Leonardo’s Basement: Hands-On Haven for Kids

<p>Harvey Meyer</p>
March 27, 2006

Stilts: two days to build, three days to learn to walk in them.

Amid the smell of sawdust and glue, 30 third and fourth graders trade pens and pencils for tools and tape measures. The thwack of hammers and the whirr of power drills mingle with the excited jabbering of kids talking about what their finished product will be (or do).

To some, it sounds like utter chaos. But to Steve Jevning, the founder and executive director of Leonardo's Basement, the dissonance sounds more like a symphony. The kids are playing exactly the right compositions individually and collectively as they pound, saw and drill away on projects sprouting from their fertile imaginations.

Jevning believes that while they're busy building, the kids are gaining skills and self-confidence. They may also be picking up some math, science, physics, art, history and other subjects. Meanwhile they are learning from their mistakes, thinking critically, communicating with others, and enhancing their creativity and problem solving. That's the whole idea behind Leonardo's, a Minneapolis nonprofit that offers tools, materials and guidance to 6- to 16-year-olds who like to learn by doing.

"Kids aren't given enough of a chance to learn and play by themselves and discover things on their own," contends Jevning, 51. "Most kids' organizations today grow out of adults' ideas of what kids should be doing. We're very kid-centered in that we accommodate what kids want to do. We help them so they can make a representation as close as possible to their vision or dream."

It's an action-oriented and yet informal approach that has worked well for the seven-year-old organization. Leonardo's, named after Italy's 15th century multidisciplinary creative genius, now reaches more than 700 kids each year. Twenty paid instructors teach 80 wide-ranging after-school and summer classes. Many kids are repeat customers, with some even returning years later to teach.

Leonardo's colorful activities attract attention. Once, kids used milk crates to craft two-level castles complete with turrets and dungeons. They've built catapults, water-bottle rocket launchers, go carts, giant dragon, bird and frog puppets fashioned to bicycles, and boats that floated—or didn't—on a local lake. Last year a Leonardo's high school team won a highly competitive Minnesota Lego competition.

Two members of Leonardo's Basement Lego robotics team competing in a state tournament.

But winning awards and, for that matter, even finishing projects is a secondary consideration. "We have precious little interest in the final product," says Jevning. "But we are deeply committed to a process whereby kids feel comfortable to come up with ideas, figure out a plan to build something, test it, and maybe refine it until it meets their satisfaction"—whatever that might be.

Hands-On Learning

Leonardo's, housed in 4,800-square-foot quarters beneath a popular coffeehouse, is a kid wonderland. Racks of raw materials—plastic crates, pulleys, wheels, rods, foam, clay, thin wooden tubes, small glass balls, medical equipment and other odds and ends—are donated or bought at surplus stores.

Kid-sized workbenches and tools—hammers, soldering guns, screwdrivers, power drills and sanders, and more—are everywhere. A separate room houses Lego materials and a table and a bank of computers, where kids can produce animation, work on three-dimensional modeling, and modify video games.

"This is a lot of fun," says Olivia, a third grader, looking up from her project, which is designed to collect shedding hair from her dog. "In our regular school, we don't get a chance to play around with different tools like this glue gun."

Pet-hair collector is right in the mainstream of Leonardo's Basement projects. There's a device that sends food to a cat's bowl after the trained pet pushes a button; a ping-pong ball smashing machine; a kid's desk bedecked with twinkling lights; gizmos to protect eggs from cracking, even if dropped from three-story buildings; even a houseboat for miniature aliens.

Whether the projects are pointless or practical, Leonardo's teachers try to accommodate the youngsters' wishes—as long as certain safety, time, skill and cost criteria are addressed. Kids typically develop ideas for classes. Among them: "Art and science of the sword;" "Paint like Pollock;" "Stilt building and walking;" "Medieval physics;" "Sewing outside the box;" "Urban photography;" "Skateboard ramps;" "Critters and skeletons;" and "Rickshaws and chariots."

A Leonardo's Basement student works on a kinetic sculpture built to celebrate a new bridge.

"A generation or more ago, kids were responsible for making their own activities," says Jevning. "But so many of kids' early years these days are decided by adults. There are sports and reading and what I consider ‘purposeful play'—extracurricular activities that parents think will make them better in school. But we believe in an informal approach and giving kids the freedom to decide what they want to do."

Back in the Day...

