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Inside the Mind of an Inventor

An Interview with Kenneth Scheel

2012 Copyright. All rights reserved.

Lets dive r ight in to Kenneths mind.

As part of o ur ongoing series showcasin g great exa mples of creative uses of gam es, stories and ideas, The Game Gal intervie wed Kenne th Scheel, inv entor of the award winn ing toy KEV A Contraption s, the class ic Fling Sock g a me o f catch and n oted autho r.

Scheel: Precision wood KEVA planks have been around for many years and they are great fun for building structures, bridges, sculptures and lots more and I still love building with them. One problem with them is that they generally do not create any action. Once you build something, the only action is knocking it down which actually is very fun. I guess the problem I was solving was a search for more action.

You invented the fascinating and award winning wood construction set called KEVA Contraptions. What was the problem you were solving?

Scheel: Absolutely. Anybody who thinks of a new way to do something or devises a new gizmo or tool to get something done is inventing. Their inventions may not be commercially viable but they are still inventors. Creative problem solving is part of what it means to be human.

Kenneth, is the following a true statement? Inventors invent in order to solve a problem.

Scheel: I worked as summer staff for a YMCA camp while I was in college. The camp had always done activities with Frisbees but I found that many kids were not skilled enough with the Frisbee to play Ultimate or other games. When kids can't make the Frisbee go where they want, they get frustrated or embarrassed. One day, after watching wild Frisbee throws ruin the enthusiasm for the game, I scavenged an empty bread wrapper from the camp kitchen, put a clump of dirt in the bread wrapper and dropped the dirt "bean bag" into one of my long sweat socks (sweat socks used to be soooo looong). We swung the sock underhand at our sides like a propeller and let it go. Everyone could throw it easily and the soft beanbag was easy to catch and less intimidating.

What was the problem you solved with the Fling Sock toy you invented?

I refined the design, patented it and licensed it to Saturnian 1 Sport, a toy company, which still manufactures and distributes them today. Great example of how an inventive mind sees opportunities for fun!

My designs needed to be simple enough for kids to build.

Scheel: One day while using KEVA planks to design structures on my ping-pong table, I picked up a ping-pong ball and made a small ramp for it. This led to longer ramps and more and more elaborate contraptions through which the ping-pong ball traveled.

Now walk us through your thought process for KEVA Contraptions. Did you immediately see the end result? Or did you have a series of visions that were steppingstones to the final product?

Over the next few months I would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night with a new idea I wanted to try. I would wake up early and give it a try. Sometimes it worked. Almost always I needed to try several revisions before I arrived at a design that both looked good and functioned properly.

An early prototype of the KEVA Catapult Kit. See the final retail product at

After awhile I realized that I couldnt remember all of my previous designs so I had to get more systematic. At this point I thought I might have a new type of construction set on my hands so I started taking photos of everything I built and sometimes created a permanent glued model. Eventually I had a large collection of contraptions and decided to launch KEVA Contraptions as a game that provided an entirely new way to build with the planks. KEVA Contraptions is the only "marble run" type construction set that makes use of a bouncing ball, which allows some unexpected action. During the early development, I made many very crude ramps and chutes to get the ball moving. I found many configurations that worked but some of them looked clunky or sloppy. I would wonder if I could make the ball run a zigzag pattern and then experiment with various ways to accomplish a zigzag.

In fact, as a problem solver, Contraptions creates and solves problems within itself so it is a great way to inspire innovation as people build with it. Problem: The ball wont move. Solution: Place the ball on a sloped plank. Problem: The ball falls off the side of the plank Solution: Add sides to the plank. (Chute)

Scheel: No. I always start by making prototypes to find out if my ideas that seem so promising in my head or scrawled on the back of an envelope actually work in real life.

From a process standpoint, where did you start with your invention? Did you develop a concept statement?

Almost every time, I make very important improvements when I see how the prototypes actually work. The number of contraptions gradually grew until I thought I had enough cool designs to launch a new toy. I tried a few different kinds of balls but I liked ping pong balls because they are very light, bouncy and cant be swallowed. They make it different than conventional marble runs.

Did you call an Intellectual Property lawyer and discuss your idea? Scheel: Yes. Once I settled on the name, I contacted my attorney to get started on the trademark protection. Did you assemble a team right away? Scheel: Not really. I would design new contraptions and demonstrate them for my children and wife to get feedback on the coolness factor. Did you develop a budget and schedule? Scheel: I did not need a budget for developing the contraptions themselves. On this project I did most of the photography myself as well as the initial graphic design for the instruction book.

Scheel: Actually, going out for ice cream is about the scale of celebration we enjoy with toy inventing. I dont get overly excited until the product is on the shelves and people are buying it and enjoying it.

This is important for me to know: Did you go out for ice cream?

However, it would be overwhelming if I had included too many options. I had to choose the most important and concise designs. That was a challenge to me.

Scheel: Deciding which designs to include in the instruction book. Every type of contraption has many possible variations and I usually liked them all.

