Big tools for little hands
Teaching children construction is an unconventional idea, but it is gaining momentum across the country as a way to develop imagination and confidence in the very young.
The New York Times
NEW YORK — In honor of Presidents Day last month, Deb Winsor, a carpenter with a workshop in Brooklyn, led a crew in the construction of an 8-foot-wide model of the White House, complete with north and south porticos and two dozen hand-painted windows.
After reviewing the plans with the workers, Winsor, 50, supervised them as they laid out two-by-fours for the front and back walls and then hammered the studs and plates together with 3-inch nails. Next, she watched as some of them raised the walls and sheathed them in plywood while others used an electric jigsaw to cut bases for the portico columns. Finally, one of the carpenters used a screw gun to attach a flagpole to the roof and secure the pediment to the freshly painted facade.
At quitting time, the workers removed their protective headphones, put their tools back in their holsters and cleaned up their work stations. Then they gathered up the wooden toys they had made during break and ran to the door to greet their parents.
"Good job today," Winsor hollered cheerfully at Oscar Markowitz, a 5-year-old boy with orange hair, flushed cheeks and a big grin, one of a dozen children (including the reporter's son) participating in a weeklong camp she was holding at Construction Kids, her workshop on Flatbush Avenue.
"Tomorrow we'll build a log cabin," she added, as a 9-year-old boy walked by on handmade stilts.
Winsor started Construction Kids two years ago, after she conducted a one-day building project at her son's preschool and was deluged with requests from parents and teachers for more. And while it might seem like something fairly unusual — teaching young children to use power tools — it is one of about a dozen such programs across the country that allow children to hammer and drill to their hearts' content.
Just as legions of Americans in cities and suburbs have discovered the joys of working with their hands — building their own chicken coops or brewing artisanal vinegars — many are now encouraging their children to do the same, by giving them the opportunity to learn how to handle a hammer as well as they use an iPhone.
At the nonprofit Eliot School of Fine and Applied Arts in Boston (www.eliotschool.org), children from 4 to 17 are designing furniture and learning joinery techniques in woodworking classes and an off-site program taught at local elementary and middle schools.
The Randall Museum (randallmuseum.org), in San Francisco, has had a children's woodworking program for two decades, but in recent years it has doubled the number of its classes and added one for preschoolers.
The three-year-old Makeville Studio (www.makeville.com) in Gowanus, Brooklyn, which bills itself as a "hands-on lab for craft, building, art and invention," added a workshop building last year so children as young as 6 can take classes.
Kids' Carpentry (www.kidscarpentry.net), an "after-school math enrichment program" that has quietly served Northern California for nearly 30 years, just opened a branch in Minnesota, has added a new program in Berkeley, Calif., and is preparing to bring its woodworking classes to six more cities in the Bay Area by the end of the year.
And so many parents have been trying to get their children into the Tinkering School (www.tinkeringschool.com), a sleepover summer camp in Montara, Calif., where children 8 to 17 build sailboats and treehouses, that the program recently opened in Austin, Texas, and plans to expand into an entire K-12 school in San Francisco in September; programs in Chicago and Buffalo, N.Y., are in the works for 2012.
"There is an awakening going on for sure," said Doug Stowe, a longtime woodworker and educator in Arkansas, who was named a Living Treasure there in 2009 for his efforts at preserving and teaching the craft. Since he started a blog five years ago called Wisdom of the Hands (http://wisdomofhands.blogspot.com), named after the program he founded in 2001 at Clear Spring School in Eureka Springs, Stowe said parents, educators and woodworkers from around the country have been contacting him for advice on starting projects and classes in their communities. "Up until the early 1900s, there was a widespread understanding that the use of the hands was essential to the development of character and intellect," said Stowe, 62. "More recently, we've had this idea that every child should go to college and that the preparation for careers in manual arts was no longer required."
Somewhere along the way, he added, "we have forgotten all the other important things that manual training conveys."
Previous generations may have learned to use tools at their fathers' or grandfathers' workbenches, but today's parents often need woodworking classes themselves before they can pass along the knowledge.
Christopher Landy, 42, a television lighting designer in Brooklyn, dealt with what he jokingly calls an "early midlife crisis" by learning construction at Makeville Studio. "It's very relaxing and it's a great release from work," said Landy, who is using his new skills to build a workshop at his weekend home in Columbia County, N.Y.
When he realized there were classes for children, Landy enrolled his son Max, 9, who has since built a lamp, a castle, a crossbow and a Harry Potter-inspired wand, among other things. Then Max's sister, Samantha, 6, saw how much fun her brother was having, and now she takes a woodworking class, too.
"They truly love it," Landy said. "It's been a great creative outlet for the whole family."
Other parents see woodworking as a way of counteracting the passiveness of logging on and tuning out. Brian Cohen, a former music industry executive in Brooklyn, co-founded Beam Camp, a "summer art and building" camp in Strafford, N.H., in 2005, after seeing how much time his children's classmates were spending with their iPods and laptops. Children from 7 to 16 spend a month there, devoting part of their time to building a single sophisticated project — geodesic domes in the shape of virus protein shells, for instance, or parade floats with kinetic sculptures — with the help of professionals from various fields.
"My partner and I saw that kids were spending too much time interacting with perfect interfaces," said Cohen, 45. "We felt that we needed to provide an experience by which they could understand how perfection is achieved — and, more specifically, how that perfection is achieved by working through problems with your hands."
Louis Hyde, 13, an eighth-grader in Brooklyn, has attended Beam Camp each of the last three summers and plans to go again this year. "I did not ever really imagine there was the potential to make things on the scale that we made them," he said. "When you finish this gigantic thing at the end of camp, it just feels so good. And you know that you were an active contributor to it."
