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How we can empower the next generation with extraordinary creativity: Little Inventors

There’s something undeniably inspiring about engaging in creativity with kids, Virtuo creative director Blythe Rees-Jones says. They dream big, hesitate little and have an infectious degree of excitement and positivity. There is also a degree of seriousness in the air, these kids mean business, they are here to invent. Little Inventors was dreamed up by a creative team of designers and innovators in Tauranga. Here, Rees-Jones shares how at the recent Groundswell festival in Tauranga, kids were engaged in the fun that comes from problem solving and creativity, and it provided an environment where they can explore their own potential as innovative thinkers and creators. 

This year, Little Inventors was held at Classic Flyers, an inspiring venue rich with inventions of the past. We had 90 kids aged five to ten years across two days of workshop sessions as part of the Groundswell Festival of Innovation. The premise was that they would be given an invention challenge, come up with an idea, and then make it using a wide variety of materials, tools and our team right there working alongside them. What’s pretty cool about Little Inventors is we have these technicians who we call “tool-smiths” and they work directly with the kids helping them build their ideas and teaching them some of the practical skills required to do so. We also do this to foster enthusiasm. Sharing and having fun. Enthusiasm is the bedrock for empowerment, and empowerment is the generator of confidence – what creativity eats for breakfast! 

Empowering others to create impact

One of the most common questions we get asked as designers is, what will the world look like in the future? Most of us have no idea, so what does this mean for our kids? 

We are meant to be educating kids to prepare them for the future, yet many of us do not know what the future will look like. The reality is, the world is facing some really complex challenges, and change cannot be made without developing people who have the creative confidence to think through new ideas. The approach with Little Inventors is not so much about ‘how are we going to solve these problems?’, it’s about ‘how can we empower and equip more and more young people to be creative and retain this as they grow up to solve these problems?’ 

Empowering others to create impact is the heart of Little Inventors. To create an environment where kids can learn to openly think about new ideas and gain confidence that they can create what they set their mind to. The idea is that these skills will allow them to become the next generation of innovative thinkers, designers and game-changers that will go on to generate positive future impact in their own unique way. It’s a bit like that well-known quote; Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Now, imagine the amazing effects just one child could go on to have and times that by 90. The possibilities are pretty incredible. What if these kids then go on to inspire others? That is a ripple effect of creative impact! Investing in helping 90 children think about new ideas and giving them the courage to invent holds the power to change the world in ways we cannot yet imagine. 

Igniting the spark

The most special thing about Little Inventors is the magic that happens on the day. It becomes so much more than a workshop, it’s hard to capture and explain but it truly becomes an experience. This is the second time running Little Inventors, and both times the event has left us thoroughly exhausted and completely overwhelmed and inspired. We had participants arrive as shy kids and leave as confident inventors.

On Sunday morning, before the start of our 9am session I got a phone call. It was a parent asking if she could get a last minute ticket to the workshop. Her son went to the Saturday afternoon workshop, and loved it so much we wanted to spend his Sunday inventing as well. Again, Monday morning as I am getting ready to head into work, I get another phone call from this parent. You could instantly tell she had been bursting to call as soon as it was a decent hour. She explained how this weekend had been a game changer for her child. You see, her child had never really found his thing. While his brother was a high performer academically and in sport, he had never found something he really enjoyed. He was a shy kid that never really talked to strangers, and would absolutely never share in front of a group of people. So she couldn’t believe it when she saw him confidently stand up and share the features of his invention with everyone, and was blown away to hear that at school he took in his invention to share with his class. She couldn’t believe it. Creativity can release a spark. It’s this environment where ‘impossible’ doesn’t exist and where they are blowing themselves and their parents away with what they can actually do. 

You can see and feel this energy and how it can really help change how these kids go about life.  

As much as Little Inventors helps foster creativity for kids, we also can’t help but notice how it inspires our own thinking. We always walk away feeling as if we have learned just as much from the experience as the kids do. Let’s explore the biggest takeaways that provoked our thought and we think are really interesting to consider as adults, and as parents bringing up future-adults. 

