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Inventing Is Kid's Stuff, Too : Imagination: Inside all children is the ability to create. The problem is, they--and their parents--may not know it.

November 01, 1995|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Tombstone of the Future is much more than a cold, carved slab. This grave marker has a digital screen in its center. Just touch it and you'll hear and see, in living color, everything the departed person wants you to remember him by.

The technology already existed--but the idea never did until Mara Gendel, 16, of Long Beach went to sleep one night this past summer and literally dreamed up the invention, which won this year's Great Idea contest sponsored by Popular Science magazine.

Even more significant, Mara says she didn't know she had such a creative idea in her head, had no thought of being an inventor, and would have been perfectly content to continue her vegetative summer if her father hadn't bugged her to do something exciting with her time and her brain.

"I still don't know how or why I came up with this," Mara says. "Maybe it's because Jerry Garcia had just died."

Some people think they know exactly how she, and millions of other youngsters, can come up with great ideas or achievements of any kind. All a grown-up has to do is ask--and the earlier you start asking, the better.

The result might be a motorcycle parachute, like the one Andrew Mulkeen, 12, of North Hollywood designed to deploy seconds before impact in an accident, removing the rider from harm. "It pulls you backward off your cycle so you don't get hurt," he says.

Or the power-lock safety switch dreamed up by four eighth-graders to prevent a switch from being accidentally turned on. "Say your ring falls in the garbage disposal and your elbow kicks on the switch while your hand is inside. It won't go on if you have the power lock," says Bart Mazur, 12, one of the four inventors who worked with a mentor from General Electric.

Even little kids--ages 3, 4 and 5--can amaze themselves and their elders with ingenuity and achievements of all sorts, experts say, if the encouragement to do so is offered with love, with no pressure to perform and, perhaps most important, in a spirit of fun.

"If you don't know how to encourage youngsters to problem-solve and be creative, they will not go through the process on their own," says Marion Canedo, a founder and former president of the National Inventive Thinking Assn. (NITA), which held its annual meeting in Los Angeles last week.

"If you do encourage them," she adds, "the results are beyond belief."

Canedo ought to know. She's the one who, as a second-grade teacher in Buffalo, N.Y., tried to help her students develop their critical thinking and problem-solving skills by asking them to become inventors.

"I asked them to find some small but meaningful thing that needed doing--and then invent a way to do it," she says. She got immediate results. A 5-year-old named Chad, for example, invented a floating puzzle game for the bathtub or swimming pool, consisting of Styrofoam pieces to be scattered in the water, then collected and put together to form shapes of animals, apples or a map of the United States.

The next year, Canedo involved the whole school. Chad returned with what looked like exactly the same game. "Very good," she praised him, gingerly asking if it wasn't what he'd done the year before.

"This one is much better," said the proud child. "I put sinkers in some of the pieces, so you have to dive to the bottom to get them."

Canedo, who became director of early childhood education for Buffalo public schools, expanded the project citywide, and now, thanks to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, it can go to any home or school in the nation.

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Before you tune out, because you know in your heart that your adored toddler shows no signs of being another Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell, just listen to the members of the National Inventive Thinking Assn.

Your brand of negative thinking is what's stopping America in its tracks, these thinkers say. Every child has within him or her the ability to excel in some or many areas of life. And it's often the kids with special needs, or the kids deemed "average," who can turn out to be the brightest lights when allowed to access their creativity. Programs like Canedo's aren't about inventing at all, they say. They're about challenging kids to use their amazing, but often hidden, capabilities.

And who stops them? Adults who themselves have often been stymied and don't understand.

"Creative thinking is very different from verbal or analytical thinking, which is what most of us have been taught to do with math and reading in school," says Dee Dickinson, founder of New Horizons for Learning, an international education network.

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