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Kids and Construction

By Lawrence Grown 

with 9th Street Lab, Girls Garage, and Adventure Playground

Many children are fascinated by the world of construction. Toddlers might run to the window to point at a passing truck. Or they might halt a walk to the playground to watch a construction crew at work. Some come to carpentry later, wanting to build a fort or a piece of furniture. Do you know any young builders? West Berkeley is home to at least three sites that transform children’s curiosity into creativity by teaching them how to use hand tools.

9th Street Lab offers on-site and after school programs, as well as DIY kits. At a 9th Street Lab workshop, eight to twelve year olds learn to build anything from a toolbox to a musical instrument or a climbing structure. Workshops are designed to teach basic building skills and the use of hand tools. They offer a balance between structured building and open-ended exploration. Students might design and build a marble maze, or deconstruct a car engine to see how it works. 


Steve Tornallyay– the founder and director of 9th Street Lab, was trained as an industrial designer and had a career in museum planning and exhibit design. In 2013 he created Girls Engineering at Washington Elementary School, a club to enable first-grade girls, including his daughter, to explore STEM activities such as coding, dissecting sheep’s hearts, taking apart computers and a car, building bamboo towers, and exploring candy chemistry. In 2019, Girls Engineering was transformed into 9th Street Lab in order to offer workshops to a wider range of children and youth.


9th Street Lab provides an environment which enables children and youth to discover the joy of building. Confidence emerges when a child learns to use a saw for the first time and builds a bookshelf or a cat, or when they climb ten feet off the ground on a bamboo structure they built with their friends. These small moments are the seeds for a lifetime of learning.

"At the end of each workshop, we gather around and talk about our work. We look at our challenges and how we overcame them." 

"We give children and youth the tools, materials, and guidance to amplify their inner creativity and imagination. They inherently know what to do.”  - Steve Tornallyay

After school workshops are offered through Berkeley Unified School District at Washington Elementary and King Middle Schools. Weekend workshops are at the 9th Street Lab site. Two-hour workshops typically cost $45 plus a materials fee, and are intentionally kept small, six or fewer, to give each builder personal attention. Camps will be offered starting summer 2023.  Visit their website

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Girls Garage focuses on empowering young women and gender-expansive youth. This non-profit design and construction school instructs 9 to 18-year-olds in carpentry, welding, architecture, engineering, and activist art. Classes often combine skill development with community outreach. For example, students built a greenhouse for a community garden, and furniture for a domestic abuse shelter. To date Girls Garage have built over 170 projects. 


In a Carpentry + Woodworking class, kids ages 9-14 each build a unique project like a toolbox, bird house, or shelving unit. In a Protest + Print class, students in grades 9-12 might learn to screen print a message of empowerment on a “protest sign” flag. In Construction + Community, 9th to 12th grade students work together to build a community benefit project. Class offerings vary each season.


Founded in 2013 by Emily Pilloton-Lam, Girls Garage is the first-ever workshop for female, non-binary, and gender-expansive youth in the United States. In fields dominated by male voices, this program empowers participants to construct the world they want to see. Says Pilloton-Lam, “We are building the future right here, right now. We are providing hope and the skills to get where these young people want to go.”


Programs run year-round with after-school and week-long summer offerings. All high school students attend for free, and middle school students attend at low-cost with full and partial scholarships available. 

“We must create intentional spaces for the next generation of tradeswomen to learn technical skills while being unconditionally supported by a community of other women,” says Pilloton-Lam. Watch this dynamic leader build a toolbox in front of a live audience while giving a TED talk!

Visit their website

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The Adventure Playground movement began in Denmark in the 1930’s. Playground builder C.T. Sorenson noticed that children were drawn to “junk playgrounds” where they could use scraps to build anything they imagined. Lady Allen of Hurtwood took the idea back to London and the “Adventure Playground” was born. To date over 1000 have been established, mostly in Europe, with only a handful in the United States. 


One of those rare few– Berkeley’s Adventure Playground was founded in 1979 and still embodies the free spirit of those times. Children are given access to tools and scraps and are invited to participate in the construction of their environment. 


Kids run and play amongst the evolving landscape of forts, boats, and towers, and launch themselves from the zipline into a pile of sand. Others collect spent nails and debris in exchange for a hammer, saw, and new nails so they can build whatever they imagine. Allowing children to saw wood or hammer nails independently might make many adults uncomfortable. There is a growing movement against playgrounds where all the risk has been designed out. The intention here is for kids to experience risk in a safe environment, which helps them develop their motor skills along with their risk assessment abilities. They grow in their confidence and become safer but not risk-averse adults. 

The Adventure Playground is open after school and on weekends, pending the weather. Group reservations are possible. The fees are $10 fee per child for a session. Visit their website.


With all of these newfound skills and aspirations, your budding builder might long for additional resources. The Berkeley Public Library has a lot to offer, including the Tool Lending Library on Russel Street at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. Borrowers must be 18 or older. And don’t forget Builders Booksource on 4th Street, where creatives of all ages can find information and inspiration.

For decades West Berkeley has been the home of many construction firms and industry-related resources such as lumber yards and tile shops. How fitting that it is also a wonderful neighborhood for young people to learn the tools of the trades. They can develop their skills and minds while building a world of their own. 

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