Pirates of invention

It really struck me how important it is for kids to learn to engage in independent thinking. This is the kind of thinking where no one is telling them how to think or what to do, and to have their own ideas instead of relying on others to think for them. It was interesting to observe how many kids weren’t used to calling the shots, and would ask what I think they should create or whether I think their idea is ‘right’. And sure, when considering kids inventions, as adults we can quickly realise possible improvements or the how we would make it, so it’s easy to get sucked in to ‘teaching them’ how we would do it. 

But it’s not about teaching them how we think, why take a creative kid and teach them to think like everyone else? It’s about encouraging them to learn to think for themselves. And the thing is, we don’t want to bring up teenagers and adults that struggle to think for themselves and back their own opinions.

The story we tell ourselves

I have been involved with workshops on innovation and design for professionals, so it has been interesting to reflect on the difference between coaching adult professionals and coaching children. I think many adults have decided the ‘story’ of who they are. For many people, this includes a mindset that they aren’t creative and aren’t good at creative ideas – so to ‘write them off for that kind of stuff’ – sounds familiar right?

The kids who came to Little Inventors were completely new to ‘invention’ (unsurprising as many were 6 years old). Yet time and time again, they absolutely blew us away with what they could come up with. Not a single child didn’t have an idea. Why? Because they didn’t have preconceived ideas of what they were and weren’t capable of.  

I wonder at what point does this change? At what point between childhood and adulthood do we put things in boxes of what we are and aren’t good at? Have you ever been in a room of adults and someone asked the group who could sketch? So few adults put up their hands - how has this happened? How can we make sure this openness to try and trust their own ideas sticks into adulthood? 

Creative courage

Another observation comparing adults and children, was that often adult’s ideas are very normal and safe, even what we consider “crazy”… is still pretty normal. We struggle to get past the known, and things that aren’t immediately feasible and practical. In business many are always talking of quick wins. That reeks of low courage.

Children have an extraordinary capacity for creativity. Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they will have a go. They are not frightened of being wrong. This is very difficult for many adults, and if you are not prepared to be wrong sometimes you will never come up with anything original.

The kids at Little Inventors didn’t hesitate to put crazy ideas forward. We had cat time-machines, super-hero power encapsulators, you name it. And as we thought about it, we realised their ideas weren’t actually crazy after-all, because every radical invention seems insane at first. The concept of a plane or the internet must have been ludicrous at the time.

Game changing ideas require fearlessness. How can we teach kids that dreaming really big and have ideas that are a bit crazy is great, instead of knocking them back into the realm of ordinary? 

If we are born with this creative capacity, the challenge is how do we remain so as we grow up? That’s a pretty big chestnut to crack.​

Hammer time: if you can dream it you can do it

The cool thing about Little Inventors is that it isn’t just about having an inventive idea, it’s about actually making it. This is really crucial as it is one thing to have an idea, it’s a whole different ball game to make it a reality. Building to think is fundamental at Little Inventors.

We all experience moments where we are at the bottom of a mountain that looks unsurmountable, and the art is learning how to tackle this. The Little Inventors process installed the belief that at the end of the day, these kids can do whatever they set their mind to, and that even the most complex ideas can be built as a first iteration. It wasn’t about down-sizing their ideas to be easy with the materials, it was having to problem solve and create a solution that delivers what they dreamed up. This teaches kids that even in the face of the most complex challenge, if they start taking steps, they start to get somewhere. They don’t need to scale down their ideas or play it easy, because even cat time machines can be built if they really set their mind to it. 

We might not know what the future will look like, but with creativity and confidence, they’ll invent it.  

A huge thank you to our sponsors Groundswell, Tauranga City Council, Mitre 10 and Woolkin; Little Inventors wouldn’t be what it is without your support. A big thank you must also go to the awesome team and all the tool-smiths that helped the kids at large. Lastly thank you to all of the parents and kids that supported the event and took part in Little Inventors. We are hard at work tool-smithing some exciting new challenges and can’t wait to see you soon! 

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