Imagine That

Imagination goes to camp

Summer will soon be upon us and many parents choose to enroll their kids in summer camps and programs. In Minneapolis, an educational nonprofit called Leonardo’s Basement is trying to change the way people think about not just summer education programs, but education in general.

When the Imagine That! crew took a field trip to Leonardo’s Basement recently, we had questions for founder Steve Jevning. First on our list: “How do you engage kids in learning?” But, when we walked through the door, the answer was all around us. Leonardo’s Basement, housed in an actual basement of a South Minneapolis building, is a veritable smorgasbord for the curious child.

Laura Mann

The walls were lined with shelves crammed full of wires, sprockets, paint, fabric, building materials, and odds & ends. A partially-disassembled piano sat along one wall; a cage housing two guinea pigs sat in a corner. Leonardo’s Basement is a colorful cacophony that invites kids to dig in and start experimenting. In a space like this, how could kids not be engaged?

The folks at Leonardo’s trust that kids can do more than we give them credit for.

As we continued our tour, several kids were gleefully poking through drawers, painting, gluing, and taking stuff apart. A staff member oversaw the operation, but he appeared to be allowing the kids to do the majority of the work.

According to Jevning, that’s exactly what makes Leonardo’s Basement different. Rather than having teachers lead classes, Leonardo staff members let the kids direct their own projects. “I believe that kids have a natural inclination to solve their own problems, to use their hands and bodies to figure things out,” said Jevning.

Kids are free to dive right in and experiment with whatever takes their fancy, and the staff provides guidance only if it’s needed. The folks at Leonardo’s trust that kids can do more than we give them credit for; the success of the workshops proves that this theory holds merit.

Jevning started Leonardo’s Basement 15 years ago, when he got together with a few like-minded parents who were concerned about the lack of arts education in schools. Jevning and his fellow parents began organizing free play time for their kids, featuring arts, crafts, and science projects. The success of this format led Jevning to open up the free play workshop to the public, and it’s been a success: Leonardo’s Basement has since opened a second location in St. Paul, as well as a workshop for adults, where grown-ups can learn how to use tools and build projects. As Leonardo’s Basement has grown, it has kept its core values of letting kids be in charge, allowing them to make mistakes, and providing guidance when they need help.

Currently, Leonardo’s Basement runs afterschool and summer programs for kids ages 6 to 17. Check it out at www.leonardosbasement.org. The focus is on the process, rather than the product.

Leonardo’s staff doesn’t expect to send kids home with completed projects in a timely manner. “We’ve always dismissed the product,” explains Jevning. “There’s very little attention paid here to impress people with what you’ve made, or have people save what they’ve made all week to show their mom.”

Rather, Leonardo’s kids are sent home with newly developed critical thinking skills, problem-solving techniques, and the ability to work through disappointment. “It’s hard for us to evaluate outcomes,” Jevning continues. “The things we value [at Leonardo’s Basement] are always the most difficult things to measure — how do you measure your kid becoming a better risk taker?”

Despite their immeasurability, these intangibles are just the sort of traits that are most valuable as children mature and enter the workplace. Self-sufficiency, curiosity, and determination are all characteristics that make kids better students, and more successful adults.

“I always saw creativity as a function of your experiences,” says Jevning. “The most creative people I’ve ever met have been the ones who work at it.” Which, in a nutshell, is what Leonardo’s Basement is best at: using experiences to teach kids how to work at creativity, and become more self-reliant in the process. Imagine That!

Laura Mann recently graduated in Emerging Media and Communications from the University of Texas, and writes for The Dallas Observer. Her father Mike Mann is an award-winning storyteller (www.storymann.com), a speaker for the MediaWise Movement, and a father of four, including Laura. The father and daughter collaborate on “Imagine That!”

© Michael Mann, 2013, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.

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