Putting Power Tools In The Hands Of 5-Year-Olds

Originally published on August 11, 2014 1:31 pm

Seven-year-old Penelope Day needs both hands to pick up the power drill.

"Go ahead, turn it on," says Deb Winsor, who's working with Penelope on this project. "You might want to make it go faster."

As she does, Penelope feels the rush of air from the motor. "The wind is blowing right on you," she says. "You can feel the vibration of the drill bit going in."

Penelope is spending the week at a day camp run by Construction Kids. The Brooklyn-based program offers building classes throughout the year for kids as young as 2 years old. It's one of a new and immensely popular wave of programs trying to shift kids away from computer screens toward actual, hands-on activities. Like building things from scratch.

With help from a team of adults, the children in this program will design and make their own game boards, foosball tables and models of cities. Even the Brooklyn Bridge.

Winsor began Construction Kids five years ago. She's a woodworker who came up with the idea after giving a lesson on building to her 4-year-old son's pre-K class.

Last year alone, she says, 12,000 kids signed up. Winsor thinks these programs offer an antidote to all the time kids spend on their screens.

"There's just an incredible demand on the part of parents to have their kids do this kind of learning," she says. "The schools can't do it for a lot of reasons. It's expensive; they don't have the insurance that covers it. It's a big step to train your teachers."

Not to mention the fear of putting power tools in the hands of 5-year-olds. Winsor says her biggest obstacle was finding an insurance company. But she says her staffers keep a very watchful eye and there haven't been any serious injuries.

"Sometimes we have splinters. Every now and then someone will, you know, hit their finger," she says.

Winsor says the program is so popular she's creating a nonprofit foundation to serve more public schools that can't otherwise afford it.

Educators say building is an important way for kids to learn by doing — just look at the enduring popularity of blocks and Lego.

Eric Bogner says his 6-year-old son, Skyler, is loving this camp.

"I think it's extremely important to build with your hands and really embrace craft," Bogner says. "And feel like you can build things and construct what's in your mind, rather than trying to search for it on the computer."

At Construction Kids, there's a lot of excitement about the first big project of the week. It's a gigantic marble run, 18 feet of wooden ramps leading to a maze made out of nails. But the staff members have to hold up the planks to keep it working.

Seven-year-old Max Rhodes thinks he has a solution.

"We need to build stilts all the way down to the ground," Max says. "But if we work all together, this might take, at least three days, not the whole week."

For a lot of parents, that's a good use of time.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next we have a story of the digital generation. Kids who spend so much of their lives with a tablet or some other device at hand, that you could lose touch with the rest of the world. A program in New York City though wants to make sure that digital natives are connected with the physical world. It teaches them how to build things from scratch. Beth Fertig of our member station, WNYC, reports.

BETH FERTIG, BYLINE: Seven-year-old Penelope Day needs both hands to pick up a power drill.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Go ahead, turn it on. You might want to make it go faster.

FERTIG: Penelope presses a switch to experiment with the different speeds. She says, the weirdest part is the rush of air from the motor.

PENELOPE DAY: Because like the wind is blowing right on you and it feels - and you can feel the vibration of the drill bit going in.

FERTIG: Penelope is spending the week at a day camp run by ConstructionKids. The program is based in Brooklyn and offers building classes throughout the year for kids as young as two years old. With help from a team of adults, they design and make their own game boards, foosball tables and models of cities, even the Brooklyn Bridge. A 5-year-old boy named Augie uses a slender coping saw to cut a small piece of wood. He's helped by a counselor, 17-year-old Caleb Robinson.

CALEB ROBINSON: Was that easy or hard?

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: Easy.

ROBINSON: It was easy?

FERTIG: ConstructionKids was started five years ago by Deb Winsor, a woodworker who came up with the idea after giving a lesson on building to her 4-year-old son's pre-K class. Last year alone, she says 12,000 kids signed up for her programs. It's part of a wave of construction classes popping up a children's museums and home improvement stores. She thinks there an antidote to all the time kids spend on their screens.

DEB WINSOR: I mean, there's just an incredible demand on the part of parents to have their kids do this kind of learning. And the schools can't do it for a lot of reasons. It's expensive, they don't have the insurance that covers it, it's a big step to train your teachers.

FERTIG: Not to mention, the fear of putting power tools in the hands of 5-year-olds. Winsor says her biggest obstacle was finding an insurance company. But she says her staffers keep a very watchful eye and there haven't been any serious injuries.

WINSOR: Sometimes we have splinters. Every now and then, someone will, you know, hit their finger.

FERTIG: The program is so popular, she's creating a nonprofit foundation to serve more public schools that can't otherwise afford it. Eric Bogner brought his 6-year-old son to the camp.

ERIC BOGNER: I think it's extremely important to build with your hands and really embrace craft and feel like you can build things and construct what's in your mind, rather than trying to search for it on the computer.

FERTIG: Educators agree and say that building is an important way for kids to learn by doing. Which is why blocks and Lego have always been so popular.

At ConstructionKids there's a lot of excitement about the first big project of the week. It's a gigantic marble run, 18 feet of wooden ramps leading to a maze made out of nails. But the staff members have to hold up the planks in order to keep it working.

Seven-year-old Max Rhodes thinks he has a solution.

MAX RHODES: We need to build stilts all the way down to the ground. But if we work all together, this might take at least three days, not the whole week.

FERTIG: For a lot of parents, that's a good use of time.

For NPR News, I'm Beth Fertig in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.