For a 10-year-old, inventor Bettie Levy of Bethesda has an enviable re'sume'.

At 7, she dreamed up "Here Comes the Bride," a board game in which players -- presumably all girls -- compete to be first to bag the groom perched atop a 3-D cardboard wedding cake. It has since sold more than 50,000 copies in the United States and abroad.

She recently helped her toy-inventor parents, Richard and Sheryl Levy, develop a children's version of their highly successful "Adverteasing" game. About a secretive current project, she'll only say, with a sly chuckle: "I'm thinking about something but I'm not going to tell you."

Admittedly, few children enjoy Bettie's unique position in having a mom and dad who create the things their friends play with. But experts say nearly all kids are inventive and exhibit traits that characterize adult inventors: liking to tinker, enjoying taking things apart and putting them back together, being curious.

"In order to invent something, the primary thing you need is a lot of sensitivity to everyday life, and it doesn't really require much expertise to do this," says Dean Simonton, a University of California at Davis psychologist who has researched the developmental psychology of inventors. "You look around and say, 'I know what we need, we need this ...' "

A child in 1873, for instance, invented earmuffs after a cold day ice-skating. And long before he invented the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell at age 14 created a wheat husker for a friend's father's flour mill.

In the past, young inventors were not exactly encouraged by academia. Good grades and achievement awards are generally handed out for scholastic skills -- abstract analytical talent, good rote abilities and memorization finesse -- and not for the more visual reasoning talent Simonton says infuses the inventing process.

Thanks, however, to a recent explosion of school-sponsored inventing programs -- based largely on the pioneering work of Buffalo school principal Marion Canedo -- that's changing. Advocates say such "invention conventions" are a dynamic way to help children learn creative problem-solving skills, build self-esteem and inspire future generations of professional inventors.

In 1979, then-second-grade teacher Canedo discovered that her students enthusiastically enjoyed a project in which they invented things. So a few years later, when a school principal complained to her about lackluster student involvement in science fairs, she suggested he try a school-wide invention program instead.

"We had 100 percent participation," recalls Canedo, now principal of Buffalo's Academic Challenge Center magnet school. "It involved library skills, writing skills, {and} thinking skills, from creative to critical. It tied into every single thing schools were trying to do."

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office learned of her work and hired her to help develop its 1985-launched Project XL, which disseminates information about the proliferating invention programs and aims to turn American kids on to inventing.

Project XL reflects government concern that foreigners are scooping up almost half of all American patents issued, with the Japanese taking nearly half of the foreign half. (In the mid-1960s, only about 11 percent of them were going to foreigners.) Officials hope invention programs will reach and inspire potential Thomas Edisons.

Canedo has designed materials for several major contests, including "INVENT AMERICA!" and the Weekly Reader National Invention Contest, but schools also develop their own programs. The main idea is to get kids to think about a problem and invent a solution.

Ruth Nyblod, who administers Project XL, says Montgomery and Fairfax county schools are doing the most local experimenting with invention fairs. Across the nation, schools in Buffalo, Toledo, Portland and Richardson, Tex., have especially emphasized inventing programs, says Nyblod, who estimates that by now about 400,000 students have been exposed to such programs.

One of those students is Fritz Volkman, 11, of Alexandria. He's the inventor of Add-a-Pocket, a detachable pocket that, with Velcro, attaches to pants, shirts, jackets, bags, socks and shoes.

Sweat pants without pockets were the impetus for Add-a-Pocket. "Carrying lunch money to school for me was a big hassle," recalls the Hollin Meadows Elementary school student.

For Michael Schwartz, 11, also of Hollin Meadows, losing two older brothers to college meant having to rake fall leaves, which he considers "a long, hard chore." He devised something he calls a "leaf lifter" to help him out, to solve his need to "do it quickly and easily." Here's his written description of his invention:

"A leaf lifter is a netting. Spread the netting on grass in early autumn. Leaves fall in net. Pick up net and throw leaves away."

Preston Banks-Segretto, an eighth-grader at Alexandria's Carl Sandburg Intermediate School, also sought a labor-saving solution to his chore: cleaning his bathroom. He came up with the prize-winning "Comet Relief," which involves a cleanser-containing brush attached to a hose, which attaches to a shower spout or faucet, and is "fast and easy."

But Preston's mother, Linda, admits that when he first broached the idea of his invention she barely noticed.

"We didn't listen to him. He was a typical kid. He would grumble about his chores." But as he developed his idea, and got school encouragement for it, his parents paid more attention. He still uses it -- though his mother contends that despite the labor-saving device, she has to keep on him to clean. "I wish he would invent something to clean his room," she adds.

Beyond their personal problems, children often look to solve the problems of the less fortunate. A Rhode Island fourth-grader, Jonathan David Smith, won special recognition from INVENT AMERICA! judges for his "bed bench" -- designed so homeless people could have a more comfortable place to sleep.

Nick Groves, 11, a student at Cabin John Middle School, knew he wanted to invent something for people with handicaps. His idea for a "braille rail" was "the first ... thing that came to my head."

Nick's invention is elegantly simple: thumbtacks at the top or bottom of a staircase to let the blind know how many steps await them. He imagines it could be useful in schools, Metro stations and private houses.