Along the way, what was the first surprise obstacle you encountered?

Scheel: I knew from the first few days that Contraptions was a really fun product. I tried the concept with a few kids and saw that they immediately got into it and stayed engaged for a long time. That was an up. The most frustrating aspect was figuring out how to include so many possible designs into an instruction book.

Inventing anything is filled with ups and downs. Were you prepared for the downs? If so, what got you through the frustrations?

Scheel: I had shown a prototype of the KEVA Contraptions concept at a major Toy Fair and a larger toy company - Mindware - approached me to purchase a large volume. At the time, I had to turn them down because I could not produce as many as they wanted, which is not a good position to be in. I was not prepared to crank up my volume for a single buyer. However, later, Mindware approached me again and we agreed to develop KEVA Contraptions together. Then Mindware was taking most of the financial risk and I was taking a risk at working with another toy company for the first time. However, they needed me and my creativity and I appreciated their financial resources and excellent judgment in bringing new toys to market.

What was your perspective about the level of risk you were taking?

In some of my workshops on team building, I have used a quiz to begin the session. Its called the Inventors Quiz. The lesson that follows after taking the quiz (which is creepy and impossible) addresses feeling uncomfortable about taking risks and sticking your neck out.

Displaying my inventions at a Toy Fair with Mindware.

Working together, Mindware and I have continued to develop more successful KEVA products. I think we are a great team.

What advice can you give other budding inventors who itch to invent a solution to a problem?

One trait inventors have is that they/we are collectors of lessons learned.

Scheel: Make a prototype to find out if your idea really works. Run your idea by many people you trust. Let them try your prototype. Actively seek their brutally honest opinions. If you are convinced that you really have a marketable idea, dont just talk about it, do something. Read books about bringing products to market. Patent it Yourself and the Toy and Game Inventors Handbook are excellent resources. Decide how much money you are willing to lose chasing your dream. If you have a spouse, make sure she/he is totally on board. Most likely you will lose your money and you need to be OK with that. If you decide you are willing to risk $5000 on the project, commit the money and enjoy the ride. Dont agonize over every penny. Think ahead to be sure your money will fund your plan.

Since my sessions are 100% hands on fun and engaging, teachers thoroughly enjoy the training and see immediate ways to use it in the classroom. Invitations to teach at national conferences followed and I have greatly expanded the range of activities I teach. I now teach Art teachers, Autism professionals, gifted teachers, technology teachers, History/cultural museum educators, Science centers and more.

Scheel: Several years ago I met with a local group of teachers who teach gifted children to show them some basic activities they could do with their students. I received rave reviews and was invited to teach a similar session at a state conference for technology educators.

I write a lot about using games for team building and problem solving. I love KEVA planks as an activity to use with nearly every type of team. You train educators to use KEVA planks for team building purposes. How did that come about? What have been the results?

provide games and levity to connect people (whose brilliant tagline is that?).

I cant end our interview without asking you Whats Next? Can you give us a glimpse into your next invention?

Scheel: I always have ideas brewing on the back burners. Im working on a new twist to the KEVA planks system that may be the most significant new construction system in years. By having several projects going at one time, I dont get too bothered by delays or setbacks in any particular project. As long as I am making progress, Im happy.

Congratulations on your speaking recognition! If you let me know when and where you will be speaking or training again, Id love to post the information here for all my visitors. Attending one of your training sessions would be a blast! It seems as if your sessions

Thank you, Kenneth Sheel, for letting us take a quick dive into your inventive mind!

Now you have me too curious! Id like to invite you back when your next invention makes you happy.

More about Kenneth Scheel

Kenneth Scheel has developed a wide range of planks and he is a highly sought after speaker and trainer at conferences nationwide. As a resource for science centers and children's museums, Kenneth invents hands on, playful equally engaging for adults. KEVA planks are activities to engage and connect with children of all ages and all skill levels. His lessons are educational uses for his simple, high precision


playing with someone else. In his spare time, he is an

because his three daughters are grown and usually

Kenneth lives in Virginia and plays with his wife

following link and get the fun right away:

Cant wait to buy KEVA Contraptions? Click on the
Contact Kenneth at:

used in science centers, children's museums and art museums, by technology teachers, special needs and autism teachers, teachers for gifted children, art therapists, prisoner outreach, architecture firms, universities especially popular with STEM programs (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Recently, a museum exhibit company created an exhibit about inventing enjoys talking about the process and encouraging others to take the leap. and Conference in New York City. toys - called Toytopia - and Kenneth Scheel is a featured inventor. He

and much more. Kenneth's innovative playful approach to teaching is

Recently he was rated the #2 speaker at the international Young Child Expo

Thank you for reading about Kenneth Scheel in our interview series:

Do you want to be interviewed by Darcie Davis, The Game Gal? Please contact me!

Inside the Mind of an Inventor

For more great examples of using games, stories and ideas CLICK HERE
2012 Copyright. All rights reserved.