Being Inventive: Lesson 1

[This post is the first lesson in a 3-lesson unit. You can also access lesson 2 and lesson 3.]

What does it mean to be inventive?

When I was a kid, my brother Eric and I would stand next to each other in our footie pajamas, brushing our teeth, making a mess, and somewhere in the midst of the getting-ready-for-bed routines, we’d make up commercials for nonsense products. We’d imitate the voices, phrases, and words we’d heard on TV to sell our own candy flavored toothpaste – or other made-up products. Those silly moments with Eric are my earliest memories of being inventive.

What I didn’t realize then, and probably what most kids don’t realize, is that the make-believe games we create for fun can demonstrate skills that are useful in the real world. Skills like:

  • being observant
  • willingness to try something new
  • ability to change and adapt
  • thinking creatively
  • working collaboratively

As a child, I thought being an inventor meant wearing a lab coat while standing in a stark white room while tinkering with a robot. Now I know that we can all be inventive and that those skills start in our early days. What I was doing then was identifying a need (excess boredom), finding a way to solve it (the floor is lava game), and using materials that were at our disposal (the furniture). These are skills students need when it comes to doing homework, competing on a sports team, or even making friends.

This unit’s goal is to give students the opportunity to be inventive, work together, and create an invention, all while having fun. Today’s post is to be done in the classroom and can be done as a standalone lesson or as part one of a three-part unit, which also includes a field experience and a post-lesson in the classroom.

If you’re able to do both, the in-class lessons and the field experience at Spark! Lab (at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History), students will not only build their own inventions, but they will see examples of other great inventive places and people. The lesson plan below is part script, part advice, and hopefully full of ideas and activities that will provide a fun way to get students working together in a collaborative and hands-on way. I hope you enjoy it!

As you do this lesson with your students, please take photos and share them with us by emailing them to or by tagging us on social media @liveitlearnitdc or by using the hashtag #LILIpad.  

Classroom Pre-lesson (60-75 minutes total)

Lesson Plan

GoalDiscover what inventive skills are and how they can be applied in everyday life.

AgeThis lesson was written with 3rd-5th grade students in mind.


  • Inventor – A person who creates a process/device/object as their job
  • Inventive – The ability to create or design new things


  • Observation
  • Experimentation
  • Reflection
  • Hypothesizing
  • Testing
  • Problem-solving


Introductory Discussion (5-10 min)

To ensure the class is starting with the same understanding, ask, “What is an inventor?” Let the students generate ideas and record that information on the board or on a large piece of paper. Make sure that this list can be kept intact over the course of this lesson. As students share their ideas, take notice of what they say, and help identify any trends. You may want to let students know that you will return to the list during their post-lesson so they can see how their definition may have changed over time.

Using their understanding of the word inventor, what do they think “inventive” means? After accepting 1-2 responses from students, confirm that being inventive is the ability to create, make, or design things – often to help or to serve a purpose.

Inventive Paper clip Activity (10-15 min)

Materials – paper, pencil, paper clip

Students – groups or pairs, whatever works best for your class

At the top of the page, ask students to write down the “job” of a paper clip.

Then, ask them to think of other uses for a paper clip and write those ideas down. If you’re comfortable, feel free to allow students to bend, undo, or even break the paper clip as they brainstorm other “jobs” for the paper clip.

After brainstorming time, have students share a couple of their ideas. Then turn the conversation to how the groups worked together and arrived at their ideas.  

During this metacognitive conversation, students might say things like they looked at the paper clip, they held the paper clip, they bent the paper clip, they talked to their teammate about ideas, they thought about other times they had used a paper clip.  

These types of responses – observation, testing, discussing, and collaborating, are all skills that happen in the inventive process! You and your class will continue to use these skills and add new ones as the lesson progresses.

Create Your Own Invention Activity (30 minutes)

Materials – Audience cards, topic cards, materials bags

Students – groups or pairs, whatever works best for your class

For the next activity, your students will be creating an invention of their own design. If you feel that your students can come up with ideas about what to invent and for whom without prompting, that’s great! If you think your students could benefit from a bit of scaffolding, download the audience and topic cards found here (Being Inventive – Audience&Topic).

Audience cards – Green cards that give students an idea of who they are designing for – friend, parents, aunt, neighbor, teacher, etc.

Topic cards – Red cards give students an idea about what type of things to invent – toy, cleaning device, school supply, something to wear, etc.

Using the cards – Depending on what you prefer, you can have each student group choose one card from each pile (either randomly from a deck or by choosing from the entire list) and use that as the foundation for their invention. Alternatively, you can choose one card from each deck and have all students use that as their basis.

Inventing! – Give each student group a materials bag. Don’t worry too much about the materials inside. Choose things that are inexpensive and easy to get a hold of. Some ideas are paper clips, plastic bags, yarn, sponges, beads, crayons, pipe cleaners, Legos, pieces of cardboard, toilet paper rolls.

Give your students about 20 minutes to invent something using the objects that have been provided. While they are inventing, have them work on the following prompts (you can download this student handout if you’d like Being Inventive – Inventive Activity):

  1. What does the invention do?
  2. Who is it for?
  3. Draw your invention
  4. What is the name of the invention? (optional)

Feel free to allow the students to choose whether they answer these questions individually or as a group. When you decide it’s time to wrap up, have students store their inventions in a safe place in the classroom.  

Closing Discussion (10 min)

Some students might not feel completely done with their invention. That’s ok!

Let this feeling be the start of a class conversation. Students might initially say they did not have enough time, but help move the discussion to the idea that the inventive process should take time. Let students know that sometimes things need to be edited, fixed, and reworked – all of which can’t be done in one day. Feel free to connect this to other times in class when students might have had this type of experience. And don’t forget to check lesson 2 and lesson 3 or the unit!



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