Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Woodworking Classes At the Randall Museum or Is It Safe For Teenagers Not To Operate Machinery?

San Francisco's Randall Museum offers woodworking classes for kids (with caregiver) starting at age 3. Classes continue into adulthood.

When you look at the photo (from the Winter Family Classes page of the Randall Museum's website) of that very young person concentrating as he holds a real hammer, to drive a real nail into a block of wood, it's reasonable to ask what is going on here? Is it safe? Is it age-appropriate? What is being taught and why?

Let's put these questions to the side for a moment and take a closer look at this remarkable photo. The young woodworker is fully focused and determined. Compared to the size of him, the hammer and nails are enormous, but you can tell that he will manage, with the full concentration and coordination of body and mind, (and the appropriate help of some pre-drilled holes to guide the nails), to drive the nails home. He's not at play. That is, he's in a very structured environment in which the only appropriate use of the hammer is to drive the nail. His purpose is clear. He will almost definitely experience frustration, for what he's being asked to do is far from easy. And he probably will experience pain. That unwieldy hammer will deflect. Instead of driving the nail home, it will slip off to the side. The hammer will come down on the nail but not hard enough and the nail will remain where it was. He will miss the nail altogether and hit his fingers. He will cry. He will quit. If he tries again and he ultimately succeeds, it will be irrelevant whether an adult does or does not tell him what a great job he did. He will know. The evidence will be there before him. And assuming that the block of wood being nailed is a component of a project he is building, he will take it home with him.

"The earlier the better," Jill Cunninghis, woodworking instructor at Randall told me when I asked her at what age kids should start woodworking. "Woodworking teaches important life lessons that the kids don't get elsewhere. What do you do when a project doesn't turn out the way you wanted? Do you try to go back and fix it? Do you learn from the failure and make a fresh start?"

The Randall museum, part of the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department and supported by the nonprofit organization Randall Museum Friends, has a wonderful offering of woodworking classes for kids. In addition to classes for the youngest woodworkers there are classes for kids aged 7-12. Young woodworkers who take these classes repeatedly can come away with a very comprehensive skill set. There are also classes for teens and adults, starting at age 16.

I asked Jill Cunninghis about the gap between the 7-12 class and the 16 and up class. "In all the years I've taught at Randall, I've only had one teenager participate in the adult class," says Cunninghis. "We have never had enough demand from the age range we're not covering, but if we got enough people interested to put together a class, we would certainly do so." Jill would love to see interest in that age range and says that if a group of six teens can be gotten together, Randall will find a way to offer a class.

So far, however, demand has been disappearing right at the age when many kids of my generation took shop --middle school and high school. If nothing changes, that young woodworker driving the nail will have moved on to other interests by the time he turns a teenager. We have a good idea of what he might be doing. It will likely involve, in school, heavy use of one small part of his brain and, out of school, a lot of screen time.

Now it's time to ask again the questions we asked, but never answered, at the beginning: What is going on here? Is it safe? Is it age-appropriate? What is being taught and why?

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