher and sleds that slide faster than the ones the other kids have, goals which our students can relate to.

Then, when she’s a 12 year old girl working in a textile mill, one of her friends is injured when a shuttle flies off a loom and she invents a guard to protect from this happening again – an important invention that is added to every loom in every mill in Manchester, NH. The kids were impressed that a kid could do that. She is then working in a factory that makes paper bags that are folded and pasted shut at one end. But, there were a few problems with these bags. [I took a break from reading and did a demo with a simple flat paper bag – when I set groceries in it, it tips over, it doesn’t stand by itself. When I put in bulky items, it rips.] So, Mattie set about trying to invent a better bag with a flat square bottom. She sketched ideas, then made paper models, then built a wooden prototype… it didn’t work right the first time, so she tinkered with it, and then cranked out thousands of paper bags. [I took out a brown paper lunch bag, and demo’ed how it stands up by itself and doesn’t break so easily. The physical demonstration really helped my students grasp the point.] The book ends saying that we still use this bag design to this day.

What I don’t like… it’s just way too long for a group read-aloud with my age group of 3 – 7 year olds. I re-wrote the story in my own words, printed that and taped it to the back of the book, and I read those words as I flipped through the pages to show the pictures. (Note: I did explain to the kids that i had done that, because I knew the readers would notice.) My version had about one third the words that were in the original.

Further Discussion

I then talked about the steps in the  inventing process.

  • First you come up with a problem that needs solved or a challenge you want to meet. (examples: reaching the apple, making a faster sled, making a guard so the shuttle can’t fly off the loom).
  • Then you brainstorm ideas for how to solve it. Like how Mattie drew ideas in her sketchbook.
  • Then you start building. Sometimes you can’t tell if something will work until you actually start to work. Mattie built paper models and a wooden prototype.
  • Then you test it – sometimes it works the first time, but usually you have to adjust it, test again, adjust and test again, till you get it just right.

We had worked on pompom puffers in class that day, and I asked the kids about what that process was like and whether they’d had to do some fixing and tweaking to get it just right.

The Inventors’ Lab Theme Song

We decided to write a theme song for the class, about the process of inventing. It’s to the tune of a sea shanty called Bully in the Alley (tune here.)

Look at me, I’m building and inventing,
Way, hey, building and inventing
Look at me, I’m building and inventing,
Here at the Inventor’s Lab

There’s a challenge that I want to do
Way, hey, building and inventing
Here’s the process that I will go through
Here at the Inventor’s Lab

I brainstorm ideas from which to choose
Way, hey, building and inventing
I look for supplies that I can use
Here at the Inventor’s Lab

Now it’s time to build my innovation
Way, hey, building and inventing
As I work I get more inspiration
Here at the Inventor’s Lab

I test it out to see what’s wrong and then
Way, hey, building and inventing
I fix and tweak and do the test again
Here at the Inventor’s Lab

My work is done, the challenge has been met
Way, hey, building and inventing
I think it’s my best invention yet.
Here at the Inventor’s Lab

Look at me, I’m building and inventing,
Way, hey, building and inventing
Look at me, I’m building and inventing,
Here at the Inventor’s Lab.

Class Activities

You could choose a wide variety of science themed activities for this topic. (See all my other posts for 100+ ideas for activities.) Because we do 30 weeks of class a year, we’re already using lots of great activity ideas somewhere else in the class year. So, for this session, we chose some of our favorites from other weeks much later in the year, and we’ll reprise them when their topics roll around, but we also had a few activities that just didn’t quite fit any theme, and this was our chance to fit them into the class. Here’s what we did:

Pompom Puffer

img_20160902_183300355This is a fun project where you cut a circle from cardstock, cut a hole in the center, roll it into a cone shape, and tape to a bendy straw. Then you set a pompom in the cone, and blow through the straw, trying to keep the pompom afloat in the air over the cone without escaping. (I got the idea online somewhere, and I try to always track and credit my sources, but I lost track of where this idea came from. 😦  If anyone knows, please note source in the comments!) Here is a PDF with my directions and a template for the circle


Wind Tube

wind-tubeLast year, we built our own Wind Tube, based on directions from the Exploratorium. It’s a clear tube mounted above a fan. When you place really lightweight things in the tube, like a scarf, they blow right out the top. If you place a heavy thing, it sits on the fan. The most fun are the mid-weight items – the plastic ball that’s too heavy to float, but will roll round and round in circles on the fan, or the paper cup that will float a few feet up but never quite escape the tube. It’s a great deal of fun to play with for everyone from toddlers to adults. See videos of the tube in action: https://gooddayswithkids.com/2015/02/02/wind-tube/

We’ll bring it back to class when we study wind and flight.

Balloon Pump and Release
Exactly what it sounds like: kids use a balloon pump to inflate a balloon, then they let it go and it flies wildly around the room, then they repeat. One of the easiest possible and cheapest activities we know of. It’s always a hit. We’ll bring it back in winter quarter when we talk about states of matter, because we’ll talk about how the balloon traps an invisible gas (air) and when the gas escapes, it propels the balloon. Using the balloon pump requires some good motor coordination, so it’s a physical skill learning experience for our littler ones.

Expanding Ivory Soap

soapI got this idea (and the picture at the right) from Happy Hooligans. You can also search online for “Ivory Soap microwave” and see lots more pictures and descriptions of the process. Take a bar of Ivory soap (or half a bar). Put it on a microwave safe plate. Have the children feel how hard it is, and observe its size and shape.

Microwave for 1 – 2 minutes. Watch it as it bubbles and puffs and expands, to fill the microwave. When you open the door, it will deflate, like a soap soufflé. When it cools, have the kids feel it (it’s fluffy), and observe its size and shape. Explain the science behind it – there’s lots of air in Ivory soap, and as you heat it, the air expands, pushing the soap up and outward.

