Washington area classes and camps offer skills kids don’t learn at school

August 4, 2011

Sewing. Woodworking. Etiquette. Personal finance. Cooking. All are valuable life skills. Few are taught in school.

But there is an alternative industry of classes for these non-academic skills that kids are expected to pick up by the time they finish high school. The classes come in the form of after-school lessons and summer camps, and provide much peace of mind to parents who wonder why home economics and shop classes have been phased out of so many school systems.

“Liability reasons,” says Troy Beall, owner of Annapolis Woodworks in Davidsonville. He offers such classes as how to work on a lathe (for constructing objects such as bowls, platters and baseball bats) and how to make a skateboard.

“It’s a real shame,” he muses. “Certain kids do real well the way schools are set up now, but others need the hands-on learning experience.”

His classes for 7-to-12-year-olds bring in kids from as far away as Columbia and attract as many girls as boys.

“My 9-year-old son is out in the wood shop every chance he gets,” Beall explains. “My 12-year-old daughter builds dollhouses for Girl Scouts.”

The dolls in those houses need clothes, and the middle-grade set is the best age for knitting classes, says Catherine Sutherland, who teaches children how to knit and purl stitches in four lessons at A Tangled Skein in Hyattsville.

However, children can start as early as 9.

“They have the fine finger dexterity down,” Sutherland says.

Although most of her students are girls, she’s had boys inquire. She grabs their attention by saying she has heard that special operations soldiers have been known to knit camouflage out of local plant fiber and bamboo. This writer was not able to confirm that answer, but the story, as they say, is a good yarn.

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On a hot Sunday afternoon, six girls are clustered at a table for a three-hour Sew Fun II class inside a back room at G Street Fabrics’ Rockville store. Instructor Charlotte Goodman Hansen patiently explains how to sew a seam for a plastic-bag saver.

The girls are learning the ins and outs of using needles and pins, measuring and cutting fabric, and applying trim.

“What are the basics of starting a sewing machine?” Hansen asks them.

They respond in unison: “There’s a top thread and a bottom thread. Both threads are under the pressure foot, and the pressure foot is down.”

Hansen says a handful of boys take sewing classes. The girls at G Street say that they want to learn but that sewing lessons are not available at school. Lori Chatman, a D.C. mom, has brought her 11-year-old daughter, Savannah, to learn the craft.

“My mother says I have no arts and craft skills,” Chatman says. Motioning toward Savannah, she adds, “So, if she’s going to learn to sew, I’ll have to bring her here.”

Other skills are more complex for kids to figure out. Although teenagers need to understand credit cards, cellphone plans and debit cards, only 13 states mandate a personal finance course as a graduation requirement for high school, according to the Council for Economic Education. Virginia approved a measure in 2009 that goes into effect this year; the District and Maryland do not have such a requirement.

Junior Achievement of the National Capital Area visits school to teach students how to create a monthly budget, save money, figure out the costs of living and how to start a business. The group hopes to offer a summer camp next year for children in seventh grade through high school.

“The parents we talk to realize, as we do, that most kids don’t get this in the home and often they don’t get it at school,” says Steve Longley, vice president of development and marketing at Junior Achievement’s Washington office. “Sometimes they don’t get it until after college.”

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The most plentiful kind of out-of-school lessons seems to be for young chefs. Children’s cooking classes are offered in many locations, including posh restaurants and county recreation centers, but there are vast differences in what’s out there. Parents should ask whether the child gets to take part (some classes allow children to watch only); and make sure there’s at least one adult supervising every six kids younger than 8.

Just Cakes in Bethesda shows children how to make desserts and pastries of all kinds, plus has summer camps for all varieties of cooking.

If you want kids to concentrate on foods other than sweets, Classy Kids Cook in Northwest Washington teaches kids to make vegetarian or gluten-free foods. Children also learn etiquetteculinary techniques (baking, frying, sauteing, broiling, boiling) and various styles of cooking.

“Our kids will try things they’d never taste at home — like zucchini casserole — because they made it,” says owner Tessy Medley. “They come here because there is nothing in school.”

And once the little darlings sit down at the table, who is to teach them their P’s and Q’s? Rebecca Czarniecki, who owns and operates Tea With Mrs. B, says kids want to learn how to be polite. She offers poise and manners lessons in McLean and Bethesda for children from toddlers to age 13.

“They learn how to sit at the table, ask for seconds, drink tea properly,” Czarniecki says. “Ninety-nine percent of the time the kids say they want to come back, and the moms are thrilled to be getting reinforcement from someone other than them at home.”

Julia Duin is a Maryland writer. She can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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