By Lela Nargi
The 214-year-old Brooklyn Navy Yard is a three-acre industrial park that occupies a small cove just across the East River from Manhattan’s Lower East Side. As a major builder of battleships during World War II, it earned the nickname the “Can-Do Yard,” a title that moldered along with its buildings when the yard was decommissioned in 1966. But lately, it’s been reclaiming its former glory, after the 2004 arrival of Steiner Studios to the park (Boardwalk Empire and the film Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were both shot here)—and on its heels, hundreds of “can-do” businesses of all varieties: artist and textile studios, furniture restorers, ship repairers, woodworkers, a rooftop farm, and one seemingly incongruous company with a large “workforce” comprised of people who are all under 48 inches tall.
That company is ConstructionKids and its fearless leader, Deb Winsor, has in her six years in business taught some 12,000 New York City schoolchildren the rudiments and beyond of building things with wood and nails and hammers. Her home base is in the Navy Yard’s Building 92, the former Marine Commandant’s House that serves as exhibit space and education center; the second floor is devoted to ConstructionKids. “People are always amazed when they walk in and with 40 kids, it’s humming like a factory in here and nobody’s fooling around,” says Winsor—loudly over the din—as a group pint-size builders cobble together tool boxes at low tables in the center of the large, project-lined space. “It’s fully engaging for children when we give them the tools and the process to be self-reliant."
Construction Kids is a highly likely culmination of a lifetime’s experience for Winsor. “Coming from a family of engineers, I spent a lot of time down in the basement watching what my dad did,” she says. “Carpentry and woodworking really spoke to me.” After majoring in industrial design at Syracuse University, she realized that she wasn’t cut out for office work and wound up in Nantucket, painting houses. That led to historic preservation work, then a move to Long Island to learn about boat building and restoration. Says Winsor, “That was a real game changer, because you can make a chair that looks great, but a chair doesn’t have to float and keep you alive in a storm.” She got a Master’s in historic preservation at Columbia University, “wound up in New York with a family,” and all was plodding steadily on. When she got a call from her son, Jack’s, preschool teacher.
“They were studying igloos,” Winsor recalls. “His teacher said, Can you build an igloo with a bunch of 4-year-olds, in Brooklyn, in May?” The final product—made from a bent wood with fabric stretched over it—was not quite the "igloo" Winsor had in mind. “But we were all down there on our knees on the floor, and it struck a vein with every kid, every teacher, every parent,” she says. That summer, she ran her first two-week camp through the school. “It took off like a shot,” she says.
Now running more than 100 programs city-wide—including afterschool programs at the Navy Yard space and in some 20 schools; vacation and summer camps; birthday parties; and special events—Winsor admits, “We’ve never been quite able to meet the demand. It’s a crazy business model to have!” She credits her success to her commitment to expanding slowly—“If I need to buy three hammers, first I need to make the money to buy three hammers”—as well as meeting a primal need of an increasingly sedentary, screen-focused population of elementary schoolers to do something physical and hands-on. “It’s whole-child learning, which they don’t get much of in school these days,” she says. She offers an analogy to Jack’s first foray into Little League baseball: “He walked across Prospect Park with this bat-weapon in his hand, hitting the ground, the dog, the tree. When I picked him up from practice two hours later, that bat was no longer a weapon; it was a tool and he had been taught to use it. That’s what we do, too. It gives kids confidence.”
During camp season, Windor takes on some 60 employees but during the regular school year, her staff of 14 teachers, administrators, and fabricators work to ensure that every child who comes to build has a fun, creative, and safe experience. “Someone calls up and says, We need to build the Lincoln Memorial for a program we’re doing in our school,” says Winsor. “Our creative and fabrication teams get together with the educators to talk about what kind of curriculum themes they’re trying to develop, then we build prototypes.” Always, they start kids building with wood because while kids have plenty of opportunities to use clay and paper and fabric in school, wood is not often offered as a material.
Winsor’s program also begins with hammer and nails—the “iconic tools,” as Winsor calls them. “When it’s paper, it can only be wrong or right, but if you bend a nail, you can take it out and put in another one; it doesn’t feel like a failure,” she explains. From there, kids progress to saws and vices, then wrenches and bolts, then nippers and pliers. At each step, they’re taught how to hold the tools correctly and most of all, safely.
The age of the kids is of paramount in importance in determining programming. Not only are the materials scaled down to meet their physical needs and abilities—like four-ounce hammers for the littlest builders—so are the expectations. “We work with little, tiny 3- and 4-year olds who are still learning what a triangle, square and rectangle are,” says Winsor. “So, we spend a disproportionate amount of money on program development,” to make sure Construction Kids get things just right.
On the other, older-kid, end of the spectrum, “It was transformational day for me when the three boys arrived and told me they wanted to build Yankee Stadium,” Winsor laughs as she remembers. “Which also was the day we established one of our few cardinal limits, which is, any project you build in this workshop has to fit through a New York City subway turnstile”—the measurements for which, along with those for those of an American Girl doll, Winsor and her team have committed to memory.
And indeed, in an era when so much is made about creating STEM opportunities for girls, Winsor admits to a certain amount of frustration around persisting gender stereotypes. “Making is a gender-neutral skill,” she says. “So, we embrace the American Girl doll as an opportunity for girls to do architecture around this omnipresent character. We don’t have a marker for girls that we can recognize as ‘building’ except for their creative play—making environments for dolls—but that to me is science and STEM and architecture and planning. I don’t know if everyone sees it that way.”
The final component to making ConstructionKids such a unique space is what Winsor calls an “intergenerational connection.” Staff is often high school and college students—grownups who are not quite peers but more along the lines of older cousins, or family friends. Says Winsor, “We teach them that their role is to be a safe buddy, so kids can step out of that teacher-child, parent-child world they spend their whole day with. That’s a big part of our culture.” She talks about the joy of watching kids of all ages learning from each other in her big, bright, tidy, and tool-filled space. “They’re marching over to get their end-nipper, or marching over to the vice to chuck up their piece of wood,” she says. “Confidence—that’s what we’re about. It’s pretty fantastic stuff.”
Photographs by Roy Beeson