Kids Love Inventionland – And the Feeling Is Mutual


Creativity Sparks When Kids Visit, A Boon for Teachers Too

Pittsburgh, PA – “Spurring imagination is my mission,” George Davison says from his office in a life-sized tree house perched high above his magical workspace dubbed Inventionland. His favorite visitors are children, and Inventionland hosts nearly 1,500 school-aged kids each year. “The future of innovation lies in inspiring kids to use their imaginations and conjure possibilities.”

Davison’s motto, “Dare to Invent,” encourages kids to think beyond TV and videogames. Inventionland is Davison’s brainchild, a 61,000 square-foot building within the Davison company complex where employees dream up ideas for new consumer products. They currently turn out about 145 prototypes per month.

Tour groups come through nearly every day, led by senior Inventionland managers working solo or tag-teaming for large groups, always showing off the various creative workspaces within Inventionland. In each space- be it the NASCAR-like speedway, a crafty sewing cottage, the “Inventalot Castle” or the life-size pirate ship that conceals an industrial design team- students are invited to enter and explore the various products associated with the space, to experience how ideas come alive and manifest themselves into real products.

And chances are good that the students, parents and teachers have seen one or more of those products online or on store shelves at Walmart, Target, FAO Schwartz, Kmart, J.C. Penney, Home Depot, Bed Bath & Beyond, Petco or another popular store.

Each product has a story. The manager-guides, who do not dress up as elves or other characters but in regular business attire, happily relay one or two stories, beginning with the idea. Some products make it all the way through Davison’s nine-step inventing method; some don’t.

“Children understand trial and error,” Davison says, “whether they’re in kindergarten or seniors in high school.”

The mastermind behind Inventionland gets a twinkle in his eye when asked about the frequent troops of 25-30 kids traipsing about his workspace, which was named by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as one of the best in the area to work for. He clearly loves it and never tires of seeing wide-eyed kids gaze up at the raft of products displayed on the circling track along Inventionland’s vaulted ceiling.

As emphasis on innovation in science and technology becomes more and more central to the national conversation about the economy, and art classes are cut from school budgets, it’s easy to forget the role of imagination. But without it, Davison maintains, there is no innovation. For Davison, whom Entrepreneur magazine called a “creative genius,” imagination is at the heart of new ideas and problem-solving.

“Kids are natural problem-solvers,” he says. “The challenge for teachers and parents is to integrate the role of imagination into schoolwork as well as into everyday tasks and chores.” Engaging kids in the process of innovation and inventing, Davison believes, frees their imagination.

To that end, Davison holds free workshops at Inventionland to help Pittsburgh-area teachers introduce and infuse creativity into the classroom. One result was the creation of the Invention Convention, a project of the fourth grade at William Penn Elementary School in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, south of Pittsburgh. Davison reviewed all inventions submitted by the fourth-graders, spoke with students at the school and presented awards to the student inventors. The Invention Convention began in 2010 and has gained in popularity since then. Fifth- and sixth-grade winners in 2012 invented an invisible instrumental system; a homework tool organizer; and the leg pocket.

“The Invention Convention empowers students in a way that other projects don’t, because each invention is different; each invention solves a problem the student came up with,” says Katie Kasten, the fourth-grade teacher who kicked the Invention Convention into high gear. “Other projects produce standard results- forty-five boxed ecosystems, for instance. Here, each student really owns his or her individual invention.” Students follow Kasten’s checklist step by step, including revising or repurposing their inventions midway through, should problems or glitches arise.

At the end of six weeks, the students present their inventions, trade-show style, in an evening that culminates with awards given out by the school’s principal. In attendance are school officials, teachers, parents and siblings. George Davison assists in each awards ceremony, which is an exciting moment for the students.

Of the premiere event, Kasten says, “It was a big deal. There were no play clothes or sneakers permitted at the event; ten-year-olds who had never ‘presented’ anything before were giving three-minute spiels on their inventions, which were displayed with supporting drawings and materials.”

In the first two years, Kasten notes, 90 different inventions resulted from the Invention Convention. No two were alike.

Back at Inventionland, Joseph “Joey” Warren, the head tour guide, says, “Younger kids love the wall of heroes. Inventionland shows them that it’s cool to have role models and heroes.” Larger than life-size baby pictures and illustrations of famous inventors line one Inventionland hallway. Hidden under a flap in the lower corner of each framed piece is the name of the inventor and his or her “grownup” photo or illustration.

Warren continues, “And older kids really see that they can incorporate art and creativity into their future work lives in a way that perhaps they didn’t realize before coming to Inventionland.”

Davison supports numerous philanthropic activities annually, many of them for education and in service of children in need. He also sits on the board of I 2 E (Idea to Execution), which oversees the annual New Product Innovation Competition sponsored by Suffolk University in Boston.

Davison loves seeing kids come through Inventionland on a regular basis. “When kids see how curiosity is good for you, how it can lead you to places you never dreamed of going before, then the real creativity unfolds.”

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