Students are losing their desire to learn “life skills”

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Research has shown that students are losing their desire to learn “life skills” from basic home repairs and tool identification to fire, water, gas and electric home safety.

Sadly, schools are reducing or eliminating practical arts classes. Fewer practical arts teachers are available due to dwindling college programs. Parents don’t have the time.

Do we really want our nation’s youth to have no desire to learn these basic skills?

  • Identify/show how to safely use basic tools from a screwdriver and wrench to a hammer, plunger and crowbar.
  • Identify outside your home anything that could put your child in jeopardy. For example, do not remove or play with flags installed by the utility companies, do not tamper with anyone’s mailbox; do not stuff anything up the dryer vents; do not play with outside water spigots; do not throw anything into the sewer system.
  • Identify inside your home anything that could put your child in jeopardy. For example, do not stuff anything down the toilet; clean the dryer vent to avoid fires, never leave burning candles unattended, know how to use your fireplace.
  • Breathe good air by cleaning your furnace, air cleaner and/or humidifier. Reduce use of toxic chemicals; think green, for example, consider using “green” paints when painting.
  • Know how to safely use home appliances, especially space heaters, and all home appliances.

In honor of President’s 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, Ms. 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 three-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,” Ms. 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 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.

Camps like the Tinkering School, a sleepover summer camp in Montara, Calif., where children 8 to 17 build sailboats and treehouses, are filling so fast that the program recently opened in Austin, Tex., 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, named after the program he founded in 2001 at Clear Spring School in Eureka Springs, Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

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,” Mr. 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.

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,” Dr. 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 agreed that the dangers were real, they all said that no child had ever sustained serious injuries in their classes. As Mr. 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. 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,” Ms. 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 chainsaws 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, 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,” Ms. 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, Mr. 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), Mr. 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.”

Why Play House? Let’s Build One

There are opportunities all over the country for children to learn building skills, in private classes, public school workshops and summer camps. But be forewarned: participants may come home with an expanded sense of can-do. The following is a partial list of schools and camps that offer woodworking classes for children.


Woodworking for ages 3 and up, in Prospect-Lefferts Garden, Brooklyn. Information: (646) 529-9402 or


Woodworking for ages 4 and up, in Boston. Information: (617) 524-3313 or


Woodworking for ages 5 to 13, in St. Paul and 17 locations in the San Francisco Bay Area. Information: (510) 524-9283 or


Woodworking for ages 6 and up, in Gowanus, Brooklyn. Information: (917) 873-5542


Woodworking for ages 3 and up, in San Francisco. Information: (415) 554-9600


Ages 5 to 14, in Charlottesville, Va. Information: (434) 979-1220


Woodworking and outdoor skills for ages 4 and up, in Portland and Eugene, Ore., and the San Francisco Bay Area. Information: (503) 559-2825 or


Collaborative building projects for ages 7 to 17, in Strafford, N.H. Information: (866) 894-7069


Creative building for ages 8 to 17, in Montara, Calif.; Austin, Tex., and Chicago.

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