Invention at Play proves playing around aids creativity

If you think that inventors are an especially serious lot, you might be in for a bit of a surprise. Many of technology's greatest advancements were discovered using methods in operation at any day-care center. Children invent every time they stack one block on top of another. "Invention At Play" looks at the link between the two activities.

Launched in July, Invention At Play is an online companion to a traveling exhibit now at the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, a part of the Smithsonian Institution. (When he died in 1997, Jerome Lemelson had more than 500 patents registered in his name, for devices used in everything from barcode readers to cordless telephones to camcorders.) After Christmas, the show will hit the road, and is currently booked into locations from the Boston Museum of Science in early 2003 to San Jose's Tech Museum of Innovation in mid-2005.

For virtual visitors, the first thing worth knowing about this site is that if you normally surf with JavaScript turned off in order to avoid pop-up ads, you'll have to turn it back on while you're here. The webmasters didn't install a "sniffer" to warn surfers of the requirement, but you'll find that you need the feature in order to access interactive exhibits. You'll know that everything is set properly when Invention loads one of several rotating animations along the top of the window, alongside an amusingly unconventional index of the three main sections of the exhibition - the Invention Playhouse, a collection of Inventors' Stories, and an examination of the question, Does Play Matter?

The Playhouse explores the play/invent relationship through four Flash-animated games. Cloud Dreamer focuses on the imagination - an attribute of great importance to the inventor's mind. Puzzle Blocks gives visitors a chance to test their problem-solving skills by arranging polygons into recognizable shapes. Tinker Ball demonstrates exploratory play, as you create various methods to move a ball from A to B. Finally, Word Play illustrates the advantages of cooperation and sharing of ideas in the creative process, through a drag-and-drop word selection tool which can be used to add your own talents to a constantly growing (and appropriately unstructured) online story.

Inventors' Stories introduces the mothers and fathers of such innovations as Kevlar, the Sailboard, and (of course) the telephone. These profiles provide empirical examples of the various routes used in the inventive process - routes that include borrowing from nature (you may already know that Velcro owes its existence to cockleburs caught in a dog's fur), being open to serendipity (the adhesive used in Post-It notes was supposed to be strong and permanent - Art Fry simply found a different use for a "failure"), and that rarest attribute in a world where companies patent human genes for profit, cooperation. (Linux is the most visible current example.)

Does Play Matter? uses a quartet of QuickTime video clips to look at the role that play ... plays in childhood development. Other issues examined include the risks that technology brings to this early development, as children spend more time engaged in solitary, virtual, and passive entertainments. Finally, a Resources page offers PDF guides and an educator's manual created for the traveling exhibit but still useful to virtual visitors.

Invention At Play effectively -and entertainingly - shows that invention and play are simply two sides of the same coin. It also reminds those of us who will never invent that next quantum leap in mousetrap design, that play is still an important part of adult life. As the site says, "Blow bubbles and have a great time."

Invention At Play can be found at http://www.inventionatplay.org/.

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