For veteran tinkerers, part of the satisfaction of teaching children woodworking comes from sharing the joy of turning a pile of scraps into something functional or beautiful.
Gever Tulley, 49, a computer scientist and longtime woodworker, founded the Tinkering School in 2005 after he and his wife noticed, he said, "that more and more of our friends' children were requesting to come over to our house for the weekend because they knew that I would give them a hammer and put them to work."
"One day, I suddenly realized I had a responsibility to these children," he continued. "If I didn't give them an opportunity to start building things and making things that express their own imagination, they might not get one."
During the first summer, he helped eight children build a wooden roller coaster with 120 feet of track. Last summer, the 12 children in each session built an entire village, where they slept for two nights, out of nothing but wood and string.
"Children are inherently exploratory," Tulley said. Years ago, he added: "they were only limited by their imaginations. Now, they seem to be limited by parents."
To be sure, many parents and educators are concerned about the inherent dangers in teaching very young children skills that require very sharp tools.
The Boy Scouts of America, for example, recommends that 6- and 7-year-old Tiger Cubs use ice-cream sticks and soap, rather than knives and wood, to learn carving.
Renee Fairrer, a spokeswoman for the group, explained: "We don't think that most young people at that age have either the proficiency or the knowledge to use a knife. We want to get them comfortable with eye-hand coordination using an item that will not hurt them, i.e., a Popsicle stick, on a material that is soft and pliable, before going on to more advanced carving activities."
Dr. Gary A. Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, agreed that there is reason to be concerned. He cited research that shows that the most serious woodworking injuries are from table saws, although they are relatively infrequent. "When we look at the numbers, and you compare those, for example, with something like bicycling or car crashes or things that are much more common, woodworking doesn't reach the same level," Smith said.
The message he would give parents: "Be really careful because of the power and potential seriousness associated with power saws and woodworking. Be mindful that your child needs to have the maturity, decision-making ability, the coordination to be able to do that safely. It should be done under trained supervision. And what's even more important is that the type of saws they use should have automatic stopping technology."
While the teachers and administrators interviewed for this article agreed that the dangers were real, they all said that no child had ever sustained serious injuries in their classes. As Cohen, of Beam Camp, put it: "Tetherball is more dangerous than the shop."
Michael Glass, 55, the founder of Kids' Carpentry, who has been teaching woodworking in schools and community centers for almost 30 years, said that most of the injuries he has seen were very minor.
"Of course, someone might hit their thumb with a hammer," he said. "Or they might get a splinter. I can't remember anyone ever cutting themselves with a saw. In 29 years, there's been nothing that's ever required anything more than a Band-Aid."
He added: "We're teaching them the safe use of hand tools. It's a slow, deliberate process."
Lenore Skenazy, a crusader against what she considers overprotective parenting, writes a popular blog called Free Range Kids (http://freerangekids.wordpress.com). She believes that not teaching children basic skills because of the risk of injury defies common sense.
"We've sort of been brainwashed as a culture to believe that our children are the least competent generation to roam the earth," Skenazy said. "In almost every other era, children were there to help the family survive, so as soon as they could, they would be helping out, planting seeds, using tools to fix a cart or build a crate. What we're talking about, it's not like, 'Here, son, here's a chainsaw.' It's not chain saws for children. It's skills that children have traditionally learned."
Parents and teachers who support woodworking instruction for children say it also teaches them how to overcome setbacks.
Tony Deis, the founder of Trackers Earth (www.trackerspdx.com), an outdoor education and recreation program in Portland, Ore., that offers instruction in woodworking and survival skills like fire-building, archery and wildlife tracking, said: "When you work with wood and any other natural material, you have to work with it. You can't just make it be what you want it to be. You have to use all the tools available to create something. It causes kids to deal with real-world results and create real-world solutions for their problems."
It may also offer them a rare opportunity to develop their creativity, said Abigail Norman, director of the Eliot School in Boston.
"Children are so driven to find the right answer, to put their name on the right place on the page, to fill in the right multiple-choice question, to blacken the right dot," Norman said. "They're crying out for opportunities to use their creative mind to take creative risks. Woodworking and art supply that."
Moreover, because of shifting priorities, she added, many children are no longer exposed to woodworking at school. In the Boston area, "the era of shop class is pretty much over. Some of the independent private schools have woodworking still," she said. But in "the public schools, we'll go into a school for the after-school program and walk by an empty room that has 'Woodshop' on the door, but everything is gone from there."
Two years ago, Tulley, the founder of the Tinkering School, self-published "50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do)," an instruction manual (with safety tips) that was his effort to help parents overcome their fears of things children naturally gravitate toward, like making a slingshot, licking a 9-volt battery or hammering a nail. It hit a nerve, and led to a slew of lecture invitations and, eventually, a bona fide printing: it is being published by a division of Penguin Group in May.
In his introduction for adults (there is a separate one for children), Tulley explains that the point of letting children do potentially dangerous things is to help them become competent people who "treat failures as feedback, which they incorporate in the ongoing, evolving solution to the problem."
Like most of the parents interviewed for this article, Alessandra Bogner, whose 8-year-old son, Dean, is enrolled at the after-school program at Construction Kids, reports a positive experience.
"I like the fact that in this class we're giving Dean this responsibility to say, 'Hey, this is really dangerous stuff, and we know we're giving you the opportunity to be careful, to do it right,' " Bogner said. "Your heart is in your throat for a minute. But they're doing it right. And I love that."
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.