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Why Is It Important to Encourage Kids to Innovate— and How Do We Do It?

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Innovation is a popular buzzword, particularly as it applies to tech and business. While the internet offers literally hundreds of definitions of the word, according to Merriam-Webster, it means "the introduction of something new" or "a new idea, device or method."

Every parent knows that kids start innovating at a young age. Children pile up stuffed animals to escape cribs. Babies finagle the seat buckle on the high chair, sliding stealthily down and out before we can even reload the spoon with mashed peas. When one adult says no, kids find a different adult to ask. Although it can be a little startling to watch on the baby monitor as your toddler parkours out of her crib and onto the floor (where she's flung her mattress to ensure a soft landing because she is, of course, above average), it's also crucially important that our kids do exactly this — observe a problem and apply a new idea, device or method to solve it.

Why does innovation matter? Because human relationships, the world we live in and the problems we face require innovative solutions, along with a willingness to take risks — to try, fail and try again. Unfortunately, public education in America — particularly middle and high school — does not always encourage kids to innovate. Standardized tests focus not on creativity, but on memorizing, not on taking calculated risks and trying something new, but on being singularly right.

Tony Wagner, a former expert-in-residence at Harvard Innovation Labs, and author of the best-selling book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, writes, "The average child asks 100 questions a day. But by the time a child is 10 or 12, he or she has figured out that it's much more important to get right answers than to keep asking thoughtful questions."

So how can parents support and encourage innovation? An article published in Inc., "5 Ways You Can Encourage Your Kids to Become Innovators," highlights the importance of play. Whether it's playing with toys or making up imaginary games, play encourages creative problem solving. The article also suggests that parents model inquiry. Don't know the answer to a question? Show your children how you go about finding it. Also, keep books about innovation and magazines like Scientific American and Wired around the house; check them out at the library.

The next time you find your child has pushed a stool up to the counter, placed a box on top of it and is climbing her way to the cookies she somehow knows you're hiding from her on the top shelf, remind yourself that we want our kids to know how to innovate. And though the rules may be no cookies and no climbing on the counter while she's little, these same problem-solving skills, encouraged and fortified as she learns and grows, will serve her well — in her education, her relationships, and her work — throughout her life.

In this monthly column, comedian, writer and mom Autumn Spencer answers tricky parenting questions. Have a question for Autumn? Send it to ideas@kidsvt.com.

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