I bribed my eleven-year-old with the promise of an Airsoft gun in order to get him to go to the Tinkering School Summer Camp in June. If we weren’t living in the day and age of children and their screen addictions, I think he would have chosen to go to the camp on his own.

The Tinkering School is the creation of Gever Tully, the author of The Fifty Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kid Do. Watch his TED talk; it is inspiring. My son will be four hours away from home, will live in a tent and will make stuff with real materials and real tools as they say in the brochure. By the way, I’m a big fan of bribery as a child-rearing tool. Four $5 bribes to read the first Harry Potter book got all of my kids firmly entrenched in reading.

We are living in a time when kids don’t know how to use a hammer, screwdriver or a drill. Perhaps their parents were never taught or like me, they don’t take the time to teach their kids. Unless our children get a nice fat salary coming out of college, these are skills our kids are going to need when they head out into the world on their own.

While I remember my dad as having no fear of tackling many jobs, such as building a deck and finishing the basement with the help of my brothers, it is my mom, who I most identified with in the handiness department. She painted rooms while we slept, wired lamps and built a bar with no nails. I remember my dad and her sweating and swearing over mirroring a wall at the top of the staircase in our home.

I’m very handy and own quite a few tools so I gave my daughter a pink tool kit to take away with her to college. She’s planning on leaving it behind. Why? She obviously doesn’t see its usefulness. I also didn’t take the time to show her how to use tools when she was a kid. This is the reason why kids don’t know how to make stuff today. While many of us have the resources to give our children tool kits, chemistry sets or sewing machines, we don’t take the time to show them how to use the tools by working with them on a project. Many of us don’t ask our kids to help us with home repairs or chores. So if you don’t have the time to show your kids how to be handy, do the next best thing and send them to a maker camp.

There are some groups that believe that learning how to build stuff is part of a well-rounded education. Many of us in the over fifty crowd grew up with wood and metal shops and home economics in middle and high school. This trend grew out of The Manual Training School, the creation of Calvin Woodward. They believed that students should know how to make things, not to go into a trade, but to just know how to make stuff.

In today’s world, we encourage physical activity in the form of gym class as a partner to mental activity. Making has taken a back seat to this as we see in the once-a-week art class in elementary school. In the late 1800s, making was considered to be important to the development of well-rounded adults.

Here’s what happens when you make something: you end up in the zone, a sort of meditative state where you are so focused on your project you don’t stop to eat, drink or go to the bathroom. When you build something you get a sense of accomplishment because you made something you wanted or needed. It is an activity where you use your hands, tools and your brain at the same time. Making gives you an object such as a coat rack but it also gives you an appreciation for every other hand-made object you encounter after that. Learning how to build stuff makes you more adventurous, appreciative and self-reliant.

I’m a pretty smart gal and I remember enjoying academic learning but I loved having the break art afforded me once a week in school. When I got to high school, I tried to always find room for a “making” class in my schedule, be it auto mechanics or wood shop. I loved the break from academics. I loved working with my hands. I encouraged my kids to do the same thing in high school but since they were in the race to nowhere, they filled their schedules with business and AP classes. My third child, who is forced to take art, dreads it. He is not finding it a break and it is bringing his GPA down. This deeply saddens me, when art becomes about academics and grades and not about exploration and creation.

When my youngest was in first grade, the highlight of his year was making a leprechaun trap. I remember him coming home from school and working straight through until bedtime on his project. This was the highlight of the year for him. A kid like him, who loves to build and make art, should have more highlights than that. It is because he has showed this aptitude for building that I have lured him into attending the Tinkering School Camp.

If you do not want to send your kids away to camp there are plenty of local maker camps in the western suburbs. The Riverside Arts Center has been offering great summer camps for years. This year their campers will be exploring clay, fibers, collage, sculpture, paint and mosaics.

My associate, Kirsten Rachford, and I will be offering Doodle Art & Design Summer Camp at the Western Spring Recreation Center. In the first session of our camp we will build mini art galleries with wood, paint and screws. We will spend the rest of the week looking at and creating fiber art, sculptures and paintings to hang on the walls of the galleries.

In the second session of camp, the students will work toward creating individual room dioramas that will be assembled with other students’ rooms into a building cut-away.  Inspired by theatre stage sets and dioramas, the idea is to have the kids learn a different form of art each day: creating a setting, making furniture, and adding lighting and fine-tuning details.

So I’m hoping that after my son spends a week of sleeping in the woods and making things with other kids, when given the choice of a gun, he’ll pick the drill over the airsoft.

If you know of any other great maker camps, please let us know!

Kathleen Thometz is an artist, writer and founder of Doodle Art & Design, a lunchtime elementary school art program and summer camp. She lives with her husband, kids and three doodle dogs: Rainbow, Sunshine and Thunderstorm. You can experience more about her at www.kathleenthometz.com

Kathleen Thometz

I am an artist, writer, and art instructor with four children, one husband, and two doodle-dogs. I have contributed articles to the mid.com and Chicago Parent Magazine and wrote the Artist's Eye column...

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