Sympathy for pets' needs also spurs youthful inventions. Colorado second-grader Lucas Bogard was deeply attached to a pet gerbil that sustained injury in the exercise wheel and had to be put away. So for an INVENT AMERICA! entry he created a treadmill-like invention called a "Gerbil Escalator Exerciser" for his two surviving pets.

Hollin Meadows fifth-grader Beth Cox, 11, would forget to feed her three rabbits, and "my dad always bugged me about it."

She devised a "rabbit feeder alarm," which sounds when the rabbit feeder is empty. To make this happen, Beth placed a light cell in the bottom of the rabbit feeder, which -- when hit by light coming through a pellet-less feeder -- activates the alarm.

Unlike science fairs -- which arose around the time of Sputnik, when scary newsreels showed rows of Soviet children solving math equations in classrooms where the presumed academic goal was to obliterate America -- invention programs tend to have popular appeal, says Canedo.

"Everybody has a problem to solve -- from the youngest children to the most emotionally disturbed -- and it cuts across this whole business of intelligence and IQ and ethnic stereotypes," she says. "Every one of these children is capable and talented and intelligent."

Teachers are especially impressed by the way such programs raise self-esteem in at-risk students who don't normally think of themselves as creative, says Nyblod.

Psychologist Simonton also believes such programs could have profoundly positive effects on kids with untapped inventive talent.

"The No. 1 determinant of self-esteem is having lots of 'competency experiences,' " he says. "Knowing that there's one thing you do really well."

Simonton also says research shows that child prodigies blossom only in areas where there's a high degree of social support in forums of public recognition -- like musical performances, chess matches and math competitions. The lack of a tradition of child-prodigy inventors could change if invention conventions provide potentially gifted children the chance to shine.

Parents who want to encourage their children's inventiveness should buy the kinds of construction toys that invite creativity, take their children to museums of science and industry, and try to retain a bit of low-tech life in the home, advises Simonton.

"It used to be that the average family would take things apart and put them back together after fixing them -- like with clocks," he says. This provoked a child's curiosity about how things work.

But high-technology has brought an array of electronic marvels few adults can fathom: labyrinthian automobile engines, mystifying television sets, enigmatic electronic clocks. "How often do any of us see our fathers take things apart? This is a very important thing. ... Maybe parents should have a few very old-fashioned clocks around."

Inventor Richard Levy, Bettie's father and coauthor of "Inside Santa's Workshop: How Toy Inventors Develop, Sell, and Cash In on Their Ideas," (Henry Holt, $22.50) and other books on inventing, has taught invention workshops to children at his daughter's school.

"We really encourage freedom of thought around here," says Levy, who believes kids have infinite inventive resources. "With children, there are no measurements, they know no boundaries. ... It's always 'What if?' and 'Why not?' " Inventing also teaches kids to try, try again in the face of initial failure, he adds.

J. Morgan Greene, who chairs the INVENT AMERICA! competition for the nonprofit United States Patent Model Foundation, emphasizes the economic advantages of encouraging young inventors.

"It's American creativity and ingenuity that's going to help us overcome our trade deficit and give these kids a leg up," says Greene, whose Alexandria-based foundation was formed to benefit the Smithsonian Institution by rounding up original 19th-century patent models sold off by the Patent Office and providing funds for the Smithsonian to set up a research center to house the models. The foundation's competition is funded by corporations such as K-Mart, Polaroid, Dow Chemical, Pepsi Cola and MasterCard. Greene says some recent Japanese visitors couldn't comprehend his contest's proliferation into about 40,000 schools in its three years of existence.

"The difference ... in our cultures {is that} our kids fantasize more, they think freely, they have the courage to do these things," he adds. "The Japanese children are much more structured, they barely have time to meet the requirements of their own parents and schoolwork ... "

Meanwhile, two former INVENT AMERICA! winners -- ninth-grader Katherine Ann Szudy of Parma, Ohio, and eighth-grader Brad Bolerjack of Lockport, Ill. -- are among 11 young inventors from around the world who in March will visit Japan, to be honored by the Japanese Institute of Invention and Innovation.

Like Nick Groves, Szudy invented a type of hand railing for the blind. Bolerjack developed a simplified version of car jumper cables.

Greene believes kids who are supported in early inventive endeavors do, indeed, become inventive adults.

"We hear that all the time from engineers, scientists, inventors, people who seem to be more creative and more aware of what's around them," he says. "As children they used their imaginations, they were encouraged to be creative, to take wheels off one thing and put them on another. It's those little things that add up to lead that person to develop that creative mind. That's where American ingenuity came from -- out of necessity. America's kind of lost that. ... We've got to rekindle that spirit."

Bettie Levy -- who is sometimes approached by classmates with invention ideas, like drawings for Nintendo games or skateboard designs -- knows it helps to have a father who can sell your game for you. But she also has this advice for young inventors:

"If you look in books and stuff, you can get ideas," she says. "Everywhere you get ideas. Everybody's creative in some way, everybody's inventive, but they just have to try."

For more information on the INVENT AMERICA! competition (the deadline is May 1) and it's next national awards ceremony, July 28-Aug. 1, write 510 King St., Suite 420, Alexandria, Va. 22314.