When Jevning was a youngster growing up in suburban Minneapolis, the world, or at least his family's garage, was his oyster. "It was my garage," remembers Jevning. "My dad just parked his car there." He fondly recalls building nearby tree forts, bicycle ramps and rafts.

At school, Jevning often marched to his own drummer. He spent hours daydreaming —when he wasn't being disruptive in class. A teacher once plastered masking tape across his mouth.

But Jevning came alive when working with his hands. After graduating from high school in 1972, he constructed a lakefront cabin for his parents. Coming from a long line of instructors, teaching was in his blood. Jevning graduated from college with an elementary education degree and K-8 teacher's license. But he never pursued a formal teaching job, in part because he was too iconoclastic.

So Jevning, a slender man with closely cropped hair who favors blue jeans and T-shirts, continued building homes. In the 1980s, he interrupted that work to do community organizing in low-income neighborhoods. And while the 80-hour-per-week workaholic resumed working with his hands as a home remodeler, he remained interested in effective ways to teach kids.

His obsession was married to an opportunity in 1998. An after-school science club and annual inventors' fair at his son's school garnered enough interest from kids to produce an organization that soon evolved into Leonardo's.

Getting Started

From the outset, children and parents sang the praises of Leonardo's open-ended, child-centered approach. Good word of mouth helped the program grow—aided by the occasional newsletter and news stories about some of the more off-beat courses in the local media.

The program now operates with a budget of about $150,000, raised partly through fees charged for classes—a six-week after-school class costs about $90, though the fee is waived for eligible low-income kids -- and partly through individual, corporate and private foundation donations. In addition to classes, the organization sponsors teen clubs and family and community activities.

"The instructors put in the time, care and thought to get to know all the children and to encourage them to dream and imagine," says Rebecca Schatz, whose two sons have taken classes for several years. "It's a wonderful organization."

About 40 percent of the kids are girls and one-quarter are from low-income families. Most of the kids are city residents, with some making the trek in from the suburbs to take part.

For Willis Bowman, a former gizmo-oriented kid and now a 40ish, self-employed engineer, teaching at Leonardo's is thrilling, especially encouraging kids to unleash their creativity. "I love to see kids' faces when they understand a concept or complete something I didn't think they could," he says.

Jevning prefers teachers who are "guides on the side" rather than "sages on the stage." "The biggest problem is when teachers ‘tell' kids what to do instead of letting them figure out what they want to do and learn in the process," he says. Jevning believes teachers' egos are partly to blame, as are traditional instruction techniques.

Many of Leonardo's best teachers are kids at heart—but with adult technical skills. Jevning insists kids and teachers treat each other with respect and as equals. "Adults don't always have the best ideas," he says. "Sometimes kids do."

The impact can be long-lasting. Jevning recalls one learning-disabled teenager who wrote his college entrance exam about how Leonardo's was a forgiving and equality-based environment that enabled him to feel, for once, part of a group. Another boy whose mother moved the family far away from Minneapolis for safety reasons hadn't forgotten Leonardo's years later. He successfully pleaded with mom to drive him 160 miles round-trip during two days of fall teacher conferences so he could attend Leonardo's and work on a backlog of projects. He was, says Jevning, in kid heaven.

Looking Ahead

As Jevning ponders Leonardo's future, he is wrestling with two age-old questions bedeviling nonprofit programs such as this one: How do you continue to flourish without sacrificing quality? And how does even a thriving organization continue to find financing, year after year?

"There are no magic bullets for fund raising. It is the hardest thing that we do. It is the price we pay to get to do the fun stuff - work with kids," says Jevning. He searches for donors online and elsewhere, and he uses his data base of families that have participated to raise money as well. Part of his future planning includes developing a data base of local corporate leaders to approach for funding.

Ideally, he'd like to increase the roster of after-school classes and draw a higher percentage of girls in the next few years. And he wants to add even more family and community outreach activities, so people could become more familiar with the learning-by-doing approach.

What's certain is that Leonardo's will continue to experiment, just as it encourages its kids to do. Jevning believes constant evolution is something every children's organization should attempt. "Don't be afraid to try things and make mistakes. Kids are very resilient and forgiving as long you're sincere. Just do it for the children and everything else will take care of itself."

At Leonardo's, Jevning hopes, the cacophony of hammers and drills will continue, as kids' imaginative flights of fancy take shape.