Forget buying kids expensive toys…instead, create a no-cost inventor box (AKA – tinker box) that will inspire endless hours of creative play and STEM exploration.
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My six-year-old wants to be an inventor when he grows up. And, honestly, I won’t be a bit surprised if that’s exactly what he becomes. He is constantly creating, imagining, and experimenting with something.
Yes, sometimes it drives me crazy. His big ideas have no bounds (hooray!), but he has a habit of leaving behind a trail of debris (we’re working on that one).
Still, I wouldn’t really trade his messy inventions for the quiet and calm that I sometimes desperately crave. I love seeing the wheels turning in his head as he tinkers and builds all sorts of contraptions.
Do you have a child like that? They’re wonderful…and exhausting.
Now, part of this tendency to invent is just his nature, but creativity is also something I have deliberately nurtured in my kids.
Related: How to encourage creativity in kids
Whether they grow up to invent a “robot who can do everything” (my son’s current goal) or not, I want my kids to be inventive thinkers.
I want them to be the kind of people who can look at a problem, break it apart, and keep working until they figure out a solution.
So I try to give them opportunities to do just that.
One way I have encouraged their creativity is through what I call an “inventor box.”
What is an inventor box?
Also known as a “loose parts bin,” an inventor box is essentially a collection of supplies that your child can use to freely create at any time.
It might include basic arts and crafts supplies as well as assorted recyclable materials (i.e. – junk you don’t need anymore) that are just waiting to be turned into something wonderful!
Loose parts have no specific function or goal. They are intended to be completely open-ended. You are simply providing your child with materials to inspire creative thinking and encourage problem solving skills.
Benefits of an inventor box for kids
An inventor box is a fabulous way to encourage creativity in kids and develop other critical life-skills as well.
Fine motor skills. Picking up small objects, stacking, cutting, screwing lids on and off…all these actions strengthen the small muscles that kids need for writing.
Critical thinking & problem solving. As kids explore various materials and attempt to create with them, they will inevitably encounter problems that need to be solved. How can I get the bottle caps to stick to the card board? How can I make my tower more sturdy? Through trial and error, kids will strengthen their problem-solving skills and learn important practical lessons about principals of engineering and physics.
Creativity. Because there is NO specific goal, an inventor box encourages kids to innovate and think outside the box. Creativity leads to new discoveries. As a child, those discoveries may be small…but creative kids become creative adults…and creative adults change the world for the better.
Benefits for parents
Parents benefit from loose parts play, too!
First, it’s cheap! You don’t have to go buy expensive toys for kids…the loose parts you already have around the house are perfect food for imagination! Furthermore, because they aren’t expensive it allows parents to relax about how kids use these items. Let them cut it up, take it apart, glue it together, and generally mangle it! It was all headed to the trash anyway…now it’s just gotten a creative detour along the way.
Second, loose parts play is no-prep and hands-off. You don’t need one more thing to do. You don’t want to spend an hour preparing a cute Pinterest-perfect activity that your child loses interest in after five minutes. You want a good return on investment–hours of entertainment for very little prep time up front. That’s what the inventor box offers parents: a chance to read a chapter of your favorite book, do the dishes, or catch up on emails while your kids play independently.
How to create an inventor box
STEP ONE: Get a box.
An inventor box doesn’t have to be fancy. In fact, it probably shouldn’t be. A large leftover shipping box will work just fine, or you could use a clear plastic bin (this makes it easier to see what’s in the box).
You don’t even have to use a box. In our previous house, I just cleared out a kitchen drawer that my kids could easily access.
STEP TWO: Gather basic arts and crafts supplies.
STEP THREE: Add assorted recyclables and miscellany.
- egg cartons
- cereal box
- bottle caps/milk jug lids
- yogurt cups
- cardboard tubes (toilet paper or paper towel)
- tissue paper
- paper bags
- rubber bands
- paper scraps
- fabric scraps
- pom poms
- pipe cleaners
Want more ideas for what to include in your inventor box?
STEP FOUR: Restock occasionally.
From time to time, it can be helpful to go through the box, clear out things that may no longer be useful (like tiny scraps of paper or dried out glue), and add fresh supplies.
Novelty feeds imagination!
You don’t need to spend any money to do this, either. Just take a moment to think before you throw something in the recycle bin or trash…could my kids use this? If so, toss it in the inventor box instead of throwing it out!
Resist the temptation to give suggestions or try to direct your child’s loose parts play. This is HARD for me, but I have found that the less I open my mouth, the more my kids trust their own imaginations.
If you want to show interest in your child’s creations, try asking open-ended questions that will help them develop confidence in their own problem-solving skills.
Here are some open-ended questions to get you started:
- Tell me how you would make/build…?
- What is your plan?
- How did that happen?
- Do you have any ideas for solutions?
- How does it work?
- What do you think is happening?
- What might you change?
- What do you think might happen next?
- How can we find out?
- What made you think of that?
- Can you think of other ways to…?
This is only the beginning…
Creating an inventor box is just the beginning of loose parts play. You can also encourage similar open-ended creative play in other settings.
Nature: Remember making mud pies as a kid from gathered sticks, rocks, leaves, and dirt? That is loose parts play! Some day I want to create a mud kitchen like this one.
Kitchen: Consider giving your kids an assortment of ingredients and some real kitchen tools (bowls, spoons, collander, etc.) to experiment with. This is one of my #2’s favorite activities.
Garage: Give your child access to old hardware (nuts, bolts, screwdriver, sandpaper, wood scraps, etc.) and let them explore and build with them. This is probably too advanced for toddlers, but with a little supervision and some safety instructions, you might be amazed by what your kids can do!
Disclaimer: Please know that I am assuming you as a parent are intelligent enough to know what loose parts are appropriate for your individual child to play with. I’m not encouraging parenting to give dangerous choking hazards to small children. I trust parents to be smart.