Tool of the Week – Egg Beater

We have a featured tool every week. The goal is just to introduce a wide variety of tools, and let kids begin practicing the motor skills needed to use the tool, and start gaining the understanding of when/where the tool might be used. This week’s tool was whisks and egg beaters. At the beginning of class, we had them out next to a tub of water. After we did the soap experiment, we told the kids to crumble up the soap foam into the water, and then use the whisks and beaters to beat it till it made lots of foamy bubbles. img_20160910_131111443_hdr bubbles

Sorting Activity

We do a lot of sorting activities. Sometimes the littlest kids just play with the items instead of sorting, and that’s OK too, as they’re learning and exploring. But, for the older kids, learning to observe, categorize and sort is a key skill for math and science thinking. Often it’s a simple binary sort – everything is either A or B. Sometimes we add in another  layer for older kids, encouraging them to sort by multiple criteria: putting in order by size, or sorting the same objects by color and then by size.

img_20160910_131203308Today’s sort was natural vs. man-made (aka shaped by nature or invented by a person.) Lots of the items were very obvious – a few were intentionally challenging – like the beach glass that looked like a weathered translucent scallop shell and the clear quartz that looked like glass.

Math Activity – Pattern Machine

pattern-machineThere’s a great website called Talking Math with Kids. He sells a product called the Pattern Machine (picture is from his site). You press the button and it pops up. Press it again and it stays down. It’s fun for even little kids to do, and it good for fine motor skill building. But it’s also a mathematical thinking tool. Kids use it to create and recognize patterns, which just seems like fun to them, but is also training the brain. They may try something like all buttons up, or every other button up, or all the buttons in every other row up, or all the buttons on the outside edges up or they might use it to make letter or number shapes with. Any way they use it is fine with us – it’s a process oriented activity.

Spin Art on the Record Player

img_20160910_131134635We have an old kids’ record player that we use to make art on – put a paper plate on the spindle, turn the record on, and start to draw. We’ve done this for years. And I only just realized that this may these children’s only experience with a record player…

Home-Made Marble Mazes and Tumble Trax

img_20160825_163921585I made some simple mazes with cardboard box lids, craft sticks and glue gun. Learn more about them in this post. I put a sign with them encouraging parents to try making their own at home.We also put out a set of Tumble Trax Magnetic Marble Run, which is one of my favorite marble run toys, and quite affordable. We have an Oil Drip Pan we use for a magnetic surface.


And More!

We filled the sensory tub with rice, beans, magnetic items, non-magnetic items, and magnet wands, so children could run the wands through the tub, and see what they picked up and what they left behind.

In the water tub, we had water beads, fish nets, and a strainer for gathering up the water beads. The fun part was that some of the water beads were clear, and were invisible when floating in the water. So, kids would use the nets to scoop up the four colored beads they saw, and discover that they had caught 6 or 7 beads total.

For imaginary play, we had a puppet theater out with puppets – just the woodland puppets we had in the closet. it would be great fun to have inventor puppets in the future – an Albert Einstein, a Ben Franklin, and so on… I’ll have to think on that more.

We had the block cabinet open for kids to build anything they wanted. We placed a few large plastic animals with them and encouraged kids to build a home for the animals. (Sometimes just placing another item with blocks can prompt more active block play as it inspires ideas.) We had a few students who did some serious work with the blocks, then did a great job of helping us put them all away!

blocks2 blocks1

Closing Circle

We ended with a reprise of the chorus from our Inventors’ Lab theme songs, then we gave a preview of upcoming weeks – next week when we build towers, and future weeks when we’ll learn about Simple Machines.

We described the most basic idea about simple machines – that they make work easier to do, and we briefly introduced the machines, then taught this Simple Machines song, which we’ll revisit over the next few weeks: www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1Fhs8pXGxM

We finished by reading The Most Magnificent Thing by Spires, which is a delightful story of a little girl who has in her head the image of the most magnificent invention. But she builds, and hammers, and tweaks and so on and she has lots of failed inventions. And she gets really mad. But then she goes for a walk, calms down, and gets back to work until she succeeds in making the most magnificent thing!


On the shelf, we had lots of our favorite books from our list of Best Books about Inventors to help inspire our little learners.

Follow-Up Activities

Talk to your child about inventions – as you go through your days, talk about the tools you use (phone, computer, microwave, coffee maker and so on) and share what you know about how tasks were done before this invention and how this invention makes it easier. We’ve all seen lots of technological innovation during our lives – talk about some of your experiences with changing and improving technology.

Encourage your child to invent…. when there’s a “problem” in your day, encourage them to brainstorm and test lots of ways to solve that problem. My son was having some challenges zipping his new backpack, so we figured out how to attach a metal ring to the zipper pull that’s easier to grab hold of. What challenges can your child solve this week?

Note: All the activities described in my posts are from Family Inventor’s Lab, a parent-child cooperative class in Bellevue, WA. We are a play-based, STEM focused class for preschool through early elementary (kids age 3 – 7). We do a wide variety of fun, hands-on activities to learn about Science, Tools, Engineering, Nature, and Art. We also sing songs and read stories. Most of our activities are cheap, easy, and use everyday materials that most families would have in their homes (or their recycle bins!), so that our activities are appropriate for classroom teachers, parents who homeschool, or after school programs.





  1. […] What is an Inventor?  Provide some kind of “invented food.” For example, instead of fresh blueberries, a natural whole food, provide freeze-dried blueberries – where a scientific process has changed and prolonged the edible life of the blueberries. Or microwave popcorn – a natural whole grain which has other ingredients added to it, and then a modern technology is used to cook it. […]


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