Health Team

Girls with power tools build their way to focus and calm

So much of our children's world has gone virtual. Remote school, Zoom holidays and FaceTiming with friends may be keeping us safe from contagion but they're leaving all of us — kids especially — hungry for the tangible.

Posted Updated
Jessica DuLong
CNN — So much of our children's world has gone virtual. Remote school, Zoom holidays and FaceTiming with friends may be keeping us safe from contagion but they're leaving all of us — kids especially — hungry for the tangible.

What if there was a way to entice your teen or preteen girl away from her devices toward experiential learning that helped her feel "calm," "proud," "satisfied" and "useful," as well as teaching her valuable life skills?

Katie Hughes has just the thing: building. Her Oregon-based nonprofit, Girls Build, has served nearly 1,400 girls, ages 8 to 14, over the past four years. The group teaches these kids to hammer, drill, pour concrete, solder, bend sheet metal, use wire and collaborate on a wide range of building experiments.

In her new book "Girls Who Build," Hughes provides detailed explanations of tools, skills, terminology and step-by-step instructions for "do-it-herself" projects big and small. She also introduces readers to kick-ass girls from across North America who share what building means to them. Just picture what life could be like if your kid were this cool, calm and collected and had something real to show for her efforts.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

CNN: Why is it important for girls to learn how to build?

Katie Hughes: Learning to build inspires curiosity and confidence that carry over into the rest of their lives. Building also teaches girls that it's OK to make mistakes at a time when society is focused on perfectionism. I love it when girls fail while they're building. They learn that failure is not the end. Instead, they discover that the mistake made the whole project way cooler or better in some way.

While shooting how-to videos for projects in the book, I told the videographer to leave in the parts when the girls messed up. I want kids to see that even the people showing you how to do this are making mistakes. That's a great life lesson.

CNN: Why is it impotant to teach girls building skills from an economic perspective?

Hughes: When a girl learns to build at an early age, she grows up to be a woman empowered to fix and make things herself rather than always paying someone else. That's an economic impact right there.

When it comes to a career, the trades themselves offer tremendous opportunities for women. You do not need a college degree, so you're saving money. You can start out at 18 years old making over $20 an hour and have health insurance and retirement benefits. By the time you're 23, you might journey out of your trade and make $30 to $40 an hour. That's a quick path to self-sufficiency and the ability to provide for your family.

We can disrupt the cycle of poverty simply by helping women to find living-wage jobs that not only ensure their economic success but that of future generations. Too often, our society presents only two options: You can either go to college or work for minimum wage. In actuality, a lot of people, including women, are cut out for the trades.

Unless we open that door for people, they'll miss out on an experience that is fulfilling, enriching and allows them to go to work every day and feel valued.

CNN: Is it important for girls learning to build to have female mentors?

Hughes: My first two mentors were men, and we learned a lot from each other. But I think it's incredibly important for girls to see women doing building work. Girls see themselves in women. During our summer camps, I want the first carpenter and first electrician they see to be women. When everyone around them is a woman building, that's what they think the world is, and I'm not going to burst that bubble anytime soon.

When my 6-year-old son was 4, he noticed a pipe wrench that I'd left next to our front door after doing some work. He asked what it was, and I told him. "Oh, that's for girls to do?" he asked, sounding disappointed. I said, "Yes. But boys can do it, too." This, to me, is all about changing the way little minds think, girls and boys.

CNN: One of my favorite stories in your book was about the girl who built a swing in a Brooklyn park. What advice do you have for families living in smaller spaces for how to incorporate a building in their children's lives?

Hughes: That was such a fun experience! We definitely want readers to know that you don't have to live in the country to do these things. If you have cordless tools, you can charge them up and go to an open space that isn't in your house. Other city kids do projects on small balconies.

But even without going outdoors, there are lots of smaller projects you can do inside. One tip is to ask to have your wood cut to size when you buy it. Then you take it home and put it together.

CNN: As your book points out, there are building camps for girls all across the country. But given the Covid-19 constraints, how can parents get their kids involved?

Hughes: One opportunity is for parents to consider building as part of home school or supporting their children's remote learning. Some kids actually have more time these days for building. So why not teach math by doing measurements? Why not teach chemical reactions by mixing concrete?

You can go as big or as small as you want. You can let the kids draw up the plan. That's architecture, right? You can teach them how to use graph paper. You can teach them engineering — even on a very basic level. Or geometry. And of course, building is just a very helpful skill in its own right.

CNN: I was struck by how many of the girls featured in the book said things like "I build to relax" or that building helped them to de-stress and feel calm. Why do you think that is?

Hughes: When you're building, you have to really focus. That kind of focus is rare for kids inundated with social media and technology in general. When they're building, they're not looking at anything other than the task in front of them. A lot of girls said building offered them a calming place and time to just be present with themselves. Having that is important — especially these days when kids are really struggling.

Building gives kids a sense of tangible accomplishment that they're not necessarily getting at school — if they're going to school at all right now. If everything's online and they can't be with friends, building can give them something to look forward to and get excited about in the real world.

CNN: What's a simple first-time project that kids can do?

Hughes: Building does not have to be complicated. If you have access to it, use nature. Ten long sticks leaned carefully against a tree is now a fort. A branch placed in water can become a boat. Part of building is just opening up kids' minds to the possibilities in their everyday world.

Aside from nature, look around your house. If you have a broken appliance or tool, let your child take it apart. If you buy at places like IKEA, let your child tighten screws. Building might start out looking like crafting, but the important thing is to help them realize they can create what they want from the world around them.

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